Fear of Déclassement

Fear of falling or peur du déclassement – the fear of downward social mobility – has been a topic in several French publications. First, the déclassement concept has been recently developed by sociologist Camille Peugny:

This topic has been also addressed in a couple of articles in Le Monde.

There is a certain irony to Sarkozy’s campaign promise to allow people to “work more to earn more” right before a recession that generates a lack of employment and declining income. Otherwise, it was par for the course of conservative / neo-liberal fetishization of work. In such thinking, the only “good” citizen is the middle-class, law-abiding, hard-working individual and, in Sarkozy’s perspective, equal redistribution through social benefits such as vacations and 35 hour workweek are an impediment to individual accumulation.

But as the article notes, two years after the campaign, the fear of falling is still here, not just because of the recession and the increased rate of unemployment but because the French society seems structurally stuck and that is a major source of social anxiety. This social anxiety is the topic of Eric Maurin‘s latest book. But for Maurin, one must distinguish between the subjective (yet socially-constructed and maintained) fear of falling from thre objective probability of such brutal downward mobility, which affects mostly the already-marginalized categories of the population.

As Maurin notes, the fear of falling is widespread across social classes. What is happening in France is that public policy has long been designed to protect those who already have a job rather than adequately support those who don’t. As a result, there is a widening social gap between status workers (those with indefinite contracts) and those affected by precarization and it is more and more difficult for the latter category to join the former.

These specific statuses are the products of social conflicts that are now strongly embedded in the social structure, just as statuses used to be family inheritance under the Ancien Régime (Sarkozy’s son notwithstanding). This makes the French society more rigid than other developed counterparts and it makes entering the labor market more difficult. In this context, college degree have become more and more crucial, and with it, the fear of failing is omnipresent because so much is at stake. Credentialism then becomes an important factor in the degree of precarization one experiences.

One strategy then adopted by young workers is to look more and more for employment in the public sector and the social protections this type of employment provides. This has resulted in a phenomenon of overqualification as people trade qualification and money for job security. Which, for Maurin, means that no government will be able to reform the public sector since its employees worked so hard to work there, as was already illustrated by the social movement of 1995 (Hey, I was there!). This shift of the middle-class more heavily into public employment is perfectly illustrated by the results of two referenda on the EU: the success of the vote on the Maastricht treaty in 1992, and the rejection of the EU Constitution in 2005. The transition from one type of vote to the other corresponds to the greater presence of educated middle-class in the public sector and the need to protect their statute.

As a result, the middle-class public employees also become the representatives of the privately-employed middle-class in their rejection of neo-liberal policies implemented by the elites. But, for Maurin, the economic recession will push the government to limit its expenses, which will conflict with public sector employees in the defense of their statute.

What are the solutions then? For Maurin, the conundrum is that the possible responses to the déclassement are contradictory to the responses of the fear of déclassement. In order to avoid déclassement, public policies should involve strengthening social protections that already privilege the already-employed (such as bringing back the administrative authorization for lay-offs). And to alleviate the fear of déclassement, public policy should strive to reduce the gap between statutory employees, who are relatively protected, and those who experience greater precarization.

I think Maurin thinks too much in binary “vases communiquants” terms: either take away the protections of the already-employed to provide more to the precarized, or continue the status quo that is detrimental to the non-statutory workers. Ultimately, he wishes for more universal protections but there is no real specifications of what he means: lower levels of protection for all as some sort of balancing act, “rob Peter to pay Paul” kind of thing? He does not say.

Maurice Druon (1918 – 2009)

This will only mean anything to my French friends and colleagues.

Druon was a member of the French Resistance co-author of the Resistance song Le Chant des Partisans (lyrics here)

He was also the author of the French contemporary classic Les Rois Maudits (which also became a masterpiece of television, both in 1972, and then remade in 2005)

Aux Armes, Citoyens! Economic Disintegration and Social Movements

Strike Today, 190 demonstrations should take place in France, supported by eight different unions to protest the French government’s response to the economic crisis. Sociologist Denis Muzet, of Mediascopie, offers his view, in Le Monde, on this social context in which large-scale protest social movements are likely to emerge. For him, we need a new moral and social contract.

Muzet notes that research has shown that a few weeks ago, French people were shocked by the scale of the crisis but were not panicking about it. Now, there is much more anger based on news such as the fact that banks have published profits while at the same time receiving 20 billion Euros in government help all the while refusing to give up or reduce their bonus. This feeds into a profound sense of injustice that can lead to social unrest even though the French social safety net has mitigated somewhat the worst impact of the crisis.

But what still feeds this sense of injustice is only partially economic and social. It is a moral crisis as well, a crisis of meaning. The complete devotion to profits at the expense of the human element is what is coming crashing down right now. The sheer number attached to financial losses is amazing. A whole social and moral structure is collapsing. Here, Muzet sounds very Durkheimian, talking about something that sounds a lot like anomie. And anomie can lead to chaos accompanied with a loss of social solidarity as people witness the excesses of the privileged class.

At the same time, the media themselves have fed this trend by framing the crisis almost exclusively in terms of social anxiety while politicians (Sarkzy and Obama, I might add) engage in dramaturgy (as Muzet notes) to present themselves as saviors. Again, here , Muzet notes the absence of coherent narrative. Interestingly, you would have to read sociological and economic blogs for that (such as Pual Krugman or Ian Welsh).

So, in this context, bailouts and stimulus bills with big numbers attached to them do not do the trick. What is the point of investing or consuming if one does not know what is going to happen? Discourse of meaning and of crisis exit is lacking. And such a framing discourse, for Muzet, needs to involve a new social and moral contract based on ecology, sustainable growth and social solidarity. Muzet’s studies reveal that the French see the state as the emergency paramedics but don’t think the state will be the main agency to get out of the crisis since so many states have been submerged and overwhelmed by the amplor of the crisis. For them, the role of the state is to not let the social structure collapse completely. At the same time, they do blame the state for letting this happen through liberalization and deregulation. In these studies, the French reveal that they understand that new modes of consumption and social organizations are needed.

Unions also have a strong part to play but their credibility is limited as well. And let’s not talk about the current political opposition. Muzet’s point is that the solutions to the crisis cannot be exclusively economic but have to be social as well. A purely quantitative and economist vision will not do the trick but as long as the media and the political sphere are stuck in (1) panic mode, and (2) economic determinism + consumerism, no solution will emerge and a profound social crisis with strong social movements is a very real possibility.

Why French High Schools Should Teach Sociology and Economics Together

This is my rough summary / interpretation of Denis Colombi‘s blog post on the topic. Both my French fellow socbloggers Pierre Maura and Denis Colombi have been on strike and have demonstrated against a proposed reform of high school curriculum that would butcher the SES (Economic and Social Sciences) track. It is also in the context of a report advocating the separation of economics from the other social sciences that Colombi writes his post.

For him, to separate sociology and economics, in the context of general education in high schools, would be a serious mistake. There are sound educational reasons for their joining not only for the sake of social scientific education or general education, but especially for the development of critical thinking skills as necessary component of citizenship.

So why, then, teach sociology and economics together?

  • A similar apprehension of the social world

Sociology and economics are both social sciences… This should be obvious but quite often, in the media and common discourse, only one discipline is treated as a science, guess which one. What economists do is clear, what sociologists do, well, not so clear. At worst, sociology is seen as the discipline of hippies or worse, just seen as a variant of social work. Actually, analysts such as Thomas Frank have aptly demonstrated that orthodox economics can also be seen as a religion with its high priests, rituals and dogma.

However, whether recognized or not, both disciplines strive to objectively analyze social life and human activities in their social context. The social scientist applies the scientific method, which involves some distanciation from its object. This cognitive effort is the necessary preamble to any empirical study but it is actually harder to accomplish in the social sciences than in the natural sciences. This mental discipline is the first prerequisite of the social scientist (as I often tell my students, being a sociologist will make your life miserable).

From this perspective, sociology and economics are complementary: both require such objectivation, but they also have their distinctive approach to their objects of study although there is some overlap, Freakanomics showed that social objects can be studied economically, and we already know that economic sociology is a fertile field. The Durkheimian precept of eschewing commonsense and preconceptions remains valid for both disciplines, treat social facts as things. Leave ideologies behind, except as objects of study.

  • Sociology and Economics Share a Long History

The problem that arises then, for Colombi, is a familiar one for sociologists: economics, history and psychology have easy subject matters to identify and some degree of scientific respectability. What of sociology? Colombi argues that there is actually greater affinity between sociology and economics than with the disciplines listed above.

Indeed, the founding fathers of sociology, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Pareto, or Simmel positioned their work with respect to economics and they certainly did not eschewed economic topics: division of labor, sociological explanations of economic behaviors and socio-economic changes, money. Colombi argues that sociology was born as reaction to economics. Since then, the relationships between the disciplines have not stopped, for better and for worse. Neither discipline can ignore the other as Colombi mentions the work of sociologists James Coleman or Jon Elster (the rational choice approach) as integration of economics into sociological analysis through their conceptualizations of social capital, for instance. And then, again, there is the entire field of economic sociology (but no sociological economics that I know of… the directionality is revealing… I would argue that sociologists are less reluctant to borrow insights from other social sciences in general and economics in particular, than the other way around even though economists borrow easily from psychology or history).

Now, from a strict institutional point of view, considering the disciplinary organization of academia both in terms of teaching and research, it makes sense to have separate departments even though there are constant academic discussions of interdisciplinarity and academic structures. But, for Colombi, at the high school level, we are talking about introductory courses where it makes sense to present both disciplines together to impart a minimum corpus of social scientific knowledge, outlining similarities and differences.

  • A Partially Common Epistemological Project

Both disciplines look for "laws" of society that govern behavior. This may seem like an old-fashioned and positivist way of putting it and early sociologists clearly saw the problems with putting things that way when it comes to human societies. Nevertheless, both disciplines look for predictive properties of social conditions and contexts (historical, social and economic). Now, no doubt here that economics tends to be more formal (in the sense of producing formal models) whereas sociology might be a more "historical" science (heck, just dig up Mill’s Sociological Imagination). These differences constitute a great learning oppotunity for students.

  • Points of Convergences and Dialogues

Why deprive students of the lively debates between the two disciplines through their proximity on certain topics rather than just present it to them as a cold canon "This is what sociology does, this is what economics does… it will be on the test, see you all next week."? For Colombi, it is such debates, doubts and uncertainties that make the social sciences come to life as interesting disciplines (I particularly love the way Denis describes these points of convergence: "heuristically fruitful… pedagogically useful"… I could never write like that!). For instance, Colombi uses examples from the study of collective action or the market as illustrations of topics where both disciplines contribute to illuminating different aspects of a given phenomenon.

  • Complementary Approaches to Understand Current Events

The point of the French system of secondary education is to produce citizens (and not just to cram for the bac!… no… really?), that is, to given students the critical thinking tools to understand the world in which they live. In this context, the pairing of sociology and economics makes sense as they help make sense of current events as they occur. Two tool boxes are better than one. It should be obvious to anyone, for instance, that understanding the current economic crisis requires the tools of both social sciences (but not limited to them). And how can we not discuss unemployment without discussing the socializing and integrating role of work and its importance in the development of networks (and the marginalization that results from the lack of such networks, as powerfully illustrated by Lapeyronnie’s study of the urban ghetto).

Students are constantly faced with media discourse that uses social scientific concepts and knowledge (not as much as I would like though). To understand and to be critical of such discourse requires knowing "the language" and the approaches. A one-sided education (limited to economics, for instance) would truncate students’ capacities to fully grasp and critically examine such discourse.

Finally, for Colombi, social-scientific education is one of the great education successes of the past fifty years. Why break it if it works?

Social Benefits Reduce Inequalities More Than Taxes

Via Le Monde, this is what comes out of a study by the French National Institute Statistics and Economic Studies (link to the English site of INSEE). This study shows that redistribution occurs mostly through social benefits rather than fiscal policy. According to INSEE, the richest categories have most benefited from the 2005 fiscal reform (yeah, I know, big surprise coming from a conservative government). This supposed simplification of the tax code should have resulted in lower tax rates. Overall, income tax contributes 26% of the decline in inequalities, that is 2% less than before the reform.

On the other hand, social benefits have a greater equalizing impact. The standard of living of the poorest 20% families is improved by 47% through the various benefits added to their income. At the other end of the social ladder, the system of wealth-based benefits decreases by 19% the standard of living of the richest 20%. In a separate study, INSEE reports that the richest 10% received 73% of the fiscal benefits. The effect seems to be neutral on the middle classes.

This has important implications for public policy. Although the current government prioritized the reduction of government spending, INSEE studies show that access to public services, especially education, health care and social housing, contributes twice as much to reducing inequalities than monetary transfers.

In other words, a government dedicated to the reduction of inequalities should focus more on the delivery of social benefits and access to quality public services, rather than tax cuts which tend to benefit the wealthy.

Hey, Nicolas Sarkozy, !@#$ You!

You’d think the French Left would be all over this and would rip Sarko a new one. Especially regarding this monumental and yet oft-repeated piece of BS:

"Religion had an "irreplaceable role in the formation of the human conscience" and ethics."

Rwanda Accuses France of Complicity in 1994 Genocide

Not a big surprise to anyone who has studied the genocide. The evidence of French active complicity on the Hutus side is obvious. The only question is "what took them so long?".

Relationships between France and Rwanda have been tense since the end of the geonocide but not more so after a French judge named Rwandan President Paul Kagame as one suspect in the downing of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane, which was the precipitating event of the 1994 genocide. After that, Rwanda broke off diplomatic relationships with France in 2006.

But there is no avoiding it: the complicity of France in the genocide should be a source of collective guilt for the French. And it should also have been a source of reflection on France’s neo-colonial policies in Africa (the so-called "pre carre"), which were particularly shameful under President Mitterand).

On the genocide, some essential readings:

Nathalie Menigon, of Action Directe, Gets Paroled

Nathalie Menigon Via Le Monde, Nathalie Menigon, member of the French terrorist group Action Directe, has been paroled. She was serving two life sentences since 1989 with a minimum of 18 years without parole. She actually was already under the statute of "semi-liberte" since 2007 (where an inmate is allowed out during the day to go to work, but has to report to the prison or a halfway house at night and on weekends). The conditions of her parole also include limitations on where and when and for how long she is allowed to travel.

She is also not allowed to discuss her case outside of her legal representation. But she is not allowed to give interviews to the media or to write a book about the events that led to her conviction.

At this point, then, the only member of Action Directe still incarcerated is George Cipriani (his case is to be reviewed in September). Jean-Marc Rouillan (Menigon’s husband and co-founder with her of Action Directe) has been in semi-liberte since 2007 (he has published books and works now at the company that published them). Joelle Aubron was released in 2004 as part of a law that allows for the liberation of very sick inmates. She died in 2006.

Action Directe was the French version of the left-wing groups that engaged in armed actions against representatives of what they perceived to be a repressive state or figures of national capitalism. They parallel the history of groups such the German Baader-Meinhof (RAF) or the Italian Red Brigades. Action Directe is alleged to be responsible for the assassination of George Besse, ex-CEO of the french car manufacturer Renault and of Eurodif, a nuclear power company, as well as the assassination of Engineer General Rene Audran, who was in charge of the French arms sales.

The four members were all arrested in 1987.

Amnesty International had been calling since 2001 for the French government to apply standards of humane incarceration as the four members were detained under various forms of solitary confinement and were showing signs of physical and mental health deterioration. As the letter sent to the French government stated (again, that was seven years ago, things have not improved since, healthwise):

"The reported breakdown in the physical and mental health of at least two of them is widely attributed to the years of isolation to which they have been subjected.

Joëlle Aubron and Nathalie Ménigon were originally held under a specially restrictive high security category, but were transferred in 1999 to a prison where conditions were expected to be normalised. However, their means of social communication, correspondence and visits have reportedly remained subject to special restrictions and they are not able to visit the common areas of the prison.

Nathalie Ménigon married Jean-Marc Rouillan in 1999, but has been unable to see him. She is suffering from serious cardio-vascular problems and depression, and is reported to have recently had two heart attacks. She is also reported to be paralysed on her left side and to be suffering from speech problems. Georges Cipriani, held at Ensisheim (Haut-Rhin) and for a time at a psychiatric hospital, is reported to have gradually lost his sanity and to no longer be aware that he is being held in prison at all. Prison guards have expressed concern about his condition."

The French government never addressed these concerns. French prisons are hellholes from another age that should put any democracy to shame.

Six Months to Save Lascaux

The cave paintings, that is. Via the Independent,

Taureaux "Unesco, the world cultural body, has threatened to humiliate France by placing the Lascaux caves – known as the "Sistine Chapel of prehistory" – on its list of endangered sites of universal importance.

The Unesco world heritage committee, meeting this week in Quebec, has given the French government six months to report on the success of its efforts to save the Lascaux cave paintings in Dordogne from an ugly, and potentially destructive, invasion of grey and black fungi.

At the same time, a scientific committee appointed by the French government has conceded that an elaborate treatment with a new fungicide in January failed to stop the mould advancing through one part of the caves.

An independent pressure group of scientists and historians claims that up to half of the startlingly beautiful, 17,000-year-old images of bison, horses, wild cattle and ibex are now threatened by the fungal invasion – the second of its kind in eight years."

The caves have been closed since 1963. One only visits a replica of the real thing, precisely to avoid decay and damaging of the paintings.

Lascaux2 Why is that particularly embarrassing? Because, of course, France is very proud of its cultural heritage and Lascaux is an incredible monument of human (pre)history. More than that, it would be that the UNESCO does not consider the French authorities competent enough to take care of the site and therefore, would take over.

"Officials from the French government’s department of historic monuments and experts from all over the world have been quarrelling for years over the best way to preserve the Lascaux paintings. Some experts have accused the French authorities of a series of blunders, including a change in the air-conditioning system in 2000, the use of high-powered lights in the caves and allowing too many "special" visits.

An independent body, the International Committee for the Protection of Lascaux, infuriated Paris by asking Unesco to intervene last September. Laurence Léauté-Beasley, president of the committee, was jubilant yesterday. "The requirements placed upon France [by Unesco] are significant and strong," she said. "France will now have to answer to the world community for actions they have taken in the past and will take in the future. Lascaux’s management must now operate in a spirit of transparency.""

Lascaux3 Maintaining the caves is a complex business: the air quality and the amount of light have to be carefully controlled and any variation is liable to damage the paintings. However, one can only hope that environment control technology has improved enough to be able to preserve the 600 or so paintings.

The caves were discovered by chance in 1940 and are thought to have been painted by hunters and gatherers by crushing minerals to create red, ochre, brown and black paints, around 17,000 to 15,000 years ago.

"After a visit to the caves, the Cubist artist Pablo Picasso declared: "We have invented nothing.""

All the more reason to preserve this incredible heritage.

Good Luck with That, Madame Le Ministre

Christine Lagarde Via the BBC,

"Christine Lagarde, the country’s first female minister for finance and the economy, says it is time for French people to "roll up their sleeves" and stop thinking about holidays."

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! 😀 Good luck with that, Madame Le Ministre for Finance and the Economy. We, lazy French people, have survived attempts at reform from a lot of conservative governments. And you know what, we love our five week vacations and social benefits, so, you know what you can do with US-neoliberal-style reform?

Actually, Madame Le Ministre seems quite clueless:

"She says she was struck on her return by an "ethical change" in the French. "Instead of thinking about their work, people were thinking about their weekend… organising, planning and engineering time off," she says.

Not that Christine Lagarde believes that life should be "work and nothing else".

Looking out from her office window in the huge Soviet-style finance ministry, she points out the barges on the River Seine below – a reminder she says, of how slow things can be when other events are moving at high speed.

Making rapid progress recently has been the minister’s pet project, a bill to modernise the French economy. Last week it passed its first reading in the National Assembly and will shortly go before the Senate.

"More enterprises and more competition" were the objectives, she told parliament earlier this month, in order to obtain three concrete results: "more growth, more jobs and more purchasing power".

Christine Lagarde’s task is to sell some of the most challenging reforms of the Sarkozy era to the French people. Her call for harder work, as well as the measures contained in the economy bill, can touch a raw nerve."

Oh yeah, pass that bill and you know what she’ll be seeing next out from her office window? The huge demonstrations that are sure to follow. The French people (like me) can be profoundly (and proudly) annoying but we are not stupid. When we hear reform, we know it means cutting back our social benefits.

Has it occurred to Madame Le Ministre that the French might actually prefer vacations to money?

Photo Source: AFP from article.

Religious Fundamentalism in All Shapes and Forms – France Edition

From Le Nouvel Observateur, we get this appalling story. Here is how it goes, a man sues a hospital because his baby is born handicapped due to neurological problems during labor. Pretty straightforward, huh? Not so: the baby is now disabled because when problems arose during labor, the father physically prevented male obstetric surgeons and other personnel from entering the delivery room to examine the mother and proceed with a cesarean section which would have avoided said neurological damage.

After 30 minutes of negotiations, the father finally allowed the doctors in but it was too late for a cesarean section, they had to go in with forceps.

Now, the child is 100% disabled. Why did the father do that? For religious convictions (what else? He’s Muslim). He did not want a man to see his wife during labor and delivery.

So, the Court not only rejected his lawsuit against the hospital (the bastard wanted 100,000 Euros) but fined HIM because his son’s disability is entirely his fault.

I guess he’s lucky to be living in evil secular France where the medical care for his son is completely covered.