Banned in France
There is no group easier to offend than the French educational establishment. On the eve of their return to work, teachers, along with the ministry that employs most of them and parent-teacher organisations, are upset this week over a survey of violence in schools. Le Point, a news magazine, had the effrontery to publish a league table of the most troubled lycées -- senior high schools. It ranked the Condorcet school of Nîmes as the country's most violent.
As in most of Europe, the breakdown of discipline in schools is a hot topic, with the worst episodes, such as the wounding of teachers, making the news. But the educators are crying scandal, outrage and shock over Le Point's table, compiled from ministry statistics. The public should simply not be given such information, they argue.
This has got me thinking about the many fields of French life that are still barred from public discussion, either by law or simple taboo.
Every nation has subjects that are out of bounds. Political correctness is the chief villain in the "Anglo-Saxon" world. A cultural consensus also limits discourse. Try defending the European Commission in an English pub, for example.
In France, the taboos are numerous. Part of the explanation is the continuing power of the governing caste. This keeps the media or anyone else away from the privileges and perks enjoyed by politicians and higher functionaries of the state. From time to time, publications such as le Canard Enchâiné, expose their excesses. President Chirac's lavish, cash-paid foreign trips were made public by le Canard a few years ago. There was little scandal and no real investigation. France is very tolerant of its rulers' private conduct. This week le Canard reported that 50 gendarmes, helicopters and back-up staff were sent from Paris to Arcachon, on the Atlantic coast, for a month this summer to take care of the comfort and security of Nicolas Sarkozy. The Interior Minister and centre-right Presidential Candidate has a holiday home there.
The remuneration of the business world remains largely secret although share-holders have lately been forcing publication of chief executives' packages. Money, as a whole, remains a taboo topic. This has a healthy side. France is still far from the British obsession with property prices and media reporting that defines everyone by their annual salary, house value and, until recently, the year of car registration.
The sex lives of public figures also continue to be protected from the public gaze. Politicians who dally with secretaries or others' wives are spared the salacious humbug of British-style tabloid exposure, although this too is changing. Sarkozy was exposed to unusual scrutiny last year when his wife left him for a few months to live with another man. Books have also been taking a timid look at the amorous antics of French statesmen, the latest of which, Sexus Politicus, by Christophe Deloire and Christophe Dubois, was published this week. Its two headline points, as summarized on the back cover, are hardly new: "President Mitterrand, between two dossiers, devoted a lot of time to his harem. Chirac appointed his favourites to the Government."
Then there are the taboos imposed by law. These spring from the quest since the 1789 revolution to make the citizenry conform to an ideal model of society.
This accounts for the absurd law that prohibits the collection of data on ethnic origin for any purpose. The principle was laudable. All citizens and residents are supposed to be equal, so race is irrelevant in the "colour-blind" republic. The world war two collaboration with the Nazis made public discussion of race especially taboo. It took riots last October finally to wake France up to failure of this model. During the ghetto violence, foreign news media reported on a race revolt but French media talked only of violent incidents by "young people" from deprived housing estates. Since then, France has recognised that it has a race problem. Sarkozy is campaigning for the old law on data to be scrapped. You cannot combat discrimination if there is no yardstick or way of defining the problem, he says. The business world and civil service, for example, get away with blatant discrimination in hiring because there is no way of measuring the racial make-up of their work force.
Predictably, Sarkozy has run into opposition. The left is accusing him of fomenting racism and Chirac and his Gaullist lieutenants are rejecting his idea as "un-republican." Alain Blum, an eminent academic, attacked the Sarkozy plan with a typical argument last month. Collecting ethnic data meant condemning non-whites to permanent segregation, he said. This was "because an ethnic category remains with a person forever". Le Monde gave him half a page to air this non-sequitur.
To come back to schools, it is interesting that the French state's devotion to imposing equality in the name of the republican ideal can take it into territory that is taboo in other nations. The most obvious case is the recent law barring Muslim girls from wearing head cover in schools. The French action, highly popular with the public, was greeted with disapproval just about everywhere else in Europe.