France 2017: Le Pen’s Strange Definition of Secularism

I’ve written about the upcoming French presidential election in the past. Since then, free-market lunatic Francois Fillon has tanked following the revelations that he gave fake jobs to his family members. Benoit Hamon and the PS have slipped off the radar as a resurgent Jean-Luc Melenchon has just about drawn level with Fillon in polling in the high teens. Centrist Emmanuel Macron and extreme right-winger Marine Le Pen are level in the lead, both polling in the low to mid twenties. The trend as of mid-April shows Macron, Hamon and Le Pen losing support with big gains to Melenchon and a slight rise for Fillon.

Given the large number of undecided/abstaining voters and the rapidly changing trends, any two of the top four could succeed in the first round of voting on Sunday (French time). The situation in French politics is such that it was covered by British-American comedian John Oliver in Last Week Tonight. In general the segment was light on policy and highlighted the deep unpopularity of figures such as Valls, Fillon and Macron who were caught on camera getting hit with food items. Interestingly, there was no mention of Hamon which should be a signal to his voters to switch to Melenchon in order to see their interests represented.

Most of the segment covered Le Pen, who draws obvious parallels with Brexit, Trump, and now the outrageous Turkish constitutional referendum (although I can’t imagine she would like to be compared with the latter event).  Oliver pointed out that even though she has polished the FN from when her father was in charge, she still lets some unpleasant ideas slip through. One example of this was when interviewed, Le Pen stated that she would ban all religious clothing. Le Pen has also stated that she is attached to secularism. Her ban on religious clothing is no doubt inspired by her staunch secularism.

As the title alludes to, I think that a ban on religious clothing has nothing to do with secularism and in fact goes against secular principles. Firstly, let’s look at a definition of secularism from the National Secular Society (UK):

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

One of the misunderstandings about secularism (normally by religious fanatics) is that it is akin to compulsory atheism or involves preferential treatment for atheists. Not true, if anything the above definition is a statement of neutrality. This position of neutrality is beneficial to the most people as should be obvious to anyone capable of empathy. While a powerful group may be upset that it can’t do whatever it likes, less powerful groups do not experience oppression.

In terms of the second part of the NSS definition, I think that bans on clothing represent a deviation from neutrality and indicate a bias in favour of irreligion. While I think an irreligious society is generally better than a religious society, turning everyone into an atheist will not solve all the world’s problems (just read PZ Myers’ blog and consider some of the examples of asshole atheism that he has confronted). Bans on clothing push the widespread understanding of secularism towards the cartoon definition that religionists use to claim that secularism is persecuting them. Let’s avoid that and acknowledge that individuals should be free to wear the clothing of their choice.

It’s also interesting that in the West, non-religious and Christian people wear clothing which is generally not explicitly associated with religion. That’s probably due to privilege bias and thinking that their “normal” is the only “normal”. I can’t help but think secularism is being misappropriated by Le Pen as a tool to bash religious minorities in France. Bashing religious minorities is a godsend to terrorist organisations who will happily recruit those who have been persecuted. Terrorist organisations will find things a lot harder when the mainstream of their religion have secure comfortable lifestyles, individual rights and freedoms to participate in society and a sense of belonging. True secularism offers us all of those things. Le Pen’s policies only serve to enrage and endanger us.

My preference is Melenchon, whose concerns about economic insecurity are more credible than Le Pen’s. He recognises that neoliberal economics has underlined the noble vision of the European Union. Hamon also has some interesting policies such as a UBI, and investment in infrastructure and the environment. However he is a long shot on current polling. I was wrong to characterise Macron as a Bernie Sanders type figure in my last French post (well spotted Old Deuteronomy), it is clear now that Melenchon is deserving of this sobriquet. It’s now up to France to do what the US couldn’t: put a socialist voice in charge for constructive change.

*You may notice that I haven’t used any of the accented letters in the candidate names. That’s because I have a US English keyboard and I can’t be arsed remembering the ALT codes. This is Zeitung f­ür Katzen, not Journal pour les chats!

John Key Does a Nico Rosberg!

Not long after I wrote about the end of the 2016 F1 season, World Driver’s Champion Nico Rosberg announced his retirement from F1, to the shock of fans and media mouthpieces the world over. I can sympathise with his situation; Mercedes may lose their advantage in 2017 and the strained relationship with childhood friend and team mate Lewis Hamilton will be in his mind. As he has said himself, he has achieved what he wanted to do in F1 and now is a great time to pursue other interests.

Today was shaping up to be interesting enough in the political world where the fascists were kept away from the Austrian presidency and Matteo Renzi resigned as promised following the “no” vote in the Italian constitutional referendum. The real surprise took place here in New Zealand, where John Key announced his resignation as Prime Minister.

The official line seems to be a combination of family commitments and boredom. I know I would get bored of winning. Given his media-assisted popularity, he was in no danger of losing public support any time soon. There is plenty of speculation surrounding ulterior motives that may have prompted his resignation; such as an impending economic crash or political scandal, or National party in-fighting.

Economic woes pose a serious threat to any sitting government. The biggest issue on the horizon is the property bubble which has trapped National into inaction. Aucklanders get to pretend that they are wealthy as prices soar as a result of overseas and domestic demand, while housing supply is restricted by skills shortages and the failure of the market to provide (and the government’s refusal to intervene). The government has no incentive to restrict overseas investment or act to increase supply while “middle” New Zealand smugly watches the “value” of their properties increase. The bigger the bubble gets, the harder the crash. So long as National is not in government when this happens, Key sees no problem. The speculation is that Key could jump now before disaster strikes.

National party in-fighting has always existed, but Key has managed to keep a lid on it. Plus the media use in-fighting as a means to bash the Labour party, so keeping the National party backbench headbangers in line is critical. Especially since Key has pursued a softer approach than the far-right faction of the National party would prefer. Examples of this include retaining Labour policies such as Working For Families* and interest free student loans**. This in part helps explain his high polling numbers. The moment that National tries to pursue an extreme-right policy agenda is the moment that they lose their appeal to much of the electorate. It also gives Labour the point of difference that they so desperately need.

It could also be the precursor for forming a coalition with NZ First following the next election. Winston Peters (Kiwi Farage) detests Key who attacked him over the Glenn affair (2008) and then made disrespectful comments about NZ First voters during his “cup of tea” with archbigot John Banks (2011). For Peters to go with National, it has been presumed that the removal of Key would be one of his conditions. It would make more sense to replace Peters, but then again he has compared himself to Konrad Adenauer (warning: NZ Herald), so he may hang around for a few more terms.

Mercedes have a range of possibilities of high-quality drivers to replace Rosberg: Vettel, Alonso, Bottas and (my pick) Wehrlein. So what about Key’s replacements? They don’t look so flash. The media have been talking up several options, I will briefly summarise them below:

  • Bill English: Uncharismatic bigot. Led National to disaster in 2002. Redeemed himself in the eyes of the Very Serious Media People as Minister of Finance, but I think he’s done a poor job. 4/10 would love to see him fail again.
  • Judith Collins. I remember sitting in her seat during a special guided tour of parliament by my local MP when I was 10 years old. She represents the extreme-right faction of the National party and is known for much ado about nothing and corruption.
  • Gerry Brownlee: Embarrassing bigot. Has had a heavy-handed approach with the Christchurch earthquake recovery and does dumb stuff like insult Finland and breach airport security.
  • Steven Joyce. The least worst option. Unencumbered by the extreme right-wing views of other leadership contenders, Joyce would follow the Key model most closely. I am impressed by his high talk about science and innovation, but his neoliberal approach means that government policy falls short of what is required.
  • Paula Bennett. Possibly the most media friendly, but already highly unpopular for perceived hypocrisy over her role in the dismantling of the welfare state. Staggeringly ineffective as climate change minister***.
  • Amy Adams. Unknown to the public at large, but talked up by the media anyway. Has had controversy with a potential conflict of interest regarding irrigation schemes in Canterbury. I also spoke to her at a university Clubs Day event this February and asked her about her Prime Ministerial ambitions. She said no, but circumstances always modify rules.

This could be an opportunity for the left-bloc to win the next election. With Labour in-fighting under control and an MOU with the Greens and similar economic views to NZF, a strong three-party coalition should be easily possible. Their collective polling should rise given the low quality of Key’s replacements. Of course, I’m not confident yet that the left can win the next election; NZ 2014, UK 2015 and USA 2016 have left me dizzingly cynical. But with Key on his way out, National have lost their strongest asset. It’s anyone’s game in 2017!

*Left-wing purists berate this policy as it is in effect a subsidy for employers who are too shit to pay their staff a decent wage. But to cut it would harm ordinary families. Rock, meet hard place.

**Left-wing purists would prefer no student loans and no tuition fees at all. We may head in that direction if the opposition policies are to be believed. And I’m pretty sure that’s what conservatives mean when they want to take us back to the 1950s, right? /sarc

***Bring back Simon Upton!