We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 to 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted that every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognised words such as ‘yes’. He firmly believed – like many members of the French elite – that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.

– Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers p193. While Sleepwalkers is clearly well-researched I am far from sure the research supports the conclusions i.e. that the First World War was all one big accident. I may blog more on this sometime but equally I may not.

Où sont les neiges d’antan?

A year ago today, Polly Toynbee wrote this in the Guardian: Hollande and Europe are turning the tide. Where will it leave Cameron?

Labour gains from the triumph of the French Socialist leader with his intellectually cogent rallying cry for a new direction for Europe. Look how he won with a promise to tax the super-rich at a heart-attack rate of 75%, yet the French stock market actually rose slightly. Can he now turn the great liner of the EU’s disastrous economic policy?

Looking at the comments to the above article “newest first”, one AndyZama said,

Yes Polly. Time will tell.
Maybe in time you will again have to squirm with embarrassment like when you wrote articles like this.

Which link, in turn, takes us to an article by Ms Toynbee from 2006 that said,

Twice a year Gordon Brown fills his party’s sails with pride. His tornado of facts and figures magics up images of untold national wealth and success. Sixty per cent more personal wealth! Most chancellors sound as if chunks of their speech are penned by officials, not quite convincing in their grasp of macro or micro details. But here is the man who studies everything, consuming documents with the speed of a shredder. Standing at the dispatch box, the towering superiority of his brain makes intellectual pygmies of his opponents. George Osborne’s feeble joke about Granita and the green chancellor (green with envy) died on his lips: lacking authority, unlike Cameron, he also lacks the likeability to compensate. Like Old Mr Brown and Squirrel Nutkin, the big Scots brain seems not to register Osborne’s presence until he bites off his tail.

However, British politics is unaccustomed to intellect: the intellectual in politics has often been doomed to failure. A brainy chancellor running the economy from the engine rooms of the Treasury is one thing – but a great prime minister needs political genius. So far we don’t know if Brown has it. Within a few months he may prove, as his enemies suggest, to be a character too inflexible, too inward and just too serious for the top job. Or we could possibly have the most formidable leader in many years. As David Cameron reaches the end of a shrewd first year, he has done the best he can, but now his fate depends entirely on the untried strength of Gordon Brown as prime minister.

Nothing new could be gleaned from his pre-budget report this week, with no new direction hinted at. His aces will stay firmly up his sleeve until he moves next door. But the more opaque he seems, the greater the surprises he must spring in his first 100 days in No 10. With some nervousness, those around him try in vain to lower expectations, but his party already yearns for the near-impossible. It wants the stability he brings from the Treasury, the iron chancellor who broke the boom-and-bust cycle with his bare hands.

I do sympathise, a little. The internet holds many more failed prophecies and assessments that turned out to be spectacularly wrong than just these two. There are even some of mine in there. But Polly Toynbee is so gloriously reliable. If wrong guesses were sold like music, she’d have a row of gold discs on her wall.

Foolish Google

Google have caved in and decided to appease the French groups shaking them down over having the audacity to spider their news.

Google has agreed to create a 60m euro ($82m; £52m) fund to help French media organisations improve their internet operations. It follows two months of negotiations after local news sites had demanded payment for the privilege of letting the search giant display their links. The French government had threatened to tax the revenue Google made from posting ads alongside the results. The US firm had retorted it might stop indexing French papers’ articles.

But refusing the index the stories in question is exactly what Google should have done.  The notion that this appeasement will satisfy these rent seekers is risible.  They have seen Google fold under pressure and they will be back for more.

“Who are you to judge me … I remain a free man.”

Gérard Depardieu says he will give up French passport over tax rises, reports the Guardian:

Gérard Depardieu has said he is handing back his French passport and social security card, lambasting the French government for punishing “success, creation, talent” in his homeland.

A popular and colourful figure in France, the 63-year-old actor is the latest wealthy Frenchman to seek shelter outside his native country by buying a house just over the border in Belgium in response to tax increases by the Socialist president, François Hollande.

The prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, described Depardieu’s behaviour as pathetic and unpatriotic at a time when the French are being asked to pay higher taxes to reduce a bloated national debt.

“Pathetic, you said pathetic? How pathetic is that?” Depardieu said in a letter to the weekly newspaper le Journal du Dimanche.

“I am leaving because you believe that success, creation, talent, anything different must be sanctioned,” he said.

The full text of his open letter is given in the Le Journal du Dimanche (Le JDD). M Depardieu finished with a fine flourish:

“Therefore I ask, who are you to judge me, Mr Ayrault, prime minister of Mr Hollande, I ask, who are you? Despite my excesses, my appetite and my love of life, I remain a free being, and I will remain polite.”

Charlie Hebdo takes the flak

The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons mocking the Islamic prophet Mohammed. The magazine’s website is at CharlieHebdo.fr. It was very slow to load when I tried it, and although I did eventually find the front page I could not see the actual caricatures.

My opinion has not changed since I contributed a “Mohammed emoticon” (((:~(> to Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. I said then and I say now,

I take no pleasure from violating other people’s taboos. It is not polite and I wish to be polite. In ordinary circumstances if I want to do something that will annoy others I am willing to put up with moderate inconvenience in order to do it out of their sight. These are not ordinary circumstances. People are being threatened, harassed and sometimes murdered by fanatical Muslims for exercising free speech. The media and academia, fearless defenders of free speech so long as there was nothing to fear, have by and large caved in. So maybe it is time for ordinary people to step up. Lots of them. Spread the risk.

Obviously Charlie Hebdo itself stands proud where most other newspapers and magazines in the Western world cringe. If other journals had been as brave no one would have to be that brave.

I am out of London and damn glad to be so

“So the Games have managed to achieve what even Hitler failed to accomplish with the Blitz: the total evacuation of London’s working population. Well, not quite total. There are plenty of poor devils who are still trying to scratch a living in the wasteland of empty restaurants, shops and streets. The trouble is that the the usual customers – the great mass of people who normally commute into central London every day – have been terrorised into staying away by a hugely successful Transport for London promotional campaign.”

Janet Daley, in the Daily Telegraph.

She writes about how so many Londoners have fled the country. I am one of them. More than 7 months ago, dreading what I feared might be the impact of the Games, I booked two weeks’ holiday in southwestern France, staying in the lovely small town of Marseillan, in the Languedoc region (nearest big city is Montpellier). I am actually doing some work down here although I have handed most responsibility to a colleague. My wife and I are having a great time – the weather is glorious without being raspingly hot; the food is amazing and good value; the locals are very pleasant; and last but not least, there is a most gratifying lack of Brits to remind me of home. I do check in on the internet occasionally, but although this might strike some as unsporting, I just haven’t got the “Olympic bug” at all. Yes, I thought parts of the opening ceremony were fun (glad to see Brunel honoured as the great Victorian civil engineer he was), and thought the James Bond routine was hilarious, and was not even all that annoyed about the National Health Service propaganda. (I thought the bit about the Industrial Revolution was actually not bad – all that celebration of carbon emissions and molten steel! But I am just not all that enthused. The greatest sporting festival this year has come and gone (the European football championships), and the Tour de France was also a gloriously unexpected highlight of the year. And as Brian says, there was also the cricket. Always the cricket.

By the way, Bradley Wiggins, winner of the Tour, cycled past where I am now staying, and the locals worship the guy. He has become a bit of a cult in France. They like his character, guts and behaviour.

My blogging output is going to be light for the next 10 days. You see, they sell cheap but excellent red wine here by the litre.

French philosopher turns anti-Green

French intellectuals are, on the whole, a rather annoying group of people, notorious for confusing obscurity and verbosity with profundity, and for whom the regular use of words ending in “-isation” is a substitute for rather than an aid to clear thinking.

Nevertheless, when French intellectuals change their minds about something of significance, it signifies. Whether this is because they actually influence any persons other than other French people, and mostly only each other, or whether it is that they influence nobody but do have a highly developed sense of which way the intellectual winds of the world are blowing and when they are shifting in direction, and hence how to sale with them, I do not know. But, one way or another, these people do count for something.

So the fact that one of this tribe, Pascal Bruckner (a “celebrated French philosopher from the centre left”), has decided that environmentalism has now become a load of despotic hooey is, I believe, quite significant.

I remember when these people turned en masse against Soviet Communism, either because it had “betrayed” Communism (bad) or because it was Communism (bad), in the late nineteen seventies. That meant something then.

And this (“Scorning the propaganda of fear”) means something now.

Now if I was a betting man…

There is a new law in France that every car must carry a breathalyser so that drivers can test themselves and see if they are fit to drive.

Call me a cynic if you like but I strongly suspect that certain law makers may well have significant pecuniary interests in…

… the country’s two companies that make these breathalyser sets

We may be fucked but we are less fucked than you… Part Deux

Sometimes useful insights about the state of the world comes from sources very far removed from the dismal mainstream media. This was taken from Knight Frank estate agency promotional bumf stuck through my door yesterday under the title “What nationalities are buying in your area?”

Given what has happened with the presidential elections in France we will be seeing many more French buyers shortly. We have also seen a huge spike from people in France searching on our website for properties in London.

Yup. We may be fucked but we are less fucked than you.

Urban development in Jordan and the power of French hypermarkets (but not French politicians)

I am presently in the Kingdom of Jordan. It’s a pleasant place. Developing quite rapidly. Friendly, welcoming people, although with a slight excessive tendency to charge foreigners more than they might charge locals for the same thing. That’s a sign of the stage of development the country presently occupies, however. Those higher prices are still cheap, by the standards most westerners are used to, and it is easy to get away with. Such are the joys of using an alphabet that westerners generally cannot read, too. (This sort of thing happens much more in Thailand than it does in Vietnam, for instance, as the Latin alphabet used by the Vietnamese makes it much harder to get away with. Despite the preponderance of alphabets used in India, it happens far less there, given that every establishment has an English language price list that is used by Indians far more than by westerners).

Amman is a city with quite a lot in common with somewhere like Bangkok, actually, although Bangkok is clearly more developed right now. A huge number of people have arrived in Amman from the countryside in recent decades, boosted by greater economic opportunities in the city than the desert as well as for political regions. Huge, relatively poor neighbourhoods have sprung up in East and South Amman. Crowded, sure. Desperate, not at all. In these neighbourhoods you find clusters of souks and markets and stores devoted to most imaginable products.

The new and rapidly growing middle classes are in West Amman. This is a mixture of highway flyovers, international restaurant and hotel chains (including many American restaurant chains not seen in Europe), shopping malls, and bad driving. It resembles Dubai in some ways, but is much less manic, much less the product of ruthless absolute monarchy and a viscous caste system (the Jordinian royal family being much more moderate) and contains many more pedestrians, even if the road infrastructure does not appear to have been invented with pedestrians in mind. There are various signs that money has entered Amman both from and via the UAE in various ways, but it doesn’t appear to be dominating the place. Plus, the weather is a good deal nicer, which helps a lot.

Go into the nicer shopping malls, and you find many of the expected international tenants that are generally to be found in middle class districts of rapidly developing cities with aspirational middle classes: Starbucks, Zara, etc. Anchoring each mall is a huge supermarket, selling vast amounts of food and non-food items at good prices – devoting roughly 50% of floor space to food and 50% to everything else, an outlet of the French chain Carrefour.

As I usually do in foreign countries like this, I devoted some time to wandering around the aisles of this supermarket. There is no section devoted to alcoholic drinks, this being an Arab country. Jordan is not an especially difficult place to find a beer. There are (fairly expensive due to high taxation) liquor stores throughout the country, mostly operated by members of the sizeable Christian minority, but drinking alcohol is something you separate from good wholesome activities like doing the regular shopping or having dinner in a public place, so there is no alcohol section and most restaurants do not serve alcoholic drinks. More entertaining is the section that would be devoted to things like ham, bacon, and salami in a European country. It is really amazing what you can do with turkey meat if you try, as anyone who has ever been served a halal English breakfast can vouch. And along with the Turkey salami there is the lamb salami beloved of Indian pizza aficionados. The regular meat section is full of lamb and beef, some of it imported from places like Brazil and Australia, and some of it sourced locally. The seafood section contains lots of fish that are described as coming from Dubai. An almost landlocked country is not going to be able to source most of its seafood locally (and, in the modern globalised world, who does, anyway?). The food section in general contains much catering to local tastes, and contains a very impressive mixture of local and imported.

Go into the non-food section and you find cheap TVs, computers, and other electrical appliances of all kinds. Cheap, but not too unsightly clothing in a mixture of western and local styles, kitchen utensils, tools and light kitchen, household and garden stuff. Toys. People familiar with the non-food section of a Carrefour or a Tesco anywhere else will be familiar with the contents here. A larger portion of this is imported, and needs to be less localised than the food, but where local sourcing and catering to local needs and taste is necessary, it is done.

Get a bus or taxi to the poorer neighbourhoods of Amman, and there are more downmarket malls in existence or under construction. These also have Carrefour outlets in them, possibly smaller ones. While Starbucks and Zara don’t necessarily travel all that far down from the upwardly mobile middle classes, supermarkets can. Everyone wants to buy good and inexpensive food, and cheap TVs and mobile phones appeal to all social classes as well. Carrefour have moved into the market by first providing cheap goods to relatively upmarket purchasing power by opening in malls that want them as tenants and with which signing contracts and negotiating bureaucracy is relatively easy, in so doing setting up supply chains and logistical systems in the country, and are now just starting to move out into the mass market.

Carrefour are, i think, the best in the world at general retail in middle income and developing countries. Their two most important competitors in this are Wal-Mart of the US and Tesco of the UK. Carrefour resembles Tesco more than it does Wal-Mart. Both Carrefour and Tesco began as food retailers, and as supply chain management became more and more important became better and better at it. Both were very good at negotiating the vagaries of their local planning laws and local labour laws, and expanded domestically to a huge extent as a consequence of this. Both added more and more non-food items as they opened larger and larger stores, to the extent that they became general retailers rather than simply food retailers. (The French use the word hypermarché or possibly the pseudo-Anglicism hypermarket to describe a large store that sells both food and non-food under the same roof. The English stick with supermarket regardless of how big it gets. As well as opening larger stores, they also opened smaller stores, becoming masters of everything from small convenience stores to giant mega markets (some of which do not even sell food). Using economies of scale to run both very small convenience stores and very large megamarkets at the same time was a relatively new thing, and both companies got this relatively early. Both took advantage of the new markets that opened up in Eastern Europe after 1989.

Wal-Mart on the other hand came from general non-food retail and added food later. → Continue reading: Urban development in Jordan and the power of French hypermarkets (but not French politicians)

National elections go global

On the Sunday between the two rounds of voting for the French presidential election, a curious thing happened in North-West London. Two Frenchmen rang the doorbell of my parents’ house and asked to speak to my mother (who is French). They wanted to know if she would be supporting Nicolas Sarkozy next Sunday, and if she had any doubts, would she like a leaflet outlining the President’s agenda for his second term. Naturally, not a word of English was spoken.

As it happens, I have never been canvassed in France for a French presidential, or any other kind of election. I was under the impression it was not done the same way as in the UK (privacy laws and so forth). Yet here were a couple of party activists, one white, the other of likely South-East Asian origin, wandering around London looking for swing voters. With about 400,000 votes cast by French citizens in the first round outside France (a turnout of nearly 40% of the registered overseas electorate), I can see why this get out the vote operation [GOTV] would exist. But even in London, where most of the UK’s half million French people live, it is not a case of calling door to door.

Before recent changes to French election law which create constituencies outside French territories that are represented in the National Assembly, presidential elections in the Fifth Republic (since 1962) were already a worldwide affair. Citizens in such French territories of Wallis and Futuna, Tahiti and Mayotte would cast votes at polling stations in Mata’utu, Papeete and Mamoudzou respectively. → Continue reading: National elections go global

Thoughts on the French elections

“Listening to the candidates last night, it was clear that there is no pro-capitalist, pro-globalisation, low-tax, eurosceptic, outward looking party in France – there is no equivalent to the British Conservative party’s Thatcherite tendency. What passes for the centre-right in France is social-democratic and fanatically pro-EU; it is very different to the centre-right parties seen in English-speaking countries and many emerging markets. The “right-wing” eurosceptic candidate (who was crushed) is a protectionist who wants to tax the rich – and hates French workers who have moved to London. The only successful eurosceptics are the hard left who believe Brussels to be a capitalist plot and fascists who hate foreigners, the free market and multinationals.”

Allister Heath.

In the latest series of problems to hit the euro-zone, there are problems for the Dutch. Spain and previously, Italy, have been in the news for their economic woes. But France is the Big One. If this country – about the same in terms of wealth as the UK – votes for a socialist, with his promise to impose a 75% tax on those he deems rich, then the cafes, restaurants and schools in and around parts of London will ring even louder with the sounds of French accents than is the case already. The exodus of French people in recent years to these and other shores has been striking (they are not coming here for the weather). It is, if you like, a sort of French version of “Going Galt”, although I doubt any of the French political establishment has ever read Atlas Shrugged, nor cares.

I like France a lot and relish any chance to go there. In fact, during the two weeks of this year’s London Olympics, I am in the southwest of France, in a small town to the west of Montpelier. But I would not want, as a professional, to live in the country if it heads down a damagingly socialist path.