Thursday, April 27, 2006

are Maoists cool?

I have found myself in a good many heated arguments over the merits of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal. Years ago, they seemed to fight a worthy cause, striving for economic emancipation of rural Nepalis, against inequality, and for a social society. With a paramilitary organization, they took over most of the country. - Poverty didn't decrease. Instead, the entire country came to suffer from forced strikes, attacks and "if you're not with us, you're against us" coercion. It was the old terrorist/freedom fighter dichotomy.

During the last few months everything seemed to converge towards a bloody stand-off between increasingly brazen rebels and the king who concentrates military power in his hands. The political parties, nugatory since the king took absolute power, stood by watching.

The dynamics changed completely two weeks ago when a fourth player unexpectedly entered the stage. Ordinary citizens of Kathmandu took to the street in defiance of curfew, rubber bullets and tear gas to protest royalty and violence. More people joined daily, the political parties quickly rediscovered their purpose and jumped onto the bandwagon, and even Maoists strengthened the peaceful crowds. After trying to stare down the masses, it was the king who bowed. He asked for the appointment of a prime minister and the reinstallation of parliament. People danced in the streets celebrating their success, but the icing on the cake was provided by the Maoists who declared a truce to facilitate the elaboration of a new constitution.

This is democracy in action and took place without any intervention by (and probably to the great surprise of) the self-proclaimed promoter of global democracy, the United States, who is still busy collecting flowers in Iraq.

When the dust has settled, the Maoists will have to show their true colors. Are they just a bunch of looney whackos, or can live up to the challenge of democracy? Given a recent experience half a world away, continued vigilance is advised.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

your money

I just read an article in the Economist on Islam in Europe, quite a hot topic here in France where more than five million Muslims live and where society is explicitly organized to minimize the influence of individual's beliefs on the workings of said society.

The article is hardly noteworthy - don't worry if you don't have a subscription. There was but one line that stood out, claiming that Saudi oil money helps popularize an orthodox version of Islam that might eventually bring good old Europe to its knees. This line struck me because of its uncreative scapegoating. I can do better.

There is no such thing as Saudi oil money. There is Saudi oil, and there is American money. If Europe or, while I'm at it, our world goes down the drain, it's all your fault, you damn SUV drivers. There you have it. Something I've always wanted to say.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

bigger evil

An eventful week is coming to an end. On Tuesday, another 24-hour general strike and day of social action brought millions of French students and workers to the streets. Contrary to my best intentions, I was not one of them. While the sun shone and photo opportunities were probably plentiful, I was confined to the lab where I had just started mentoring an undergrad who's getting his first exposure to the real world of bench work, far removed from barricaded universities and locked-out classes.

Thus occupied I missed out on the day that was a watershed for the current struggle. The demonstrators finally gained the upper hand over the increasingly inept and uncoordinated government that's busy disintegrating.

President Chirac saw it fit to come back from virtual retirement to announce, live on TV, complete executive chaos. Prime minister de Villepin has lost all power and credibility but refuses to retire and slumbers on, while Interior minister and presidential hopeful Sarkozy works overtime to benefit from the turmoil and assert himself as the true leader of France.

This erratic (and riveting) maneuvering could easily distract the politically interested from the true core of the story, which is economic. A new law intending to stem French youth unemployment, at 23% more than twice that of the general publication, triggered the present disarray. Yet the resistance, anger, even infuriation of the masses is directed only against the law and the precariousness it allegedly causes by making hiring and firing easier. Nowhere in any demonstration, TV show or news report have I seen any outrage at the underlying unemployment or any plausible strategies for its reduction. Even the young themselves, the pupils, students and trainees out in the streets, aren't mobilizing against the glaring lack of chances. It seems that opportunities and risks are infinitely more frightening than the warm couch of unemployment.

Luckily, my student seems of a different mold. New to lab science, he is ready to assert himself in an intimidating environment where leaning back and slacking doesn't get you anywhere. He might just advance my project in the process.