Private individuals under public order

On behalf of the whole team I apologise to our readers for the late arrival of this posting. As a reward for work done out of office hours over the past year, we took ourselves over to France to celebrate the New Year. Alas, Manos was one of the party.

He joined us some years ago during an early phase of the (still vigorous) Greek crisis, having rowed through the Mediterranean and up through the canals and rivers of France, in a small boat which – by his own account – he had bought in a bargain which involved him parting with his wife. At that time he was monoglot. Now he is unfortunately fluent in English, even when his enunciation is fighting a desperate battle with alcohol, and he proved this by volubly insulting two French policemen he saw questioning a fellow who looked as if he could possibly be one of the refugees from the Middle East. There was no particular reason to suppose he actually was a refugee from anywhere. The questioning in any case seemed to the rest of us to be quite orderly and the suspect (even in Britain these days anyone stopped in the street by a policeman realises that he is a ‘suspect’ until proved otherwise) looked quite relaxed; until, that is, Manos charged in shouting that he too was a migrant and the time was past when the migrants of the world could be treated like cattle by any petty official who wanted to exercise his authority. Manos was entirely mistaken. The time is nothing like past; indeed in France under the current state of emergency you could get the impression it’s just gathering its strength. Despite his weight and his rage for justice, he was no match for the trained skill of the two French operatives, at least not after their eight colleagues who must have been lurking round the corner for some chance just like this piled in. Indeed one got the impression that sort of thing may have been why they joined the ‘security’ forces in the first place. The rest of us only avoided being loaded into the black waggon with Manos by walking on as casually as possible looking in all the other directions, and pretending it was nothing to do with us.

Next morning, discreet enquiries had much the same effect you might have got from an appeal to the East German Stasi to ‘bend the rules a bit this time, wouldn’t you?’, so I rang the Paris Embassy.   There I could only get a mechanical voice claiming that ‘for security reasons the Embassy will be closed for all services until 8th January when it will open, for urgent medical cases only, between 3 and 4.15 pm by prior appointment . In case of other urgent business please leave a recorded message after the tone. This will be attended to at the earliest possible opportunity.’   So then I resorted to (very expensive!) phone calls to some of my more influential English friends, starting with King Charles Street. But by 12.30 having found those efforts as rewarding as most of my attempts to get helpful responses from the help files of computer companies not providing the services they boast of providing, I switched to the press and other media outlets, with only a short break early afternoon when I had a difficult interview with the hotel manager who tried to get me to admit liability for the damage to the hotel when the police came round to search the room where Manos was booked in. Even though the manager had gone up with them, holding the key to the room, they had instead broken the door down, alleging this was necessary since the keyhole might be linked to an explosive device. Apparently under the state of emergency they can search wherever they choose and enter any way they like. They can also manacle and ‘assign to residence’ anyone they find inside (i e place them under house arrest) for up to three months. This has happened to, among others, individuals well known in their communities for their work supporting community relations, and to people as threatening to society as ecological activists. I happened to see our breakers and enterers coming down after their search, evidently in high good humour.   Who, I wondered, would wish to join a police force that behaved like that? (And why? Those doing the recruiting for police forces should make serious efforts to find out.)

Mid-afternoon I finally received a call through the hotel switchboard from the consular service. A young man combined polite formalities with an insulting tone of voice so skilfully that I almost congratulated him. He told me that a French lawyer would accompany me to the place where Manos was held. This went according to plan, but instead of being allowed to take him back to join the rest of us, I was amazed to find him facing a list of accusations as long and as realistic as a fairy tale, from ‘forgery and use of forged documents’ to ‘misuse of social assets’. He was facing them with equanimity knowing they were airy fiction. I, though, was now seriously worried. Back to the cross-Channel telephone calls. But at this point the Ecuadorian cavalry arrived, in other words Isabelita. She was in France because she had learnt that someone had brought out a book on oysters that looked close to her own project (Biochemistry of oyster consumption) not yet completed, so she had come over to meet Catherine Flohic, the author. The idea had been that we would come over on a separate trip to see her later in the month but Karela managed to contact her in Paris and tell her about our problems. Isabelita is one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, and with the social gift I so conspicuously lack, of knowing how to deal with all manner of people in all manner of situations. Also near-native fluency in French. It still took two days to argue Manos out of his cell, though at least he got decent food during that time.

Not all that time was spent in activity. There were plenty of hours for reflecting on Liberté, and on how far one can hope for either of Égalité and Fraternité without the other, and how police states come into being. (For those who have not been following closely current events in France, the President is trying to prove he is not useless by getting the new privileges for police action and other security measures under the state of emergency actually incorporated into the French constitution.) Time also for pondering how far shortages in Égalité and Fraternité are bound to lead to restrictions on, or loss of, Liberté. Perhaps we could learn useful lessons by asking the Rom, including those who were expelled from France, not of course for being Rom because that would have been racism, but only for being unauthorised Bulgarians or Romanians. Time also for reflecting on the fact that in the most recent British elections it was just 36.9% of the voters in a turn-out of only 66.1% of eligible voters who let in a government which has a policy of resolute limits to taxation of the wealthy, and no less resolute restrictions on social assistance for those who, lacking health or wealth or a privileged status, are held not to be contributing to the economic growth of the nation.

(Readers are invited to send their suggestions for the best discussion available of the concept of ‘nation’.)


Observation of the posting : as a good general rule the intelligence quotient of a television programme is inversely proportional to the regularity and speed of the beat of the muzak which will (regrettably) be played in the background

Late news : As an experiment, the School of Management of Bognor Sophia University (Wales) is to set up a Department Without Portfolio to see if it will find things to do.

Linguistic notes : It is clear that the political word of the year 2015 was ‘hub’. For instance, speaking in Kuala Lumpur last month an Asean minister said that his ‘superhub’ could not by its nature have a physical location since the hubs of which it was the metahub were themselves of different types, but it would be a virtual hub located on the internet.

 Thought for dismay: It is a commonplace of government statements to say that they want to raise the level of education of their subjects (or victims). Note that they do not normally speak of raising levels of intelligence.  When you look around at the sort of governments currently in control of so many countries, you may think this is not a co-incidence