Tag Archives: france

On Nice, And Risk

You could prevent more deaths by banning cycling in London than by deporting every Muslim in the UK and not letting any more in.

Up to a dozen cyclists die on London roads each year. Deaths from terrorism range from about 60 one terrible year more than a decade ago to nil. Or one that year. Or nil again the next.

Most terrorist acts are random, committed by random individuals in random places. A soldier walking along the street in Woolwich. A concert by a band almost no one has heard of in Paris.

This suggests heavy-handed policing is not the solution. All the armed police in the world at the Gare du Nord will not influence events on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Those armed officers I walk past at London Bridge each day will almost certainly not be present at the site of the next attack. It is the boring strategy of surveillance of known individuals and combating the spread of the meme of radical Islam that will limit the damage.

The French do seem to have a particular problem, with their large and disaffected Muslim population. They are also suffering from the previous inaction of the notoriously incompetent Belgian security forces.

If terrorist attacks are random, if committed by individuals or groups, they are better seen as similar to the deaths caused by serial killers such as Fred West and Harold Shipman. The difference is that serial killers’ actions, and the deaths they bring about, are limited by their wish not to get caught. No one sane worries, though, about being murdered by a serial killer.

We assess risk by balancing the likelihood of an event happening with the extremity of the consequences if they do. Sometimes we get that balance wrong. We may over-protect our kids because of the awfulness of what might, just might happen.We play the National Lottery despite the virtually nil chances of winning because the consequences of winning are life-changing.

Anyone who changes their behaviour because of the fear of a terrorist attack is like one of those Lottery players in reverse. Those of us who lived through the IRA campaigns of the 1990s can recall a time where there was the statistical possibility that we might not return home because of terrorist action. That possibility was vanishingly small.

I am not saying terrorism will not get worse. In France, they are talking about the prospect of something resembling civil war, if enough terrorist outrages sweep the far right to power.

Here, there will be another attack, and it might be worse than the London transport bombings. But it is about balance of risk.

PS: before you say it, no I am not proposing mass deportations. Don’t be silly.



On Calais

We should not be terribly surprised at the scenes of chaos at Calais, as strikers disrupt links to the UK and the authorities stand by, either impotent or uncaring. The French have always had an ambivalent attitude to industrial action, if it is seen as defending French jobs.

Some years ago, and this is a true story, French hauliers were blockading the Channel ports in support of…  or possibly in opposition to…  I can’t actually remember? British lamb exports? Probably.

Anyway, the time came for the hauliers to depart for their traditional two-hour lunch. Who would safeguard their lorries, parked across the road to prevent traffic getting in or out?

No problem. The police stepped in and baby-sat the lorries so no harm could come to them during that prolonged lunch.

What a country.

On Waterloo

The French are not good losers, are they? Their approach to the anniversary of Waterloo has been curmudgeonly, even attempting to limit the production of a special commemorative coin in Belgium. (A country that owes its questionable existence to Napoleon, as it happens.)

One French politician has suggested that Waterloo was some sort of moral victory. Now various intellectuals have been narrating counter-factuals that attempt to depict the course of history had Napoleon won.

These dream of French being spoken throughout Europe, of a successful invasion of Russia and an eventual French Empire that encompasses China. They also say that, as despots go, Napoleon was not that hard on his new subjects in the parts of Europe he did manage to conquer.

All this seems wildly implausible. By 1815, the combined forces of the German states, Austria and Russia had mobilised against him. A defeat for Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo would have been followed by the eventual and inevitable crushing of the resurgent French forces – he had, indeed, won at Quatre Bras a couple of days before Waterloo.

It also ignores the demographics. France was still in 1815 Europe’s most populous nation, about 30 million people. Yet Napoleon’s losses throughout the wars he fought probably reached one million,  most in the disastrous Russian campaign, disregarding losses among his allies. Put another way, of the troops he had available of the right age at the start of the wars, fully a third had perished.

Those deaths, the direct responsibility of this enlightened despot alone, led to a period of economic stagnation in France, given the lack of available male manpower and breeding partners.

And I am not sure if even a triumphant Napoleon, with all of Europe at his feet, would have gone anywhere near Russia again. 

On Football

France play Germany in the World Cup tonight. Some family history… In 1966 my mother arranged to take our family holiday on the west coast of France in July. The implications sank in on my father rather late in the day.

He was reduced to sneaking off to bars to watch the games while we went to the beach. He watched the final along with a crowd of Frenchmen, all of whom were cheering on Germany. At one stage he found one who was willing to speak to him – my father is of the generation who communicated with foreigners by shouting at them in English.

Why the Germans? Ah, monsieur, but the English team went through at the expense of France earlier in the World Cup. This was, as I said, 1966. A mere two decades before, the French had good reason to cheer les Anglais, rather than les Boches. My father chose not to point this out. Perhaps the French have short memories.

French rubbish

France is one of the few European countries whose economy is going backwards again, a distinction it shares with Italy. Partly this is the result of the truly idiotic policies of Francois Hollande; the French would appear to have found their equivalent of Michael Foot, except in their case they actually elected him.

In part it is the result of the huge, bloated, bureaucratic state sector. An example:  we stayed in a small provincial French town several years ago. Climate much like ours, as it happens. On arrival at our cottage we were faced with the usual rules de la maison, such as, rubbish to be collected every day except Sunday, no Sunday collections, sorry.

Six times a week? We make do with once, and as I said, it’s not as if a semi-tropical climate was encouraging putrefaction and disease. So that local council’s waste disposal office employs exactly six times as many people as it actually needs.

Now replicate that across the entire French state sector…


France is apparently reconsidering its approach to Sunday trading, with a new report from the Government that will set out which sectors will be allowed to do business on the Sabbath. I bow to no one in my admiration for the French approach to life in general. But I recall arriving some years ago on a Sunday afternoon for a holiday in a typical French provincial town.

Delightful, as ever. But there was not one single grocer or supermarket open, where we could buy the basic necessities for our holiday home. All the artsy-crafty shops, though, were open as usual, the art materials suppliers, vendors of rustic peasant clothing, sellers of musical instruments and the like.

I would suggest that an economy where you cannot buy a pint of milk but where there are numerous opportunities to purchase a hurdy-gurdy needs to sit down and have a good look at itself.