Fear And (Self) Loathing In France

Gargoyle of Notre Dame de Paris
Gargoyle of Notre Dame de Paris
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS A 4G offer? Danger! Bitcoin? Warning! The World Cup draw? It’s a trap!

This is the story of a strange country blessed by the gods, with beautiful scenery and heir to a long and rich history. Though full of talented people and worldwide economic powerhouses, everything now seems to be full of peril and darkness. Bienvenue en France, mes amis.

Prophets of doom, decline and downturn spent the past year roaming French cities and countrysides, appearing on TV shows and in newspaper columns, haunting political parties and the corridors of government ministries.

Thirty years ago a journalist famously opened a news broadcast on the most influential channel in the country saying, “France is afraid.” To make it clearer, he added, “it’s a feeling that we’re already fighting.” This battle has been lost for all of eternity, though — France’s Gallic ancestors were always terrified that the sky might fall on their heads.

Soccer fans thought they had something to look forward to. For the 2014 World Cup, fate seemed to afford them the upper hand, revealing that the national team would face Honduras, Ecuador and Switzerland. Too good to be true, said the French! Former World Cup winner Bixente Lizarazu immediately set off alarm bells about the dangers of the soccer powerhouse...the Swiss.

Then, a telecommunications company, called Free, did something bold: it slashed prices on Internet access, landlines and 3G phones and still somehow generated hefty profits. Then it announced a 4G offer sooner than was expected.

Two government ministers coughed up a press release deeming it “a bold and risky bet.” Introduction of 4G was exactly what a country crippled by ancient rules and regulations needed, but it looks like France has lost its taste for innovation. The Socialist party ministers called a “questionable” offer that “degraded the service” and would “cause destruction of jobs.”

All the bold risk-takers said they would now carefully avoid this strange land.

France, with all its monetary authority, is also worried about Bitcoin. So it published a memo about the “dangers associated with the development of virtual currencies.” To be honest, this concern wasn’t new. The European Central Bank began to worry about it before it even existed. To be even more honest, there is some legitimate reason to be circumspect about Bitcoin.

With no guarantee of safety or value and without any traceability, Bitcoin is the perfect vehicle for laundering and speculation. But the emergence of new currencies fits logically into a world of IT beyond the State influence. Other central banks have had to point out this risk before — the U.S., Japan and the UK all shamelessly manufactured unlimited money to buy government bonds, going backwards from history’s lessons.

Fear has gone beyond the boundaries of sport, business and money in France. In actual fact, the French are afraid of all kinds of change: genetically-modified organisms, waves, high-voltage wires, online courses, wind, etc. Competition is the most feared, as the Minister for Education serendipitously revealed when he made it clear that he separated values like “money, competition and selfishness” from “knowledge, dedication and solidarity.”

The Concorde, a plane that combined technical and aesthetic values at the expense of profitability and, unfortunately, strength, sparked a rare moment of national pride. Other innovations — those arising from the rivalry between entrepreneurs and researchers, or worse, between vendors — were dubious.

In this country, there has often been a big difference between the individual and the collective, between relative serenity of one’s fate and the disarray of the community. Two-thirds of the population are pessimistic about the country, compared to the other third, who worry about their own situations.

In the book La Fabrique de la Défiance ("The Factory of Mistrust") the origins of this fear are clearly identified: With institutions based on hierarchy and status, France has lost its confidence. To rebuild it, the book asserts, more is needed than just education and social reforms. Yet the government, more than anyone else, is afraid of change.

Though freedom is the first word of the country’s motto, it seems clear that fear has become the winner, and the country’s citizens have lost their taste for freedom.

“La Liberté guidant le peuple” by Eugène Delacroix — Louvre Museum

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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