Soleil Altagrace

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Empty shelves in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, France
Geopolitics

France's Coronavirus Dilemma: Shut Down Like Italy Or Sangfroid?

French officials seem to want to avoid Italy's example of shutting down large parts of the country — and economy. But at what risk?

-Analysis-

PARIS — As Italy puts one-quarter of its population on lockdown, and the World Health Organization welcomes the move as "courageous and bold," our Cartesian minds can easily understand the situation: it is serious, one reacts strongly. This may seem normal, but is incredibly complicated across the border if its French neighbor might decide to react differently. Like playing the oboe next to a bass drum.

On this side of the Alps, the public authorities rely so heavily on the medical experts, who are the first ones hinting that it might be going too far. Beware of psychosis, says Professor Juvin on a France 5 television program. "Everything that prevents people from living, from shopping, and therefore blocks the economy is far more harmful than the epidemic itself," says Doctor François Bricaire, an expert of infectious diseases. "The economy is also about health." Yet the reverse also remains true.

Strong measures, panic, a paralyzed country: the public authorities who have seen the shelves emptied in supermarkets want to prevent such a spiral of behavior. Especially when we know "that crises act as amplifiers of society's divides," says Chloé Morin, analyst with the public survey company Ipsos. "It is the most economically fragile who will suffer the consequences of a communication that would block the economy."

Blocking the virus without blocking the economy is the current challenge. In other words, finding a "happy medium," even if that notion has disappeared from public debate. In addition to its healthcare responses, the executive emphasizes the economy: cash support for small and medium businesses, activating the "force majeure" clause for those working with the public sector to avoid liability, even at the risk of being subject to further pressure in favor of budgetary generosity.

The situation presents Italy as an anti-model, ​even if diplomacy prevents us from saying so.

Faced with the virus, the administration of President Emanuel Macron is looking to put its "pragmatism" on display, an approach that can be interpreted differently according to local situations, even creating misunderstandings and hour-by-hour management of the epidemic. There are two concerns. We must allow the circulation of medical personnel and products for the care of those most ill, and we must avoid the kind of collective panic that would plunge the country into recession.

The situation presents Italy as an anti-model, even if diplomacy prevents us from saying so. It pushes the administration to delay the announcement of stage 3, the term having become synonymous with an unknown leap. "We must not make a mountain of it," says Labor Minister Muriel Pénicaud, noting immediately that this stage would be followed by stage 4, which is an improvement to the public health situation. In other words, there is life after stage 3. Now more than ever: politics is psychology.

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View from a 'Nightjet' train sleeper cab
Geopolitics

Europe's Night Train Nostalgia: Quiet Rebirth Of Sleeper Car Travel

A new Vienna-Brussels line has just opened, while in France only two night lines still exist, compared to a dozen ten years ago.

PARIS — We all have memories of the night train, some positive, others not so much. There's the snoring of other passengers, the wafting smells, the unexpected noises that interrupt sleep in the narrow berths. But there's also nostalgia for the characteristic rocking that is so synonymous with travel, adventure and new beginnings.

This mode of transport isn't entirely a thing of the past, however. Far from it. It remains the most efficient way to reach a distant destination without flying, and is an answer, in that sense, to flygskam, Swedish for "plane shame." The concept has spread across the European continent over the past two years, much to the chagrin of the airline industry.

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Contactless payment with a smarthpone
Geopolitics

The Problem With The 'Cash Is Dead' Argument

Cash use is declining, but don't expect it to disappear. Still, there is another popular payment method that could in fact go the way of the dodo, a Deutsche Bank strategist argues.

-Analysis-

PARIS — It's pretty common these days to hear about how cash has no future. But what happens to hard currency in the 2020s isn't really the issue. Cash will last. What's unclear, rather, is the future the bank card, and the effect that that could have on the payment industry, which has seen its earnings double over the past decade, representing approximately $2 billion dollars.

In order to understand why cash should persist more than cards, it's worth looking back at how payment systems dematerialized over time. Since the 17th century, money has been widely used in an increasingly urbanized environment, and characterized by increased trade. This transition took place during the "price revolution," a period of high inflation during which gold and silver from Latin America entered Europe via Spain in a considerable way.

Subsequently, the banks began to issue receipts, payable to the bearer of the document. Until the first half of the 19th century, many cities in the United Kingdom had their own banks, issuing their own banknotes. Then came the 1960s and the rise of international travel. Companies that were not originally in the financial sector began to issue travelers checks and credit cards. American Express was quickly followed by Diners Club. Demand for these credit cards increased even more when U.S. tax authorities (the IRS) began requesting details of taxpayer expenses.

In the United States, 16% of weekly store purchases are paid for without contact.

The discussion around the demise of cash is usually focused on the downward trend in usage. The momentum generated by dematerialized means of payment meant that cash lost its monopoly. Indeed, in developed countries, two-thirds of users now prefer paperless payment methods (no cash or checks).

In addition, in emerging countries, the decline in cash should be even faster because a large part of the population will go from using cash to making payments via smartphone. In India, cash transactions were almost halved, from 59% in 2000 to 30% in 2016. In China, cash was used for 63% of payments in 2000, but only 11% in 2016.

But in other countries, notably Japan, the United States, and the nations of Western Europe, the use of cash is still well-established. According to our study, covering a sample of more than 3,600 consumers, a third of the inhabitants of developed countries consider cash as their preferred means of payment and more than half think that it will always be present.

In Germany, almost 60% of spending in stores is made in cash and the Germans have, on average, approximately 52 euros in their pockets (the highest figure among developed economies). Overall, individuals pay in cash because they find their expenses easier to control, the transaction is quick and convenient, cash is accepted in all businesses (with no minimum purchase rules), and it's anonymous.

The future is not in the cards — Photo: frankieleon

In the United States, the world's largest economy, innovations concerning cards are finally taking off. Contactless payment technology, already widely available in many countries, is expanding. Two-fifths of Americans obtained their first contactless card in the past 12 months, and another fifth are about to receive them. Currently, 16% of weekly store purchases are paid for without contact, compared to 38% in the United Kingdom. Physical payments (cash and bank cards) are well established in American culture.

The main threat to the bank card comes from mobile payments. In 2004, smartphone payments emerged in China with Alipay. They are now the main means of payment. Their popularity is explained for several reasons.

First, the Chinese government has played a decisive role in building world-class infrastructure to support digitalization. As of 2013, China was the largest market for smartphones, e-commerce and online games, with more than 600 million users.

In addition, Chinese consumers quickly abandoned cash to convert to mobile payments, which they consider to be secure, convenient and reliable. Logically, merchants have thus turned to mobile payments as well. In fact, some stores only accept mobile payments, refusing cash. This abuse led the Central Bank of China to formally proclaim in 2018 that the Renminbi is the official currency and should not be refused.

The main threat to the bank card comes from mobile payments.

This trend is mainly found in Asia, where many consumers have gone directly from cash to mobile payment, without going through a bank card.

In Europe, mobile payment technology is more recent. Apple Pay launched it in 2014, while Google Pay and Samsung Pay entered the race in 2015. Currently, only 8% of consumers pay by mobile, but this figure is set to increase rapidly, for two main reasons.

First, consumers appreciate the convenience of mobile payment, its speed and the absence of fees. In fact, a third of users plan to use mobile payment in the next six months. Second, consumer preferences impact merchants. Their key argument for installing a mobile payment terminal is "to be in line with the customer's wishes." In addition, there's the convenience of not having to type a PIN code or give change, which can be significant psychological brakes.

In sum, the obsolescence of the bank card due to expanding smartphone payment is simply a matter of time. In developed economies, progress is made step by step depending on the infrastructure already in place. Meanwhile, fintech and smartphone manufacturers are rethinking the banking system and a real ecosystem is emerging.

Whether it is through the enthusiastic adoption of new technologies by millennials or the digitization of infrastructure, the plastic bank card as we know it today will disappear. And the people who pay in humble coins and banknotes? All the cashless society talk notwithstanding, expect a portion of them to stick to their ways. Old habits, as they say, die hard.

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92% of internet users use emojis, in nearly 2.3 trillion annual messages
Society

A Philosophical Take On Why Emojis Are Just Dumb

Modern languages are rich, beautiful and complex, and took ages to develop. Hearts and smiley faces? Not so much.

PARIS — After a long and costly campaign, the Bretons got their flag last week on the official emoji list. France's Occitanie region immediately demanded the same treatment.

It's no laughing matter. The emoji question mobilizes activists all over the world: Tibet, Catalonia or the Australian aborigines have been refused such a favor; the homosexual symbol was recognized but there's still no transgender emoji; the Taiwanese flag remains banned on Chinese networks; the cannabis leaf has still not entered.

Emojis are also having their day in court. Eric Goldman, a law professor in the United States, notes that there were more than 100 lawsuits filed last year relating to their use. Does sending a "gun" emoji amount to a death threat? That's just one example of the many legal issues surrounding the symbols.

These problems are inevitable when 92% of internet users use emojis, and in nearly 2.3 trillion annual messages. French writer and television personality Frédéric Beigbeder, applying his publicist flair to romantic art, even put a laughing emoji on the cover of his latest book, which contains whole pages written in emojis.

No longer are they a simple adolescent coquetry or a passing fashion. Emojis have now made into the heart of political, diplomatic and even literary subjects, and that's why it's important to call attention to cultural regression inherent in these childish images, which I pride myself on never using.

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault interprets the advent of the age that brought us the Enlightenment and progress as the disconnection between the signifier and the signified through the phenomenon of representation. Like the Menenes refracting in the mirror of Velásquez's painting, we have learned to handle abstract symbols, trading currencies rather than rare materials, researching things we can't actually see, using words to represent things.

Emojis, in contrast, take us back to a mystical era when the sign had to stick to its reality.

Emojis, in contrast, take us back to a mystical era when the sign had to stick to its reality. They cross the Rosetta stone in the opposite direction, going back in time to the hieroglyphs. In this flattening of thought, universality no longer exists: the pictogram "man" or "woman" cannot exist as a concept and must logically be available in all skin or hair colors (redheads and veiled women have recently obtained theirs), until one day each claims its own image, a unique and vain layer of self. It would be the end of all possible communication.

It's not surprising, furthermore, that this collapse of the symbol coincides with the brutal return of aristocratic governance. While languages ​​have always evolved spontaneously, emojis are regulated by a monopoly body, the Unicode consortium, responsible for providing a standard computer code for all the characters likely to appear on a screen (of which emojis are only a tiny portion).

Emojis are everywhere — Photo: Watchara Phomicinda/SCNG via ZUMA

Among the handful of members with voting rights are Netflix, Facebook, Google, Huawei, Apple, Microsoft, as well as, mysteriously, the Sultanate of Oman and the government of Bangladesh. Then there are the "associate members' like Twitter, Tinder and Amazon.

It is to these entities without the slightest democratic legitimacy that the Bretons, so wary still of central powers, had to submit their humble request and subject themselves to the strict (but also hilarious) Unicode rules and answer things like, "Could the proposed emoji be the object of multiple uses?" l'm still trying to figure out how that might apply to the Breton flag.

The real question, though, is why we accept authoritarianism from a group of web overlords who care nothing about us. And even if you're a technophile, and revel in the connectivity and speed of exchanges that technology provides, you can still use words. A sharp or pungent answer certainly requires more cognitive effort than a smiley face. It's more work, obviously, but that's the price of a civilized conversation.

Sorry Beigbeder, but as the title of a book, an emoji crying with laughter means nothing. After all, critics couldn't even talk about the work until they'd first renamed it. There are hundreds of adjectives in our language to express an infinity of nuances of joy, and so even if we're texting, let's text sentences (for crying out loud)!

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