Liberté, égalité, fraternité (but some more equal than others)

In France, insurrection is stirring once more. This time, the rebellion comes from within the elite universities, the grandes écoles, as they vehemently oppose the government’s efforts to impose a target on scholarships, forcing them to accept more diversification. These institutions are highly elitist: 90% of students are middle or upper class, the vast majority are white. Nearly all France’s political and business leaders have been trained at the écoles. It is a prerequisite to success. It is demonstrably a system of self-perpetuating elitism.

The state rhetoric of meritocracy and republican virtue is rendered void by the attitudes and practices of the institutions and a powerful minority. Educational leaders argue that the reforms would lead to a ‘lowering of standards.’ They imply that scholarship candidates are less able. In fact they are simply less schooled in a very specific skill set.

In order to enter the grandes écoles, one has to pass the concours. Middle and upper class children are often prepared for these exams from a very young age and are likely to take a year out to prepare. This is obviously a luxury many families cannot afford. These notoriously difficult tests require a deep and detailed knowledge of French culture. This is a breeze for children whose parents are alumni of the grandes écoles and expect the family tradition to continue. They have probably been played Debussy in the womb and fallen asleep to Molière as a bedtime story. Children of different heritage, or from lower socio-economic groups have less chance of success.

But fate is set even before the concours. Getting into the right lycée and taking the right baccalauréat determine a child’s future. Even primary school places are a factor as they can determine which secondary school the child attends. This has lead to richer parents using cleaners’ addresses and renting flats closer to schools- tactics not unheard of here. However, the most frequent, well documented and worrying means to ensure their child’s place at the right school seems to be making a call to a powerful friend. This is attributed to a Tocquevillian attitude, ‘La règle est rigide, la practique est molle.’ (the rules are rigid, the practice is not.) For those with connections, perhaps.

Gaetano Mosca, the father of democratic elitism, famously declared that ‘ruling classes do not justify their power exclusively by de facto possession of it, but try to find a moral and legal basis for it, representing it as the logical and necessary consequence of doctrines and beliefs that are generally recognised and accepted.’

In France, and elsewhere, a system that appears to be democratic, open and universal is used and subverted by those with superior wealth and power. For evidence of this in the UK, see Nik Williams’ marvellous article on the class character of the latest government proposals on education. Disadvantage at an early age too often means disadvantage in later life. To reform at university level is a step in the right direction, although perhaps it is too late. Equal opportunities must be ensured from the outset so, as Chevènement said, the elite is based on its ‘work, worth and talent’, rather than its wealth, birth and contacts.

Fire up the Quattro! Women’s rights are going back to the 1980s

Let’s support the survivors before protecting the perpetrators.

Nick Clegg said in the Commons last week that the government was facing ‘difficult dilemmas’ over perhaps the most controversial part of the coalition agreement, granting anonymity to defendants in rape cases. This has been a Lib Dem policy since 2006. Only 1 in 20 rapes are reported. Only 5% of all rapes reported to the police lead to a conviction, more than half of the cases that make it to trial result in the suspect being found guilty. The odds are already in favour of the perpetrator, why must they be further advantaged?

Defendant anonymity existed briefly from 1976 until it was abandoned in 1988 following a series of deeply critical reports. It was brought in when rape within marriage was not a crime, when it was standard judicial practice to require a witness to corroborate the story; one woman’s testimony could not be believed. This was an era where the establishment was overwhelmingly male and largely sexist. It deterred complainants, undermined survivors and impeded justice. Resurrecting it will undo all the work of women’s lobbies, charities, and criminal justice agencies who have ardently encouraged more women to bring allegations to the police.

Police and barristers are not, for the most part, advocating anonymity. They know releasing a name has led to the successful prosecution of rapists such as John Worboys. Seventy women felt able to come forward and testify against him, securing a conviction. Even Cameron’s suggestion to limit anonymity to between charging the accused and the case starting would prevent other women contributing to the prosecution. Women often expect to be treated badly by the justice system, to be treated like they’re on trial as the defence trawl through their sexual history, their alcohol intake and the clothes they were wearing. If the concern for innocent until proven guilty is so fundamental, this must also apply to the complainant.

Figures show that the number of false allegations for rape are no higher than for other crime, so why protect these men? It simply perpetrates the myth that women are liars. A vindictive minority is taken to be the norm. Treating rape as exceptional vilifies women. It is surely just as damaging to be accused of child abuse or hate crimes. As Harriet Harman said, ‘To single out rape defendants sends a very powerful message to juries in rape cases that the rape victim is not to be believed. It sends a devastating message to rape victims that uniquely of all victims they are not to be believed.’

Ms Harman is right, though her lexical choice is questionable. To label a woman ‘victim’ is to disempower her. To define her by what happened. She is  not a victim, she is a survivor.

It is a tragic irony that a law which primarily concerns a crime against women may be amended in a manner beneficial to men. This is symptomatic of the political establishment’s failure to understand and support women’s issues. Cuts to rape crisis centres are a damaging indication of a negligent attitude towards survivor support. From 68 there are now only 38 in the country which are gravely underfunded with a budget of just £3.5m between them. Before we improve the situation for men, let’s ensure that the system works for women. It is essential that the coalition honours its commitment to providing long-term, sustainable funding to rape crisis centres. It is vital that conviction rates are improved. It is imperative that survivors are supported.

Over the rainbow, are the skies blue? Can the Conservative government deliver on gay rights?

The new cabinet is the least socially representative since the by-gone era of top hats and gentleman’s clubs. Oh wait, I just described the Bullingdon. The least socially representative since before the first world war, to be more precise. Cameron’s cabinet has only four women, one of whom is a minister without portfolio and Baroness Farsi is also the only BME member in the new cabinet. It seems the face of British politics is once again white and male.

Of course, representation does not have to be descriptive, one can advocate for a group without being a member. However I would insist that the person appointed representative believes in gaining rights for that group. Herein lies the problem with the new Minister for Women and Equalities. Theresa May is an inappropriate and frankly dangerous choice for this crucial role. A brief review of her voting record on gay rights demonstrates her evident unsuitability. She opposed the abolition of section 28 (as did most of the front bench). She voted against lowering the homosexual age of consent to 16. She voted against gay adoption rights. She voted against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which would give lesbian couples the ability to receive fertility treatment. How can we have an equality minister who doesn’t believe in equal rights?  

How could our new Prime Minister, he of hope and the Big Society appoint her, doing such a disservice to the gay community? Perhaps because his true views are not dissimilar to hers. David Cameron voted against an amendment to the Adoption an Children Bill which allowed unmarried couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) to adopt children. This could be passed off as Victorian Values, upholding the institution of marriage, until he voted for the same amendment, this time specifically worded to exclude homosexual couples. He also voted against gay rights, advocating the need for both a father and mother to be present to gain fertility treatment.

This is disappointing, but not surprising in a party that continues to allow people like Chris Grayling into its inner circle after the B&B fiasco. No, Chris Grayling, ‘I was just recalling (the bigoted, homophobic and appallingly offensive) views I used to have’ is not a good enough excuse. This is also the party whose social policy was largely authored by Phillipa Stroud, who founded a church which attempted to ‘cure’ gay people through prayer. Although she didn’t win her seat, I doubt her influence will decline due to her position at the Centre for Social justice.

Hopefully, this is an area in which LibDem influence will temper the endemic homophobia in the Conservative ranks. Lynne Featherstone has been appointed junior equality minister. She has a positive record on gay rights and is one of few MPs who actively champion trans rights. I just hope she will be heard as she is clearly in the minority.


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