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French weekly magazines review 25 September 2016


Europe continues to export poisonous oil waste to Africa in complete legality. The gulf between the very rich and the newly poor middle classes could lead to an explosion of democracy. And should we be worried that computer programs are having an ever more dramatic impact on our lives?


Weekly satirical paper Le Canard Enchaîné looks at the completely legal, very lucrative, but less than edifying business which sees European oil refineries sell distillation waste to Africa. The waste is what remains once the usable elements have been removed from crude oil . . . it is full of heavy metals, sulphur and other cancer-inducing substances. No European country would touch it with a barge poll . . . the sulphur content alone is 378 times higher than the maximum permitted in Europe. So, we cleverly sell it to Africa, where it becomes poor quality, pollution-rich petrol in countries where the regulations are not so strict or don't exist at all.

One of the companies involved in this trade is Trafigura, which a decade ago dumped a different sort of toxic waste around Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, killing at least 15 people.

But the "we're not doing anything wrong" prize must surely go to another waste exporter, Vitol, whose spokesman says "in Africa, the governments control and regulate fuel imports"!

And they do it so well, says Le Canard, that oil industry corruption has reached such heights that some of the continent's major producers have to import poisonous European waste to satisfy the local market.

Is democracy dying, and should we care?

Le Nouvel Observateur is worried that the refusal of our political and intellectual leaders to recognise the anger provoked by the gulf between the very rich and the newly poor middle classes is going to lead to an explosion of democracy.

According to the magazine, the current crop of right wing demagogues is prospering because of the failure of three decades of liberal economics to do anything other than concentrate wealth in fewer hands. The working class have been forced into the dole queues, the various middle classes have seen their wealth, influence and security decline. Most politicians have other fish to fry.

But, warns L'Obs, recently departed British Prime Minister David Cameron has already fallen victim to the resulting anger. Italy's Matteo Renzi could be next, with his risky referendum on the constitution. Donald Trump is clearly making the right noises for a large number of US voters. France has Marine Le Pen. Austria, Germany, Hungary and Poland are all showing signs of a desire to go it alone, to close the borders and leave the economic and moral questions to others.

Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz blames the euro; Angus Deaton, another Nobel winner, says the problem is the way the rich use their wealth to direct political choices.

And the next workplace revolution, the arrival of robots, is going to put bankers, accountants, insurers and other burgeois bastions out of work. How will the already squeezed middle react to life on social security?

Le Nouvel Observateur says many French have given up all hope of riding the so-called social escalator. They are too busy finding their way down a darkened stairway.

It's all in the program

The main story in Le Point looks at the way computer programs now rule our lives. The things we buy, the people we meet, our health and security are all increasingly filtered by powerful algorithms which make mechanical decisions about who we are and what we want. Such devices will either make us free to develop our inately human traits, or make us prisoners in a grey world of averages.

The editor of the London Guardian newspaper, Katharine Viner, says she believes the technology which controls Google's search engine was responsible for Brexit. This is because the machine reacts to user questions in a one-sided way, presenting only arguments which conform to the questioner's prejudices. Viner says Google thus convinced everyone they were right, made serious public debate impossible and forced Great Britain out of Europe.

Le Point ends with the standard disclaimer: algorithms are completely neutral, capable of hugely improving human life, or of making it nightmarish. It all depends on what we decide to do with them. Which is very reassuring.

What is Europe to do about the refugees?

Marianne calls to account those the weekly considers responsible for Europe's current migrant catastrophe.

In France, the mainstream right has become indistinguishable from its extremist rival on the question. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel is paying the political price of having overestimated her nation's capacity to accommodate refugees. And there are no serious political initiatives from the supposed moderates, simply because there is no simple solution to the problem.

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