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20 janvier 06

Garfielddgate (in English).

Update (2006-02-03): M. de Robien, the Minister of Education, has reached a decision. Garfieldd’s dismissal is overturned and his sentence commuted into a one-year suspension without pay, reduced to 6 month on account of his service records. While everybody is of course happy that Garfieldd will hopefully be back to heading a school next school year, this is still an extremely tough punishment, more severe than it would have been required for M. de Robien in order to save the administration’s face. And it still raises a lot of questions—what, precisely, a French civil servant is allowed to write on a pseudonymous blog, where the limits are that separate free speech from impropriety, by what token “erotic texts and suggestive photographs” (as the offence is now framed) are unsuitable for a school principal’s blog.

Important update: In a press release of 2006-01-20, the Minister of Education, Gilles de Robien, announced that « given [Garfieldd’s] record, the Minister will soon take a decision that is more commensurate with the civil servant’s misconduct » (my translation). In plain English, that means that Garfieldd’s dismissal can be expected to be reversed and commuted into a lesser sentence. Considering that M. de Robien signed off the dismissal only a very short time ago, the blogs’ mobilisation might well have had an impact on this. Anyway, let’s stay tuned, and hugs to Garfieldd.

The English-speaking readers of this blog must be wondering what the heck is going on. A flurry of posts in French, visible outrage, comments (a rare thing here), and in the centre, a strangely misspelled name: Garfieldd. Okay, let’s explain what the sound and fury is all about.

There used to be a blogger nicknamed Garfieldd. He published a garden-variety blog, insightful texts about his work as a high school principal, quotations from writers he admires, stuff about the TV series and singers he likes, and his life as a pretty much closeted gay man. Garfieldd’s blog was pseudonymous, like mine, meaning that you wouldn’t find his name or details of his workplace on it, but if you carefully collated all the little bits of information, you’d be able trace the blogger’s identity. There was nothing there that could be considered vulgar or prurient, or so his readers thought. At most, and only rarely, he would post a photo of a man modelling underwear with an appreciative comment about the model’s pecs.

And then vlam! Some teachers from a neighbouring school were digging into the depths of Google to unearth students who might have been insulting them on their blogs. Blogs, and in particular the unpractised writings of frustrated kids, are a major concern of some as yet unfamiliar with the new digital media. What they found was Garfieldd’s site, and they recognised him. They took one look and alerted the Rector, i.e. the boss of all state teaching and school administration staff in the Montpelier region. Who took one look and launched a disciplinary inquiry. Which returned a verdict: immediate dismissal from the French civil service—the toughest among about a dozen punishments the commission could have meted out.

Orotund declarations ensued: “pornographic and obscene writings and images”, “incompatible with that gentleman’s position in a management capacity”, “failure to fulfil his educational role”, “we have a social contract with the families!”

The Department of Education even went so far as to issue a press release, revealing Garfieldd’s name, age, and details of his school, to make sure the public knew that a dangerous pornographer had been stopped, owing to their diligence and decisiveness.

Except that it’s all a lie. Garfieldd’s not particularly large but faithful readership comprised not only the notoriously sexy pédéblogosphère1, but also decorous mothers of high-school-aged (and younger) children, feminists who wouldn’t for a second condone sexual transgressions. And they could only scratch their heads and wonder where porn came into this. The press questioned a few of his high school’s students, and all they had to say was “Hum, he’s strict and nice.”

Porn? Well, you be the judge: here’s a machine-translated sample page from the now-erased blog. The pictures aren’t available any longer, except for this obviously obscene photo from a “Which QAF character are you” online quiz, but the Internet archive has preserved a few posts.

Garfieldd himself is, or was, someone who believed in the system. He wanted to keep things under the wraps, to show that he would question himself about not having save-guarded his anonymity well enough or having written in too much detail about his work: he didn’t want to make a public fuss during the inquiry, and now the appeals. I doubt that this attitude did him much of a service. But his blogger friends knew, of course, and when the news broke, the online community was ready.

In three days, two hundred or more blog posts have been written. Laurent at Embruns has a list (a handful of posts in English”:http://www.guillermito2.net/archives/2006_01_18.html are available, too). An online petition, launched not by the gay mafia or the oh-so-powerful blogosphere, but by a bunch of former pupils at Garfieldd’s school, has collected 1500 signatures to date. Don’t hesitate to sign if you can make out the sense—the petitioning platform is in English. The brouhaha has been quite extraordinary: as I write, the search term “Garfieldd” is ranked 13th on Technorati’s top searches. France has a very lively blogosphere.

So that’s what got all our knickers in a twist. I’m a dyke myself, and spent two years teaching English at French public schools—and I’m outraged. (A small voice in my head tells me that maybe I shouldn’t be sorry not to have grown roots there, much as I love teaching; I may have made a timely escape from that uncomfortable, ossified system after all.)

Briefly, the lefty and usually gay-friendly daily Libération became the lightning rod for our fury. They had published a misleading article, containing a passage that quoted scurrilous search engine queries from Garfieldd’s statistics. Taken out of context, the italics removed from the search terms, the quote from Garfieldd’s blog read as if he was obsessed with “arabic cocks” and “urethral catheters”. A few hundred letters and several e-mail exchanges with an editor later, they amended the article online, printed a clarification and admitted an “error”. This may be a first in France, and was certainly a small victory. (It also gave us something concrete to do.)

The French public education system is a colossus. Not far behind the Indian Railway and up there with Walmart, it is one of the world’s largest employers : 4.5% of the French workforce are public sector workers for the Ministy of Education2. In addition to their particular job attributions, civil servants have to fulfil a number of remarkably nebulous requirements. There’s the “duty not to do anything that might bring discredit on the institution”, and a “obligation of morality” that isn’t defined much further and seems to be of another age. I remember when we were informed about this during my teacher training: I had already grasped that I’d better abstain from enquiring about what this was supposed to entail, concretely: no one could have answered, so my question would just have suggested I had something to hide. What are the limits on free speech that apply to a civil servant? What is the “moral behaviour” required of a high school principal?

The blog public, at least, is quite clear about what to think. Blogs and commentators are near-unanimous3: the only scandalous thing in all this is the actions of the Ministry of Education itself.

And then there’s the sexuality angle. Of course, ministry spokespersons and the Montpelier Academy Rector (who happens to have the misfortune to be named Christian Nique) are very careful to reject any suggestion of homophobia. Though on the other hand, in the initial AFP wire a trade unionist member of the disciplinary committee is quoted implying that “publicising” one’s homosexuality was deemed inappropriate. In any case, it hardly seems credible that “publicising one’s heterosexuality”, even via, say, family photos shot on the beach and remarks about beautiful actresses (or male actors, had Garfieldd been a woman), would have led to a similarly draconian sentence. Here’s some context: Oli has assembled some lingerie and perfume ads—this is what students and parents see every day on public billboards, what is deemed appropriate on the pages of even the most serious papers.

Monsieur Nique, in any case, is a key figure in this mess. He’s the one who talked about the “social contract with the families”, which is striking in itself, because the French educational system usually makes a point of not being in the service of the parents (and only as if by accident in the service of the students): the French system serves the state. He must be an intelligent man, holding two doctorates, one in linguistics and one in education. He has published extensively on the history of the educational system (and also appears to be the author of an introduction to Generative Grammar). He has been an advisor to several left-wing governments, but lately seems to have made himself a name advocating the return of “ethics and morality” to public instruction, to counter-balance the “rise of individualism” in our corrupt society.

Whether M. Nique and the administrators and trade union representatives who condemned Garfieldd are rabid ‘phobes or just accidental ones is, in fact, secondary. In their minds, it might really be all about not mixing public and private speech. They might really think that lightly clad models are fine on public billboards and in art galleries (or, for that matter, in media studies textbooks), but inappropriate next to an article speaking (approvingly!) of the latest round of high school legislation4.

French civil servants have for a long time published novels or created works of art in their free time, some with outright erotic themes. None of these authors and artists, to my knowledge, has been dismissed for it. But their works fall into well-known categories and carry the stamp of approval that reads “artistic creation”.

What the faceless bureaucrats don’t understand is that technology has by now given everyone the tools to write and to publish; that speech isn’t divided any longer into irrelevant pub chatter on the one hand, and vetted, edited and policed public writings on the other; that the line between what people want to share and what they won’t blog about is different for every individual; and that this is a good thing about blogs and other social software. Yes, details that used to be known only to one’s neighbours are now reflected in places anyone can access. So what!

This is actually the self-correcting force that works against excessive individualism. Via our blogs, we weave new social bonds.

So yes, some high school principals are gay and like well-muscled male chests. Others keep bees. Others collect editions of the Kama Sutra, play role-playing games or practise the trombone all weekend. Others are five times divorced, have a disabled relative or are the children of Nobel Prize winners; or of Nazis. Most have something in their lives that could be used against them by ill-meaning individuals.

Harping on about obsolete values that can’t be brought back, trying to prevent people from talking about themselves, pretending that high school principals are assembled, all identical, in the basements of the Ministry of Education strikes me as particularly problematic, ethically speaking. Real values, contemporary ones, would be about accepting the normal variations and idiosyncrasies within humanity; and, if necessary, giving a slap on the fingers of the oh-my-god-a-gay-principal crowd instead of the other way round.

Shame on you, Ministry of Education.

The matter is now in the hands of the minister, Gilles de Robien: Garfieldd has applied for clemency, with the option to take the matter to the courts if his appeal is rejected. The blogosphere, at least, will stay tuned.

Notes:

1 pédé, or PD, from pédéraste, is a reclaimed slur approximately equivalent to “fag”

2 Source: MEN

3 Out of about 200 posts I’ve read, there were a grand total of two that were unsympathetic. Neither author had read Garfieldd’s blog, and one of them just wrote a one-line homophobic slur to accompany a scan of his local paper.

4 Guillermito (that’s in English) is right to use the term this deserves: institutional homophobia. That is, differential treatment of gays and lesbians that is produced by the machinery of social institutions. Every single decision-maker may well be no more homophobic than the next person, but the overall outcome is nonetheless unfair or harmful to queers.

 

  1. wam :: 20 janvier, 13:47 :: # ::

    great post. waow.
    i’ve passed it over to some friends in the us & uk.

  2. gilda :: 20 janvier, 13:52 :: # ::

    great work up there !
    and so acurately choosen title (hélas)

  3. Marielle :: 23 janvier, 13:35 :: # ::

    French speaker leaving in England here. I checked out the content of the blog). This guy deserves a medal for good service… not dismissal.

    1) There was a girl in his lyceum who confided about abused by his grandfather.The parents wanted to culpbabilise the girl about the consequences… and keep her mouth well shut. He tried to at least make clear to the girl she was a victim, not a bully.

    2) There was an apparently uterly incompetent accountant in his Lyceum. This accountant was making errors that had very adverse effects on the budged of the school; he was nice enough to use the secretaries’ computers rather than his own to surf porn content… Garfieldd went through many demarchs, some highly unpleasant ones, to get it known by his hierarchy… and get the guy moved to some other place where he would cause less consequential damage.

    Archived at: http://web.archive.org/web/20050205054409/http://www.garfieldd.com/

    This Garfieldd has a lot of courage... some courage that by my experience not very many have. All what I have read have got me to see the guy with the highest esteem. My impression was that it would be an excellent role model for the kids under his responsibility. I am straight. Gayness or vice is obviously irrelevant for a justification for his dismissal. I couldn’t come across any offending material. Some “light” jokes eventually. Some “allusions” but nothing even close to being “offensive”.

    That was a truely excellent blog who could be used, very efficiently, to discuss issues in a course on moral values, respect for differences, responsibility taking even when for this you need to pose difficult/unpleasant/unpopular acts.

    I wish him goodluck with his company. I am sure some excellent stuff will come out of it.

  4. Yohann :: 20 février, 08:57 :: # ::

    This is no wonder why I have so many difficulties to accept the sacro-sanct dogmas dictated by the French National Education Church…. Freedom of speech has become quite an issue lately, and we French people, allegedly “the warrants and guardians” of civic liberties deprive someone who seems to be an honest man from what constitutes his life: his job, his money (just have a look on how many teachers without any student are paid in our civil service, and compare that to the rate of unemployement we suffer these days), his authority as a headmaster and as a teacher, his dignity as a human being who had the courage to speak about his sexuality in a society who claims on the one hand “freedom of belief and tolerance for all” and who repurgates “the deviant ones”; a man who has also been deprived from his hands and mouth, that is to say his means for expression…
    THIS IS SCANDALOUS!
    period.

  5. Allison Murphy-Connolly :: 28 juillet, 19:36 :: # ::

    I wish the best for Garfield. My intention are to search the web for San Diego French schools for my 6 year old. I got on to this and was surprised to find educated people with time on there hands to exploit and hurt this man’s character. I am new to french coulture. This is mean and unnessasary use of indulgment. Defilement of character seems to be an easy in for the “straight” educator but as Yohann said in his commentaries;”We French are allegedly the warrants and guardians of civil liberties ”

    I just got back from Paris 2 weeks ago and had the time of my life! I met cousins for the 1st time and they gave me the heart of Paris; I felt connected and free. Inspired ; Renewed. So much so I want to educate my daughter in a french school and give opportunities to know her 2nd cousins and visit again with less of a gap in conversation. I felt my way through Paris and had an amazing time. I hope that Garfieldd recovers and see’s right through this hurtful waste of humanity and gets back even stronger! To the anti-gay-ping pong peanut gallery,etc… find another hobby that serves the students and parents for Real!

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