Muhammad Najm Akbar
Learning French was not only a new way of connecting to life. Acquisition of this second language redefined my relationships with the world. French language opened up new perspectives and offered ways of looking at the facts more methodically, to be Cartesian, and rational. I also learned empiricism, to respect and honor numbers instead of vague and imprecise adjectives. Years later, I accompanied a Pakistani election commissioner to an official meeting. Somewhere during the greetings and introduction, our interlocutor remarked that many people have no idea what INSEE meant. I interjected to brag: Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques. For once, I impressed a French host. I thought it was a little thank you to my language school, CAVILAM (Centre d’Approches Vivantes des Langues et des Médias). Although a language school, this outpost of the University of Clermont-Ferrand operating with the collaboration of the Vichy municipality contributed enormously to my informal education. The Institute, INSEE, met the insatiable French demand for numbers in each aspect of life. “Measuring to understand,” read its logo. People had their ways to interpret numbers, but everyone quoted INSEE statistics. Politicians, economists, and analysts offered their interpretations, but INSEE remained the origin of all numbers. The Pakistani visitor had no idea what it meant to France. Pakistan had its Bureau of Statistics. INSEE was a different kind of ballgame. It was the base of arbitration of multiple options and decisions that the government, opposition, or citizens wanted to take. The QUID remained my favorite book for years. It was an Almanac type of publication in French although far more comprehensive, defining, questioning, and referring to events and developments in numbers. I thought counting, measuring, asking, and analyzing enabled France to become a major power. Right or left, politicians had to count things before using an adjective in any argument.
By the time I departed from Paris for the second time, Minitel had become a live source to quantify public support of political options and views. As two developing countries became my home after France, the French telecommunications agency introduced Minitel to its patrons. This was a little screen to relish and fear. It scarred people and power alike. Late François-Henri de Virieu, one of my favorite journalists in life, began to use it during his live TV interviews, L’heure de verite, with powerful people. As a panel of journalists took turns to question his guests, he asked the real sovereigns, the source of all power, the French citizens, if they agreed or disagreed with the answers of his powerful interviewees. Minitel was their voice. His team including a polling organization posed questions via Minitel about the argument or the facts the interviewee presented, and sought public reactions instantly. The citizens would say if they liked or disliked what the politicians trumpeted. The sovereigns had found a new way to humble the mighty and the untouchables.
The most significant number I have always remembered and cherished about France was 36000, the number of mayors equal to the number of communes, the counties. I went to see two mayors in the neighboring towns of Vichy with other students at the CAVILAM. It was a great revolution to meet elected persons for the first time. Pakistan had no elected office then. Zia-ul-Haq ruled the country from the Army House. He was Pakistan’s Chief Martial Law Administrator. Haq’s regime had abolished all elected offices when it seized power in the first week of July 1977. Regardless, Pakistan had retained the colonial system of the city administration. Young successful candidates of the central superior services examination like me administered the cities. French counties elected their mayors and of course, the French also elected their president. Francois Mitterrand had already entered the second half of his first septennat, the seven-year term for French Presidents until then. Francois Hollande was one of Mitterrand’s counselors then at the Elysée Palace, a bit away from his election as President in 2012. By the time Francois Holland became President, France had already amended its Constitution to end the seven-year term of the Fifth Republic’s Presidential office. Beginning with President Chirac’s second term in 2002, Francois Hollande was the third President of the Fifth Republic to have a 5-year Presidency. Mitterrand was the only Fifth Republic President to have two septennats. During his fourteen years of rule, the law of decentralization further strengthened the local governments and the mayors and expanded the list of officials the citizens elected.
Mayors in France charmed me. All 36000 of them were unique. The mayors in the Auvergne region I met along with my classmates were not just elected leaders and managers, representatives both of the county and the state, but also proud and devoted first citizens of their communes. Our first interlocutor told us how the commune residents had elected him again and again and how he had seen his role further enhanced more recently under the new decentralization law. What ravished me immensely was how both of them described their relationship with the commune residents over the years. They had registered their births, married every couple that decided to tie the conjugal knot, felt their pain as they issued death certificates, empowered youth as they updated electoral lists, conducted elections, and through all this, known every living soul in the vicinity. It was an amazing model of governance and development. The mayor was part of the community, unlike unelected officials managing a city top-down for a given period from an ivory tower. Unlike them, the mayors will also not rush to a new next assignment without any equation with the area. Mayors never quit their home base.
A mayor’s office was the entry point for most politicians to begin public service. They always retained the pride of knowing their communes so well and having worked there. Mayors preferred to seek elections in their native cities irrespective of their size. Francois Mitterrand had been the mayor of his little town of Chateau Chinon since 1959 until the French elected him as President. He delivered both of his victory speeches in 1981 and 1988 from the Mayor’s office there. The presidents could not combine the mayor’s office with their tenure in Elysée Palace whereas several other elected officials could accumulate mandates simultaneously. President Mitterrand’s predecessor in office, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, had been the. mayor of his little town of Chemaliere in the Auvergne region and returned to the local government there at the end of his tenure in 1981. He preferred this to be an ex-officio, lifelong member of the Conseil Constitutionnel, the all-powerful constitutional court in France. President Chirac served as the mayor of Paris for eighteen years beginning in 1977 when the state revived this office after over a century. Later, he had two terms, a total of 12 years, at the Elysée Palace. His successor, President Sarkozy remained the mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the birthplace of my children, from 1983-2002, and president of the General Council of the Hauts-de-Seine department from 2004 to 2007. The next President of France, Francois Hollande, was the Mayor of Tulle from 2001 to 2008 and the President of the Corrèze General Council from 2008 to 2012. CAVILAM took students to visit Puy-Guillaume where one of President Mitterrand’s close counselors late Michel Chrasse was the mayor and Senator for the region. He combined these offices with ease and comfort.
I lived in Sarkozy’s city twice and also entered the gorgeous Hotel de Ville of Neuilly-sur-Seine twice on the two most unforgettable mornings of January and April two years apart. These mornings had redefined my worldview, the notion of home, frontiers, and borders. I drove there from the nearby American Hospital. The Hotel de Ville of Neuilly-sur-Seine registered the births of both of my children. Twice, with little slips in hand from l’Hôpital Américain de Paris, I climbed the staircase of the Hotel de Ville and lined up in front of an office. A municipal official there vertically typed into huge register information about my children, their names, place of birth, and paternity and issued an “extrait” (excerpt), a copy of that section of the register as the birth certificate to the reporting parent.
I had a different view of this week of January the terrorists chose to eliminate Charlie Hebdo journalists. Over three decades before the week the terrorists committed this heinous act, my children had ended the clash of civilizations in those two years of the late eighties. They had redefined the notion of home for me.
Children born in alien lands became part of a new world phenomenon that challenged the fundamental parameters of identity and belonging. For millions of people in the world, this had become a different way to look around. Pakistani parents shared with me their joy as much as anxiety over questions that they answered at the time of birth registration. Their new world welcomed new souls without any judgmental prejudices. Municipalities registered children even if both or one partner failed to acknowledge parenthood. A child did not have to worry if the birth took place within or out of wedlock. Pakistani parents that the questions about paternity were unnecessary and intrusive. Moreover, they found it cumbersome that at the time of birth registration, they had to name the child. Naming a baby for them was a family tradition in which grandparents and near relatives had an imminent role. This process would not begin before birth, and it took some time before the consensus emerged. Their new homeland rushed them through the process. It was their child. They must name the child because the state assumed its responsibilities toward the newborn immediately. Tensions nonetheless surfaced between an efficient administrative system and a centuries-old cultural tradition that growing geographic distances made more difficult to observe.