A Frenchman’s air miles

Agnès Poirier on Sarkozy’s habit of getting there first

When fans of politics want to know what countries Nicolas Sarkozy has visited since his election last May, they can simply log on to the Élysée Palace website. Visitors will find what can only be described as an awesome schedule of travels and stopovers. Compared to the British Prime Minister's own travelling, the French president's appetite for the world looks pharaonic. Or is Napoleonic a better word?

Sarko has visited three countries a month on average - not counting two trips to Afghanistan. Nor does this include his constant travelling within France, from stricken suburbs to angry Breton ports.

His first visit was to Angela Merkel. Nicolas may not hand-kiss the German chancellor as Gentleman Jacques did, and Merkel may hate Sarkozy's casual double peck on the cheeks, but at least they are both keeping up a tradition established after the war. This was a way of celebrating the Franco-German friendship, still seen as the foundation of peace and co-operation in Europe. Merkel did exactly the same back in November 2005 when, the day after her own election, she paid a visit to Paris before going on to London.

After Berlin, Sarkozy visited the UK, Spain, Poland, Belgium, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Gabon, Senegal, Hungary and - only then - the United States for the UN General Assembly in September. This was followed by Bulgaria, Russia, Morocco, the US (again), Germany (again), China, the Vatican, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and, now, India - for once following closely in Brown's footsteps. So what does this exhaustive (and exhausting) list say about his priorities in foreign policy?

Small bonus from Libya

First, Europe: his visits to Brussels, Berlin, London and Madrid, but also to Warsaw, Sofia and Budapest, show Sarkozy's determination to restart the grand European project that stalled with the resounding French and Dutch "No" to the EU constitution in summer 2005. The adoption of a "mini-treaty", supposedly a more concise and digestible text than Giscard d'Estaing's constitution, signed by the EU's 27 members in Lisbon in December, is considered Sarkozy's first victory on the international scene. Observers recall how, late at night in Brussels on 23 June, while Merkel was trying to convince recalcitrant Britain, the French president won over the Polish twins. Some say this was through sheer bullying, a method he is well known for.

Second, Nato and the end of diplomatic froideur towards the United States. Sarkozy may have waited four months before crossing the Atlantic - the French would have hated him to go sooner - but his penchant for all things American has helped to erase "freedom fries" from this year's edition of Webster's Dictionary, while infuriating France's traditional allies in the Arab world. Although not Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, who recently, thanks to Sarkozy, enjoyed his first state visit to a western country since his banishment from international diplomacy.

To justify the visit of the Libyan dictator to Paris in December, Sarkozy argued that he was leading a "foreign policy of reconciliation". Plus there was the small bonus that French workers would benefit from ?14bn of contracts with Libya.

On Nato, defying de Gaulle's legacy of fierce independence, Sarkozy announced that he would be ready to make "ambitious and pragmatic proposals". These remain suitably vague, yet he seems keener to embrace the alliance than any predecessor.

Third, international trade. As in the old days of colonisation, Sarkozy seeks new markets, new consumers and fruitful co-operation in far-flung places such as China and India. Long gone is the time when China paid for British tea and French silk with opium, or when the French and British armies forced the weak Manchurian dynasty to open its ports and grant their countries favourable trade tariffs.

Even more than before, China represents a mine of commercial opportunities for the two former colonial powers (see above). It is no coincidence that Brown and Sarkozy both go east in their foreign travels. Brown leaves cultural flamboyance to France; what matters is trade.

The reluctant European

When British fans of politics seek to compare the travelling appetites of Britain's and France's leaders, they find it a Byzantine task. Revealingly, the Downing Street website doesn't have a "Prime Minister's travels" section, perhaps because, compared to Sarkozy, Brown's travelling looks light.

The British Prime Minister's first sortie abroad was, surprisingly, to Berlin but that trip was followed closely by the traditional pilgrimage to Washington. Of course, there were a few quick trips to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of British troops fighting there. But the bipolarity of Brown's foreign policy - the good old Atlanticism that got his country into the Iraqi mess, and the paramount importance he gives to trade in relations with China and India - is tempered only slightly by the odd show of goodwill towards Europe, which most Europeans find hard to believe anyway.

Brown has long seemed more at ease in the Highlands or on the American east coast than in other places. Is that because he never took a gap year to roam the world?

"Normally you travel abroad a lot for a first time when you're a university student. I spent my summers in hospital because I had a series of eye operations from an injury playing rugby, so a lot of my original plans for foreign travel were frustrated," he admitted to Time magazine last year. He also said: "My father being a minister of the church, missionaries start to be the first influence you have on hearing about what's happening in the developing countries, in India as well as Africa."

Over the past few months, Gordon Brown has forged an image of a reluctant European and a withdrawn economist, more interested in "British values" than in universal ideas other than his notable passion to fight poverty in Africa. He seems to have gone back to a foreign policy of "Little Englandism", away from Blair's "rules-based multilateralism". A good thing for some, a lost opportunity for others.

So, while Brown concentrates on the economy and Britain's trade balance, you can be sure Nicolas Sarkozy will be advocating major schemes to the world, such as his Mediterranean Union - with throngs of paparazzi on his tail.

Agnès Poirier is the author of "Touché: a Frenchwoman's take on the English" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.