Show Hide image

Call it a load of old bull

Bad banks, troubled assets and securitised loans – such linguistic tricks just add to the madness of

Euphemisms, by their nature, are supposed to plaster over unpleasant truths. In my adopted home town of New Orleans, a city known for its straight talking, the estate agents have lately taken to renaming the little residen­ces at the backs of main houses - long known by their truthful name, "slave quarters" - as "dependency units". The mind rebels.

I always thought of the economic and financial worlds as similarly resistant to euphemising. We had bulls and bears, of course, but those were metaphorical caricatures of real attitudes. Most of the jargon of the money world was, if anything, mind-numbingly literal: puts and calls, debentures and debt. But that all changed during the recent madness, a madness that may have been exacerbated by the looseness of the language.

This was a time, after all, when financial services began to be called "products". Conventional thinking would suggest that if I lend you money I haven't given you a product; I've afforded you (temporarily) the means to purchase products or services. But that was the term financial firms, insurance companies and banks started to use to refer to what they were offering.

Did it make people in these enterprises feel more muscular, less nurturing? Was it a linguistic farewell wave to a manufacturing economy, disappearing just as finance took centre stage? Seemingly innocuous, this change naturally led, as it did in the world of actual products, to an important next step: product innovation. Loans are loans, but a loan product seems awfully lonely up there on the shelf, all by itself. It needed some friends, some fellow products. Some friends.

Enter Ninas, home loans that required from their prospective borrowers "no income, no assets". Like the other loan "products", they had something in common with their manufactured brethren: once sold, they left the purview of their sellers. As with products, future responsibility for them was farmed out to someone else, preferably in Bangalore. Calling these things products made it possible, maybe even mandatory, to treat them as such. The only "service" left in the equation was the "servicing" of the loans, which itself was a euphemism for collecting.

Calling these loans Ninas feminised them, made them seem cute, charming, a little naughty, perhaps, but not criminal. Just as referring to the whole class of loans as "sub-prime" avoided the unpleasantness of the reality that they were junk. It's like describing someone on his deathbed as "sub-well".

When things started going bad, the language started getting even cuter. A year ago, we were told that the main cause of the crisis was the crushing burden of "toxic assets" - home mortgages lent to borrowers who could afford to pay them off just as soon as pigs filed flight plans. That's why three-quarters of a trillion dollars went from the US treasury into the Troubled Assets Relief Programme, or TARP (reassuring, isn't it? A safe plastic covering, in capital letters), supposedly to get these toxic assets off the books of the banks. In fact, entirely something else happened with the money, and with the language. While the federal funds became a simple cash infusion into favoured banks, the word "toxic" was nudged aside in favour of "troubled". Really. The assets were now to be seen as delinquent youths, their faces smudged with dirt, their clothes tattered but their souls still full of potential. It wasn't really their fault. They didn't need to be wiped off the books, just . . . understood.

Where were those assets supposed to go? Many officials proposed the notion of a "bad bank". Again, just a miscreant, like the dog that poops on the living-room carpet. Bad bank! Sit over there in a corner and think about those stinky mortgages you're collecting! It's a rolled-up newspaper to your noggin if you try it again. Of course, the main thrust of this particular euphemistic gambit was a brave attempt to convince us that there was, by contrast, such a thing as a good bank. Nice try.

When you want your euphemising to be particularly opaque, you go French. Hence, "tranche". Look it up and the dictionary will tell you it means "slice", but that sounds like something that's done in a delicatessen, parcelling out thin portions of pastrami to the waiting rye bread. That's not what sophisticated gents (and ladies) in bespoke suitings do inside Important Offices. The desired effect of tranche was to induce a tranche-like state, in which investors would come to assume that the people slicing up pieces of bad mortgages actually knew what they were doing.

This leads us to "securitising", which is to securing as "believitising" is to believing. In fact, believitising would be the creation of exactly the level of credulity this stuff called for; unfortunately, nobody bothered to coin that word until just now. The essence of securitising was persuading the financial ratings companies, by means as yet unknown, that a collection of slices of crappy mortgages (or a slice of a collection, take your pick) could be an AAA-grade investment. Those letters are themselves a kind of linguistic shorthand, as what they're really saying is: "Of course, this posits a new scale on which, if securitised mortgage packages are AAA, a truly secure investment would be ratedAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA+++." That is, it would be ratingised.

When the market tumbled a year ago, there was an uptick within a few weeks. That started a discussion about whether or not this was a "dead cat bounce", the short-lived surge upward before the destined plummeting resumes. When I first heard the phrase, I thought it was the name of a particularly inelegantly titled 1940s dance tune. But no, it's an example of financial malphemism, in which a mere reversal of market direction is depicted as an act of cruelty to animals - the dropping of an expired (or soon-to-be-expired) feline for the purpose of measuring gravity's effect on its air-worthiness. The deliberate crudity of the phrase probably reflects its origins among short-sellers and their contempt for any sign of hope.

Which brings us to the pedlars of positive thinking, among whom "green shoots" have contended with "glimmers of hope" as the optimistic usage of choice. "Green shoots" implies an organic process of growth, outside human control, but dependent on the season. "Glimmers" are more promising, requiring neither a green thumb nor the right time of year to make their appearance. This phrase has been a par­ticular favourite of the US treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. Visualising these glimmers became for him almost an evangelical enterprise. Were they just an aurora geithnerealis, or were they signs of a true recovery? Don't ask, brothers and sisters, just believe.

And then there is the word tossed around blithely by CEOs and financial journalists alike, designed to drain all the dread out of one of the most frightening consequences of economic slowdown. That word is "shed" - not as in the little building out back where you keep your tools, but as in what prudent companies do to jobs. We've not been experiencing the widespread throwing of people out of work recently, just the shedding of jobs.
The word makes the process sound all National Geographic, like what snakes do with their skins every whenever. But its progress has not yet led it to the scene of the actual transaction: "Bill, we value your contribution to the company over the years. I'm sorry, but we're going to have to shed you." No, "let you go" still is the go-to euphemism. Which raises the question: "But what if I don't want to go?" We're still letting you do it.

Contemplating these linguistic tricks inspired me. I have written songs around them, including "Bad Bank", "Troubled Assets", "Dead Cat Bounce" and "Glimmers of Hope". They appear online as part of a collection of compositions about the meltdown, named after the two contending forces in stock markets: Greed and Fear. It was an act not so much of composing, frankly, as of songitising.

Harry Shearer plays more than 12 characters in "The Simpsons" and was Derek Smalls in "This is Spinal Tap". For more information, visit his website.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George

Getty
Show Hide image

The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.