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Archive for August, 2011

Rick Perry’s manifesto

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post writer I usually don’t pay attention to, has a column today on Rick Perry’s “2010 Tea Party-steeped manifesto, ‘Fed Up!,’ [that] makes George Bush look like George McGovern.” It’s pretty frightening stuff. Particularly as Perry leads the GOP pack in the polls and that certain Very Serious Pundits—to paraphrase Paul Krugman—say could be our next president. It just gets worse and worse for the Republican party. During the Reagan years Richard Nixon started to look not so bad. And during the Bush-Cheney regime, one became nostalgic for Reagan. And now with the Tea Partiers, Reagan looks like a centrist and Nixon a liberal. The wacko Michele Bachmann makes even Sarah Palin look moderate (Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article is a must read, in case anyone missed it).

Back to Perry, in her list of his political horrors, Marcus has this

…Perry’s views on the role of judges may be the most alarming part of “Fed Up!,” given a president’s ability to shape the Supreme Court for decades to come… Perry’s ideas range from wrongheaded to terrifying: requiring federal judges to stand for reappointment and reconfirmation; and letting Congress override the Supreme Court with a two-thirds vote in both houses. This “risks increased politicization of judicial decisions,” Perry allows, “but also has the benefit of letting the people stop the court from unilaterally deciding policy.”

Now, I actually think this is not a bad idea, not all of it at least. The US Constitution has some important flaws, one of which is the lifetime appointment of Supreme Court and federal judges (other flaws include the electoral college and structure of the Senate). To my knowledge the US is the only democracy which does this (e.g. Constitutional Council judges in France are appointed for single nine year terms; Israeli Supreme Court judges have a mandatory retirement age of 70). Given the power of the Supreme Court, its status as an equal branch of government with the executive and legislative, and its effective policy-making role, I can think of no justification for appointing unaccountable justices who serve for decades on end. This seriously undermines both the principle and spirit of representative democracy. It would be eminently reasonable for justices to be appointed to, say, 12-year renewable terms (and with a minimum age of 50, assuring that only those with a long track record in law or politics would qualify), that would be staggered (with nominations coming up every two or three years), and with no possibility of a Senate filibuster. Among other things, this would help remove the political polarization over court nominations, as it would make it difficult to impossible to lock in ideologically slanted majorities for indefinite periods (and also make it nearly impossible for justices like Clarence Thomas—who may end up serving for fifty years—to wreak havoc). It would also offer the possibility of short order reversals of insane Court rulings, such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Such a change is, of course, not likely to happen but I’m surprised that it hasn’t been proposed in the past (unlike the many calls over the years to abolish the electoral college, which is also a near impossibility).

As for Perry’s proposal for a Congressional override of Supreme Court rulings, it would mainly be symbolic, as I doubt it would ever happen (or would have even for Brown v. Board of Education), as Supreme Court rulings are rarely way out of line with the center of gravity of public opinion (or the direction in which public opinion is moving). I don’t have a view on this one. It at least merits debate.

UPDATE: Jonathan Chait of TNR shares my view of  “Rick Perry’s smart court reform.” He also provides details of Perry’s ideas, one of which is staggered terms, which I proposed above. (September 1)

2nd UPDATE: Gail Collins agrees with me about the Republicans getting worse.  In her column (September 7) on the GOP candidates debate she concludes

The debate was at the Reagan library, and no matter what you think of Ronald Reagan, this crew makes him look good. It is the genius of the Republican Party in recent decades that it continually selects candidates who make the ones who went before appear better. Remember how great George H.W. Bush seemed once we’d lived with his son for a while? And I have a strong suspicion that whoever the nominee is this time will make us yearn for the magic that was W.

If Rick Perry is elected next year I shudder to think of the crop of Republican candidates for the 2020 election.

3rd UPDATE: Sally Kohn in The American Prospect says that “by today’s Tea Party standards, [Ronald Reagan] would have been a Leninist-Marxist-socialist America hater.” (September 9)

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DSK’s illness

Michel Rocard has said what needed to be said (for a top-ranked Socialist, at least): Dominique Strauss-Kahn “clearly has a mental illness” that makes it difficult for him to “control his urges” (for the precise wording en français, see the video here). That DSK has a maladie mentale has been the near universal sentiment of the numerous friends and colleagues in town—both women and men—with whom I have discussed the affair since it broke in May. It is also no doubt the prevailing sentiment within the Socialist party, despite the public declarations of its leading figures. In this respect, I differ with my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer, who wrote in TNR last week—in an analysis I otherwise entirely agree with—that the French political elite may try to facilitate a DSK comeback, for his brilliance as an economist at least. I’m not so sure. Socialists may be happy that DSK will be coming home but they are manifestly uncomfortable whenever asked about him by reporters. They offer pro forma declarations of support and then quickly change the subject. Socialists are riveted to the polls like everyone else, know that DSK is now radioactive for the majority of public opinion, that the question of what precisely did happen in Suite 2806 cannot be avoided—DSK will certainly decline to answer it if posed but it will remain the two-ton elephant in the room—, and that his legal problems are not over (Nafissatou Diallo’s civil suit, the suit filed by Tristane Banon, and others that will no doubt come). Even DSK’s closest associates in the PS—e.g. Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, Jean-Marie Le Guen—have moved on politically—to Martine Aubry or François Hollande—and don’t sound like they’ll be rolling out the red carpet on the Rue de Solférino when DSK is back in town. So instead of making a comeback he’ll likely try to fade from public view for a long stretch—do the traversée du désert—and until his legal problems have passed. After that, on verra.

In addition to his TNR piece Art Goldhammer had a fine op-ed in Le Monde comparing the American and French judicial systems. He also had a salutory skewering on his blog of Pascal Bruckner’s asinine commentary on the dénouement of the DSK affair, as well as a critique of Eric Fassin’s conception of the way the American judicial system works.

On DSK’s brilliance as an economist. This is incontestable. It is equally incontestable that he was a first-rate managing director of the IMF. But for the anecdote, I had the occasion to hear him talk about economics in person some five or six years ago, when I dropped by a cours magistral he was giving at Sciences Po, in the Emile Boutmy amphitheater, which was packed. He was slowly pacing back and forth on the stage looking down, holding his chin, and being the savant, explaining comparative advantage and with David Ricardo’s clichéd examples of Portuguese wine trading for English wool. It was Economics 101, which the students had certainly learned in lycée and entirely memorized for the bac. While DSK was lecturing ponderously, the students, being typically French, were yakking among themselves or surfing the Internet on their laptops. DSK, being the typical French teacher, appeared oblivious to the fact that most of the students were not paying attention. It was an amusing spectacle. You had to be there.

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Transylvania Tsoures

Georges Marion, former Le Monde correspondent (in Algiers—where I first met him, in the early ’90s—, Johannesburg, Jerusalem, and Berlin) and editor, has launched a blog (en français), Transylvania Tsoures, inspired by his research into the history of two half-brothers of his who were deported (with their mother) to Auschwitz from Romania during WWII, and whose story was hardly ever spoken about in his family. He thus explained in his first blog entry

J’avais déjà 15 ans lorsqu’au détour d’une photo traînant dans  un tiroir, j’appris par hasard que j’avais eu deux frères nés bien avant ma naissance, d’une mère qui n’était pas la mienne. Les deux enfants, Hermann et Marcel, nés respectivement en 1928 et 1931, avaient été déportés en 1944 de Transylvanie vers Auschwitz en compagnie de leur mère. Personne n’en revint.

Personne n’en parla guère non plus. Jusqu’à ce que je trouve cette photo et demandai quelques explications. Ma mère rosit en admettant qu’elle était au courant de l’épisode puis se détourna. Mon père fut aussi bref, mais il contint son émotion. Et moi je me le tins pour dit.

Cinquante ans plus tard, mes parents morts depuis bien longtemps, j’ai déterré cette vieille histoire qui, discrètement, sans m’empêcher de vivre, avait laissé sa trace. J’ai examiné les rares documents que mon père avait laissés, ai scruté et fait agrandir les photos trouvées ici ou là, suis parti en tâtonnant  à la recherche de témoins éventuels, en France, aux Etats-Unis, en Israël, en Allemagne, en Belgique, en Roumanie enfin.

C’est dans ce dernier pays que je suis revenu en cette fin d’été, à la recherche de documents susceptibles de répondre aux questions soulevées au cours d’une enquête qui touche maintenant à sa fin. Je recherche également d’éventuels témoins mais, compte tenu du temps écoulé, je suis nettement plus sceptique sur mes chances d’y parvenir.

C’est cette dernière étape roumaine qui fait le sujet de ce blog.

BTW, the above photo, “The Last Jews of Rădăuți,” by Laurence Salzmann, has nothing to do with Marion’s blog (and Rădăuți, while in Romania, is not in Transylvania but in neighboring Bukovina). I find it haunting—I’ve had it up in my study for years—and it is related to the blog in a sense, in that most of Rădăuți’s Jews were deported to a death camp in Transnistria during the war. It isn’t too well known but Romania had the largest Jewish population in Europe after the Soviet Union and Poland, close to half of which was exterminated, mainly by the Romanians themselves, not the Germans (unlike France, where the state enacted anti-Semitic laws and zealously executed German requisition orders to round up Jews for deportation, but didn’t do the actual killing). Romanians were the worst perpetrators of the Holocaust after the Germans, and where responsibility was minimized during the communist era and the history covered up. Good luck to Georges Marion in his research.

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Jazzespress

Lloyd Sachs, Chicagoland jazz and film critic extraordinaire (and personal friend), has launched a blog, Jazzespress. Bookmark it.

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British rioters

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

As I’m on holiday and not chez moi—and therefore not at a computer much—I haven’t been able to post much of late. I followed the British riots like everyone and tried to make sense of them. The parallels with the French riots of 2005 are obvious, though there are some notable differences. I’ll write my thoughts at some point, probably when I get back to France. In the meantime, here’s a relevant article I just came across, on how “much of the commentary on the unrest in Britain misses a key point: rioting is fun.” Money quote

There is one important discussion point that did not appear on either list [of the left and the right, as to what prompted the rioters], however: “fun.” Kicking a window in with your boot, flinging rocks at the police, and escaping with a PlayStation 3 is a blast if you’re 18 and hanging about with other bored mates over the hot summer holiday. Violence is intoxicating, especially if you feel yourself a loser in the game of life and it is directed against those you believe have rigged the rules against you. More and more stories are emerging of bragging rights, of boastful escapades, of the revelry that was had by those involved. One smart rioter posted a picture on Facebook of himself grinning, in front of his looted treasure. “It was good fun … showing the police we can do what we want,” said another, drinking wine at 9:30 in the morning.

This type of recreational violence has been noticed elsewhere, especially in the recent Belfast riots, where violence has flared up between rival groups whose members are too young to have experienced the original “Troubles” between Catholics and Protestants. A report by the Institute for Conflict Research found much of the recurrent interface violence in Northern Ireland is a means of entertainment, or more simply of “something to do” — an antidote to the boredom of the summer holidays. Just as in the London student protests earlier this year — and indeed the Arab uprisings — social media allowed people to spread ideas and organize faster than law enforcement could contain them.

This does not negate the left’s preoccupation with social justice or the right’s with individual responsibility. But these are misty, distant causes, clinging to the coattails of adrenaline. Neither left nor right will get anywhere unless they seriously ponder what to do with our army of bored, restless young men — for whom the toxic mix of glamorous violence and disdain for authority is an intransigent part of the subculture. It’s an army for whom meaningless, low-paying jobs contrast unfavorably on a daily basis with just-out-of-reach hyperconsumerism, fed by music, movies, and popular culture. A modern, meaningful equivalent of bread and circuses needs to be found. Both left and right can surely agree on that.

This is certainly an element of riots in France, where the initial spark may be the execrable relations between immigrant-origin youths and the police, resentment over discrimination, exclusion, and all the rest, but where a snowball effect is induced by banlieue gangs outbidding one another and profiting by the momentary absence of state authority to loot, pillage, and just have fun.

On the question of state authority, here’s a piece arguing against the crazy notion on the American right that if British police and looted shopkeepers had been armed à l’américaine, the rioters would have been stopped dead in their tracks, both figuratively and literally. Of course, if the British police and citizenry had been armed, the rioters would have been too, with the sole result that a lot more people would have been killed. Duh. Mais la droite américaine n’en a rien à cirer.

UPDATE: Matthias Matthijs, who teaches at American University and SAIS, has an analysis of the British riots on Foreignaffairs.com, the principal responsibility for which he attributes to “UK PM David Cameron’s failed politics of austerity.”

2nd UPDATE: Joel Kotkin, executive editor of NewGeography.com—and who, politically speaking, may be situated somewhere on the right—, has a most interesting analysis of “The U.K. riots and the coming global class war.”

3rd UPDATE: French social scientist Sophie Body-Gendrot, who knows her subject, weighs in on the “Disorder in world cities” on the OurKingdom website, in which she compares Britain and France.

4th UPDATE: The Economist has a worthwhile article dated September 3rd entitled “A reckoning: The black community wrestles with the causes of the riots.”

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What happened to Obama?

[update below]

Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory University, has an excellent essay on Obama in today’s New York Times. It’s one of the best I’ve read on him. Certain supporters of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary campaign—notably Paul Krugman, John Judis, Sean Wilentz, and Sidney Blumenthal—were essentially saying the same things about Obama at the time. Their views mildly irritated me but I regret to say that they were right. It’s all so sad.

UPDATE: There have been a few liberal critiques of Drew Westen’s essay the past couple of days. This one, by Jonathan Chait, is the best I’ve seen. He makes good points, though I don’t think his critique invalidates the thrust of Westen’s argument.

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I’m presently on holiday, so have been profiting from the farniente to catch up on some movies I’ve missed over the years. Among those I’ve seen in the past few days are two by Abbas Kiarostami, ‘Ten’ and ‘Close-Up’, both of which received top reviews when they came out, to the point where they’re even considered chefs d’oeuvres by certain discerning critics. I’ve now seen some six films by Kiarostami, so can definitively pronounce him to be a crashing bore. His films are tedious, self-indulgent, and nombriliste. My assessment may be a minority one, though I’m pleased to see that at least Roger Ebert, who is “unable to grasp the greatness of Abbas Kiarostami,” agrees with me. Movies may be serious and cerebral but should also be minimally entertaining, or at least hold one’s attention. The only film I remember seeing by Kiarostami that did this was ‘The Report’, and that was back in 1979 (then again, I may be confusing this with Dariush Mehrjui’s ‘The Cycle’; I can’t remember for sure). I’ll see another film or two of his, strictly out of cinephile duty, but don’t imagine that it will alter my viewpoint.

There are other Iranian directors who are far more interesting, e.g. Jafar Panahi, Bahman Ghobadi, Asghar Farhadi… The latter’s latest film, which I posted on recently, is excellent (and has been a big hit in France). Iranian cinema is one of the most interesting in the world these days. But not thanks to Abbas Kiarostami.

Another film I saw the other day was Amos Gitai’s ‘Alila’. It’s the sixth I’ve seen by Gitai, who is sort of the Israeli equivalent of Kiarostami. And like the latter, he is way overrated. The only film he’s done that was incontestably good is ‘Kadosh’. ‘Free Zone’ wasn’t bad, but mainly on account of its three superb actresses, who entirely carried the film. As for the others by Gitai, don’t bother (and avoid ‘Disengagement’ with your life).

On the subject of cinema, I had a post a couple of weeks ago on ‘Beginners’, which I loved. It’s a love story and in several combinations. I like a good movie on love and romance, comme tout le monde. I’ve seen several at the cinema in the past few months and that I recommend. One was a small film from Uruguay, ‘Gigante’, about a shy, overweight security guard in a Montevideo supermarket who develops a crush on one of his co-workers, but with whom he has never spoken. As we learn in the course of the film, they both share a passion for heavy metal music. It’s “a small, unpretentious slice of Uruguayan neo-realism,” is touching, and with a nice ending. It received good reviews in both the US and France.

Another in the genre is an equally small film from Albania, ‘Amnistia’, about a woman and man in Tirana whose respective spouses are in prison (for non-violent violations of the law related to the desperate economic situation of ordinary Albanians). They meet and stuff happens, but it ends tragically due to ancestral Balkan traditions. I wasn’t sure about the ending but it’s worth seeing. Here’s one review.

Then there’s this Argentinian film, ‘La mirada invisible’, set in an elite Buenos Aires high school in the early ’80s, during the junta. It’s not so much about love as obsession (sexual), repression (sexual and political), and violence (also sexual and political). As with the above, I can’t say I liked the ending but it’s worth seeing. And the lead actress, Julieta Zylberberg, is excellent. Voilà two reviews.

Finally, and for the record, there’s the Israeli film ‘Naomi’, set in Haifa, about a beautiful 28-year old who is married to a homely but famous 60-year old professor. She has a secret lover closer to her age—and far better looking than the husband—, the husband finds out and is consumed by jealousy—despite his fame and the fact that his wife remains committed to him—, and ends up doing something terrible. The theme is not extremely original and the marriage—of her attraction and devotion to him—didn’t make a lot of sense to me but as the movie held my attention throughout—and had an unexpected ending—I’ll recommend it.

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French newspapers and the union

The Economist has an article on the looming battle in the French press, between Le Monde—one of the world’s great daily newspapers—and the powerful print union, the SGLCE-CGT (known familiarly as the CGT du Livre). I’ve always been a big supporter of labor unions—in the private sector; as for public sector unions, it depends—but in this case am 100% with “the bosses” and hope the union is smashed. Totally and definitively. The CGT du Livre is a pernicious organization and bears heavy responsibility for the precarious state of French daily newspapers, whose production costs are among the highest in the Western world and survive mainly thanks to indirect subsidies from the state (i.e. the French taxpayer). But this is not a fatality. It doesn’t have to be this way. The situation is due to a little known anomaly in French trade unionism. In France it is an overlooked fact—and is no doubt unknown to foreign journalists (and maybe even academics) who cover the country—that the CGT du Livre is in reality not a union at all, and despite its name and affiliation with the larger CGT. It is a corporation (in English, a guild). Labor unions in France are protected by legislation—and which mandates collective bargaining in unionized enterprises—but France, like the American South, is a right-to-work country. French workers cannot be compelled to join a union. The very idea that someone could be obliged to join an association—and a dues paying one to boot—against his or her will is shocking to the individualistic French sensibility (and that includes leftists). Moreover, there is no monopoly of union representation in French workplaces. Several unions are invariably present, compete for members, and may be more or less confrontational or cooperative with management. Unions may form a bloc against management or may be divided, with one or more collaborating with the latter (Pete Seeger’s “Solidarity Forever” is often a vœu pieux in French workers’ struggles). And when a strike is called not only can unions not compel the personnel to follow it but can’t even make their own members do so. The right to strike is inscribed in the French Constitution (as part of the preamble) but it is exercised individually—as an individual choice—, not collectively. For these reasons French unions have long had among the lowest membership numbers percentage-wise in the Western world, with one consequence being that French workers have depended more on legislation for protection and benefits than on collective bargaining agreements (as in Germany and the Scandinavian countries).

The CGT du Livre falls outside of this. It enjoys a special status, granted by General de Gaulle at the end of the war and for various reasons, that may have had a logic at the time—one being to mollify the French Communist party (PCF), that other great pernicious organization, which was powerful at the time but is now thankfully irrelevant—but do no longer. The CGT du Livre was organically linked to the PCF until the ’90s—and was a cash cow for the party—and the informal ties remain. Under its special status the CGT du Livre enjoys a monopoly of representation in its branch, is a closed shop—i.e. employees are obliged to be members—, controls access—i.e. it hires the workers (the company has no say in the matter)—, and essentially defines the rules and functioning of the profession. It enjoys a whole panoply of privileges and benefits—among them a special pension regime—and exceptionally high salaries. The entry level salary for a member of the union is around €30,000, which is high for France (and certainly higher than that for an entry level journalist). There is no economic justification whatever for this. The CGT du Livre is not only the aristocracy of the working class but its royalty too. And, of course, the CGT du Livre can call a strike at the drop of a hat, for reasons that are often incomprehensible to outsiders—and that would be illegal in most other advanced democracies—, and worsen the financial state of the already precarious daily press (including left-wing papers, such as Libération, that are on the edge of bankruptcy). And the CGT du Livre’s workers have on occasion behaved like outright thugs, using physical intimidation in its parochial conflicts and with impunity. But as it is, in effect, a corporation (guild) and not a syndicat (union), it is useful to recall that one of the early acts of the French Revolution was to abolish the corporations (via the 1791 Loi Le Chapelier), which had dominated economic life under the Ancien régime. As is well-known, corporatist-type arrangements—notably for pensions—came back through the side door in the early and mid-20th century, but no union has enjoyed the status of the CGT du Livre. It is high time to invoke the spirit of the French Revolution and put an end to the irresponsible, selfish CGT du Livre. Here’s to the management of Le Monde in its upcoming struggle.

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Anne & Dominique

I had no intention of posting anything more on the DSK affair until there was something new and noteworthy, but see that New York magazine has a lengthy piece on Anne Sinclair, “The Womanizer’s Wife,” which is not too bad. Two passages merit comment, one quoting my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer

As their marriage evolved, Sinclair was Strauss-Kahn’s chief adviser and sounding board—but that’s not all. She also provided funds for Strauss-Kahn’s campaigns, including a large apartment on Rue Laplanche for a campaign headquarters, the secretaries, the website, the publicity account with Euro RSCG. “Strauss-Kahn is widely considered intelligent and often described as brilliant, but when you look back on it, he hasn’t had such a stellar political career,” says Arthur Goldhammer, an affiliate at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. “The fact is that the element that has put him at the top of the heap politically is his wife’s money. Euro RSCG has four staff members, I’ve heard, assigned to keeping him in the news. He has been able to campaign more or less permanently for almost twenty years.”

Art Goldhammer is quite right about DSK’s modest political career, which electorally has involved but a couple of terms as deputy from Sarcelles plus a short stint as mayor of the same. No great shakes. His national political reputation was mainly earned as Minister of Industy and Foreign Trade (1991-93), when I first heard about him, and above all as Minister of Economy and Finance (1997-99) in Lionel Jospin’s gauche plurielle government. Though his ministerial career was suddenly cut short on account of the ridiculous Cassette Méry affair—which turned out to be nothing at all—he earned high marks at Bercy and was considered even on the right as having been one of the best finance ministers France had had since at least the early ’70s. I certainly thought so, though revised my view somewhat after reading this not entirely flattering biography from 2000 (which focused on his public, not private, life). I still remained a strauss-kahnien though, malgré tout. But in terms of his electoral mandates and leadership positions in the PS, DSK could not boast the same record as other party éléphants, such as Laurent Fabius, Martine Aubry, or even François Hollande. And he did get annihilated (along with Fabius) by Ségolène Royal in the 2006 PS primary.

As for the second passage in the article meriting comment

After all, Sinclair was desperate to leave D.C. and wanted the presidency for him more than anything. In Strauss-Kahn, Sinclair saw the ultimate candidate. Her commitment to Judaism had deepened, and when her father passed away, she even decided that she would recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, or the Prayer for the Dead, for him. “My father did not have a son, so I took on the responsibility,” she has said. “Every day for a year, I visited the synagogue to recite the Kaddish, accompanied by my mother.” According to friends, she always wanted to prove that, more than 75 years after Léon Blum became France’s first Jewish prime minister, the French would again be willing to elect a Jew. Such a thing was worth the sacrifice, because it would make for une formidable revanche sur l’histoire—a revenge on history.

This is not a revelation. We already knew this about Anne S., of her pushing her husband to run and wanting to see him, as a Jew, elected Président de la République, to get that revenge on history. Well, I totally sympathized with this. The symbolism of a Jew in the Élysée—as opposed to merely prime minister, who is not directly elected—would have been as powerful as Obama, a person of color, winning the American presidency. And it would have likely happened (and bothered fewer Frenchmen than the not insignificant minority of Americans who still cannot abide the sight of a non-white man in the White House). We won’t get to see that next year, which is too bad.

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That’s one of the slogans they were chanting at the big demo in Tel Aviv last Saturday, for more social and economic justice in Israel. Watch here.

UPDATE: From TNR, “What Caused the Current Wave of Economic Protests Across Israel?”

2nd UPDATE: Shlomo Avineri has a nice commentary in Haaretz, on how “social protestors represent real Zionism.” The money quote: “Theodor Herzl was not a socialist but he understood well that a revolutionary enterprise like Zionism could not succeed if it was to be solely based on the capitalist market model.”

 

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