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Archive for October, 2011

DSK: the end

Le Monde this weekend has an article on Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s now erstwhile hardcore supporters, who have abandoned him in droves following the denouement of the Tristane Banon affair—where Mlle Banon’s version of what happened was confirmed—and the latest revelations of DSK’s eventual implication in group sex rings with prostitutes, some of whom may have been legal minors, and which are under judicial investigation (see here, here, and here). Really sleazy stuff. And all while he was managing director of the IMF and preparing his run for the French presidency… No one believes DSK’s denials anymore. BHL, Jack Lang, Robert Badinter & Co are nowhere to be seen on this; even Anne Sinclair now seems to be pulling away, remaining in their sumptuous riad in Marrakech while her husband cools his heels alone at their equally sumptuous flat on the Place des Vosges. Ex-strauss-kahniens are feeling bitter, angry, and betrayed, and say they want nothing more to do with their former hero. I feel no sympathy whatever for them. I first started to hear stories about DSK in the mid-90s, and I was hardly well-introduced in political circles at the time. They’re like the French intellectuals who “discovered” the horrors of the Stalin era and the realities of Soviet communism only in the 1970s, after the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. As if nothing in Solzhenitysn’s oeuvre hadn’t been known for decades. Des histoires bien françaises…

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Poulet aux prunes

‘Chicken with Plums’ in English. Saw it yesterday. It’s the second film by Franco-Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, whose first was the excellent ‘Persepolis‘ (both co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud). It’s a wonderful film, which grew on me as it progressed and the story came together.  Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety gets it exactly right. This review too, as well as this one, though I differ with the latter on the impossible love story between the main character Nasser Ali—played Mathieu Amalric, who’s excellent as always—and the young Irâne—perfectly cast with the beautiful, sublime Golshifteh Farahani—, which I found effective and very moving.  One of the best films of the year. À ne pas manquer.

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[update below]

A very interesting op-ed by Daniel Yergin in The Washington Post, on the future of the world oil market. This is one of those rare op-eds where one learns something new and important. No one knows the subject better than Yergin. I read his book on the history of oil, The Prize, some fifteen years ago. A great read. One of these days I’ll get around to the sequel, which came out just last month.

UPDATE: Chrystia Freeland, global editor at Reuters, has an analysis in the NYT of “the coming oil boom.” And Walter Russell Mead has a post on his blog on “what [the US] should…do with all this new energy.” (August 10, 2012)


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Tunisia: Al-Aridha al-Chaabia

The definitive results of the Tunisian election have yet to be announced, now three days after the polls closed. Until we have the final numbers I will refrain from engaging in commentary or analysis, except to say that I am favorably impressed by the way things look so far (as of midday Wednesday CEST), notably by the unexpectedly (for me) strong showing of the secular parties (secular being shorthand here for non-Islamist and non-conservative). Ennahda is the no. 1 party by far—hardly a surprise—but looks like it will fall well short of an absolute majority of seats, necessitating a coalition with non-Islamist formations.

Well, maybe. One of the surprises of Sunday’s vote is the exceptionally high score obtained by a party called Al-Aridha al-Chaabia lil-Adalaa wal-Hourria wal-Tanmia (Popular Petition for Justice, Freedom, and Development), which is holding third place with 25 seats (of 217), winning seats in 20 of the 27 constituencies (plus one for Tunisians abroad), and doing particularly well in Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid governorates. In some polling stations in Sidi Bouzid—where the revolution started—, Al-Aridha received 90% of the vote. This is all a surprise because the party was ignored during the campaign and with practically no non-Tunisians outside the country having ever even heard of it. It was completely off the radar screen, mentioned nowhere in the media and figuring in no public opinion poll. And it was not mentioned in the ICG’s most recent report on Tunisia. Al-Aridha is so obscure that there is no Wikipedia entry on it even in Arabic, let alone French or English. When I and others following the election first saw the party’s name and its high score, the reaction was WTF? who are they?? One Tunisian analyst wrote yesterday that “not even Nostradamus would have predicted such a success” for Al-Aridha. As Al-Aridha’s bloc of seats could hold the balance of power in the Constituent Assembly—allied with Ennahda, it would give the latter the majority without having to depend on the established secular parties—, the question is not impertinent.

This is particularly so as the first bits of information hinted that Al-Aridha could have an Islamist orientation. As one learns, the party is entirely the creation of an operator named Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, a ouled el bled from Sidi Bouzid who owns and runs the Al-Mustakilla satellite television station based in London, where he has lived since the ’90s. He was indeed an activist in the Islamist MTI—Ennahda’s predecessor—from the late ’70s to 1992, when he quit the movement. But he remained an Islamist of sorts in the ’90s, during which time he was apparently close to Sudan’s Hassan al-Turabi. Like Turabi, Elhachmi Hamdi is an intellectual and with solid academic credentials, having defended a doctoral thesis in 1996 at the University of London on Ennahda and the politicization of Islam, and which was published by Westview Press in 2000. He was likewise a contributor to a forum on Islam and liberal democracy in the April 1996 issue of the Journal of Democracy (published by the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington), where he critiqued the contributions of Bernard Lewis and Robin Wright (see here and here). In his JOD piece Elhachmi Hamdi let it be known that he was the translator for Robin Wright in an interview she conducted with Rached Ghannouchi in Washington five years earlier.

But during the ’90s Elhachmi Hamdi had an in fact become a supporter of Ben Ali—which was one reason he quit Ennahda—and regularly defended the regime on Al-Jazeera at the time. Then, for obscure reasons, he broke with Ben Ali around 2001 and turned Al-Mustakilla into a leading platform for regime opponents. Secular opponents, such as Sihem Bensidrine, Taoufik Ben Brik, Mokhtar Trifi, Mohamed Charfi, Khemais Chemmari, and Mohamed Mouada, among others, whose interviews and declarations on the network drove the regime up the tree (Elhachmi Hamdi received numerous threats at the time). But in another 180° flip, Elhachmi Hamdi reconciled with Ben Ali in 2002 and once again sang his praises, as well as those of First Lady Leïla Trabelsi. In return, he was apparently granted certain facilities for pursuing business ventures, including launching a private TV station to be based in Hammamet (I have no information on what happened with that). A man of principle, that Elhachmi Hamdi…

His campaign for this election was waged entirely from London via Al-Mustakilla, with Elhachmi Hamdi—speaking in his accent du terroir—engaging in the most shameless populism, promising to turn Tunisia into an “Eldorado in 90 days,” with the creation of 500,000 jobs, universal health care, free public transportation, and other monts et merveilles. Immediately, as of November 1, 2011. All this would be financed via a surtax on air tickets and enlisting famous Tunisian football players to raise money through charities and organizing festivals, among other schemes. Dr. Elhachmi Hamdi sounds more like a cross between Herman Cain and Ross Perot than Rached Ghannouchi or Hassan al-Turabi. It obviously worked for his party and him personally, as he won a seat from Sidi Bouzid (for sources on all this, see here, here, here, here, and here).

The fact that Elhachmi Hamdi waged his campaign from abroad, via foreign-based media, and with sources of financing of uncertain origin may result in his entire list being invalidated for violations of the electoral code (see here, here, and here). I have learned since starting this post that the official announcement of the election results has been delayed to November 9th. The invalidation question is no doubt the main reason why. If Al-Aridha’s list is invalidated, it will considerably alter the distribution of seats in one direction or another. This is a big deal.

UPDATE: Today’s Le Figaro has an article on the subject. It mentions Elhachmi Hamdi’s wealth. As to how a ouled el bled from Sidi Bouzid gets rich like that…

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A question for libertarians

Paul Krugman has a typically excellent, on target column today, on the GOP’s proposals to weaken environmental regulations as a way of creating jobs. Krugman, in rubbishing the batty proposals, correctly labels the GOP the “party of pollution.” I’ve in fact been thinking about pollution since visiting Los Angeles two months ago. It was my first time in L.A.—a cool and interesting city IMO—in over thirty years. I didn’t think much about the air quality there, which didn’t seem worse than any other large American or European city I’ve visited in recent times. As practically everyone I know in California is originally from somewhere else, they couldn’t speak about the past there, but I did meet precisely two L.A. natives of my generation, who grew up there in the ’60s and ’70s, and talked about the city’s legendary smog. It was worse than bad. There were days when one could hardly go outside, weeks on end when one never saw the San Gabriel Mountains because of the smog cover. As I have learned, the worst decades were the 1940s through the ’60s (e.g. see here). In October 1954 L.A. schools were closed for the whole month and children kept home due to the health hazard presented by the smog.

The L.A. smog situation has improved dramatically over the past four decades, of course, thanks to the panoply of Clean Air Acts and other environmental laws and regulations, enacted or decreed at both the federal and state level. And the population of the L.A. metro area is rather larger now than it was then, and with that many more cars. It was likewise elsewhere. The air pollution in Paris was terrible in the 1970s; there are still bad days in the summer but the overall situation nowadays is far improved. Ankara, Turkey, where I lived for several years in the late ’60s-early ’70s, had one of the worst air pollution problems in the world at the time. The city is in a valley ringed by hills and where all buildings were heated by coal. Ankara was a truly awful place to live in the winter. In the 1980s the government made the decision to switch to natural gas. Consequence: greatly reduced pollution (and a much more liveable city). Reason: state regulation.

My question to libertarians—and to anti-government Tea Party GOP types more generally—after my L.A. visit is this: if they had their way and government got out of the business of environmental regulation—and with clean air and other such acts repealed in the interest of an unfettered free market, not to mention abolishing subsidies for mass transit—, what do they think would happen pollution-wise? If there were a return to the smog status quo ante—an inevitability, one would presume—what would they propose doing about it, if anything? Just asking.

ADDENDUM: I have learned just now (October 21) that California regulators have adopted new limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Good for you, California!

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I’ve already asked this question in a couple of posts over the past few months. Now we have the beginnings of an answer with the first head-to-head Sarkozy-Hollande poll since the PS primary. It’s too bad it had to come out on the day Sarko is celebrating the arrival of his newborn, as the numbers are not good for him, to put it mildly. In the 2nd round, Hollande gets 64%, Sarko 36. You read that right. Check it out here. Okay, it’s just one poll and the 1st round is still six months away. But still. These are devastating numbers for Sarkozy. It’s going to be tough for him to claw his way even into the 40s, let alone to 50.01%. It’s a very steep hill to climb. Without a game changer or accident it’s just not going to happen. The Elysée and UMP may not be panicking yet but they will be soon if the numbers don’t start to move up. If Sarko is still below or around 40% at the end the year, the pressure on him from the UMP to pull out of the race will be intense. Alain Juppé is getting ready, no doubt about it.

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From the West Bank

David Shulman of Ta’ayush has a two part must read report from the West Bank on the NYRB web site (here and here). The second part recounts the outrageous behavior of the settlers—not just religious fanatics but also seculars—who go about their despicable deeds with seeming impunity. Read it and fume.

In the first part of his report, Shulman asserts that

 If there is ever to be a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, it had better happen quickly, before there’s no land left to be returned to its rightful owners. No one who has seen Israeli policy toward Palestinians and the institutions of the occupation in action can have any doubt that they are directed to one overriding goal—a land-grab of truly astonishing proportions.

This seems pretty obvious. Even if negotiations don’t culminate in a full-fledged permanent peace agreement—which is out of reach at the present time and probably for the foreseeable future—they could at least conclude with a long-term interim agreement—such as argued most lately by Shlomo Avineri—that would put an end to land confiscation and the cancer of settlement expansion. This would still have to be negotiated by the Palestinian Authority and Israel, though, and the former has been refusing to return to the negotiating table until the latter unilaterally halts settlement construction, including in East Jerusalem. No one has ever accused the Palestinians of being excellent strategists but this I really cannot comprehend. The PA’s refusal to negotiate in no way inconveniences Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, not to mention the rest of that governing coalition. The PA’s rhetoric on this is music to their ears. And à propos, Salam Fayyad, the paragon of moderation, reiterated just yesterday in Washington “that conditions are not ripe, at this juncture, for a meaningful resumption of talks”… Read it and weep.

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Drive

When I first saw the posters for this I thought it was a car chase action film for an age cohort far younger than mine. It is indeed that, sort of—and is exceptionally violent to boot—, but is quite good. Riveting. American critics have labeled it a “European art-house film.” And Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn did win the Best Director prize for it at Cannes this year. It seems to be over the heads of the car chase action film crowd, who apparently hate it. US reviews have been very good (though not Ken Turan’s in the LA Times; can’t win ‘em all), French reviews are stellar. And I thought the understated, minimalist love story between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan (who’s perfect for the role) was electric. Thumbs up!

ADDENDUM: The opening song, “Nightcall” by Kavinsky, is great!

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Le 17 octobre 1961

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Paris massacre of October 17, 1961, when dozens of peaceful Algerian demonstrators were murdered by the police in Paris and surrounding banlieues, and with many thousands more brutalized and tortured. It was one of the darkest days in postwar French history. According to the British historians Jim House & Neil MacMaster—authors of the best book on the subject in English—up to two hundred unarmed Algerians were killed by the Paris police—who were at the time under the command of the notorious Prefect of Police for Paris, Maurice Papon—on October 17 and in the preceding weeks. During the Algerian war and the decade the followed it, books and films on the event were subject to censorship, so what happened on the night of October 17, 1961, was hushed up and largely ignored by the French public, including the educated classes and those who were old enough to remember at the time. This situation has changed considerably over the past two decades, with the proliferation of books and films on the subject, including this first-rate feature length film from 2005 and these two documentaries here and here, which will be released in the cinema on Wednesday. And the annual commemorations of the event are now receiving increased media attention. I missed today’s in Paris, at the memorial plaque to the events on the Île de la Cité at the Pont-Saint-Michel—where mayor Bertrand Delanoë gave an address—, but stopped by a few hours later. Also came across par hasard on the Boulevard Poissonnière preparations for a commemorative march in the early evening (see photos below). As for articles in English they seem mainly to be in the far left press, e.g. this—authored by a London-based Algerian journalist in London whom I met at the Pont-Saint-Michel today—and this.

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PS primary 2

So it’s François Hollande. No surprise. I expected him to win but seeing his score in the polling place I worked today—56%, identical to what he got nationally—I knew at 7:30 PM that his victory would be big. Martine Aubry gave a gracious concession speech and the unity scene at the Rue de Solférino—with Aubry, joined by Ségolène Royal, Manuel Valls, Arnaud Montebourg, Laurent Fabius, Pierre Moscovici, and Harlem Désir, among others (no DSK, the taboo man)—showed that the Socialists are indeed united. Hollande’s speech at the Maison de l’Amérique Latine on the Boulevard Saint-Germain—a stone’s throw from the Rue de Solférino—was very good. Hollande will be a solid candidate. There will be no significant divisions among the Socialists during the campaign. Everyone will be behind their candidate. The left wants so badly to beat Sarkozy. Hollande’s landslide victory gives him total legitimacy, and all the more so as he incarnates the mainstream of the PS and was its First Secretary for eleven years. I’ll have more to say about all this, of course. For now, I will simply assert that barring a game changer or accident over the next six months, François Hollande will be France’s President of the Republic next May.

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Ghannouchi in Paris

Elections to the new constituent assembly in Tunisia are set for next Sunday. Voting in the Tunisian immigrant community in France—which has its own constituencies and candidate lists—begins on Wednesday and will last through Friday. This afternoon there was an election rally at a large meeting hall in Montreuil, a banlieue of Paris, in which several parties parties participated, notably Moncef Marzouki’s CPR, Ettakatol, the PDP, and Ennahda. The first three are laïque opposition parties of the Ben Ali era and Ennahda is, of course, Islamist. There were several hundred people in the hall, all Tunisian immigrants (my friend and I looked to be the only non-Tunisians there apart from a couple of cameramen) and with most of the women wearing headscarves. The parties sent members of their leaderships from Tunis plus the local candidates, except for Ennahda, which was represented by Rached Ghannouchi himself. To say that he was the star of the rally would be an understatement. The speakers of the other parties received polite applause but when Ghannouchi made his entry the hall was on its feet. He spoke for some twenty minutes (the rule, which he respected). It was all in Arabic—there was almost no French spoken at the rally—so I didn’t catch 100% of what was said but got the essential. Ghannouchi is a dynamic speaker and was moderate sounding. Spoke about protecting liberty; that Tunisia will be open to the whole world—as Islam enjoins openness—, including Europe; asserted that non-hijab wearing women have nothing to worry about (he specified that two of Ennahda’s lists in Tunis are headed by unveiled women), that Tunisians of all religions are united (he specifically mentioned Jews here)… On the recent brouhaha over the film ‘Persepolis’, he reserved his criticism for the TV station that aired it… After Ghannouchi finished—with the hall once again on its feet—, most people headed for the exit, even though the event wasn’t over.

And this was in Paris. It has been clear since this process started in the spring that Ennahda is destined for a solid first-place finish on October 23rd. Polls, for what they’re worth, are predicting that Ennahda will win over 30% of the vote. I’ve been predicting somewhere in the 40-45% range. After this afternoon, I wouldn’t be surprised if they break 50%. Rached Ghannouchi & Co are headed toward a big landslide, no doubt about it. This is one instance where I will be most happy to be wrong in my prediction but don’t think I will be. A new Tunisia is in the making. Get ready for it.

I took some photos with my mobile phone, which weren’t too good. Here are a few.

Ghannouchi speaking.

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Blackthorn

I see that this opened in the US two weeks ago. I saw it here last month. It’s a sort of sequel to ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, based on the “discovery” that the two were in fact not killed at the end of that one. In this, set in the mid-1920s in Bolivia (where the film was shot), Butch is now thinking about returning to America, except that he’s still on the run and living under an assumed identity. US reviews have been mixed—they were better in France—but I liked it (and my cinephile friend with whom I saw it did too). It’s beautifully shot—tourism to Bolivia, which has some spectacular landscape, will no doubt spike—, well acted, and entertaining. And Sam Shepard is looking good as he pushes seventy.

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Exodus

I never did read the book—unlike just about everyone else of my generation—though do seem to remember seeing the movie on television. I thought the book was pretty much forgotten, an artifact of the 1960s, but now learn that Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, has been going around claiming that Leon Uris was commissioned to write it by a public relations firm. Khalidi’s fellow historian Martin Kramer was intrigued and looked into the matter. He rubbished it. Reduced Khalidi to smithereens. Laid waste to him. Good work, Marty.

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John Judis has a review essay in TNR on Ron Suskind’s new book on the Obama White House. Not a pretty picture. The eye-grabbing title on the TNR home page reads “Obama has no one to blame for his failed presidency but himself.” Alas.

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My blogging confrère, Arthur Goldhammer, watched yesterday’s Aubry-Hollande debate and was somewhat less impressed than I. He critiques in particular the excessive policy wonkishness of the two and the lack of a grand, presidential vision. I made much the same point the other day, though in fairness to the candidates they were simply responding to the questions put to them by the journalists. And they are énarques, after all. Policy is what they do. One is not going to get poetry from these two. (And if the one known énarque-poète, Dominique de Villepin, is anything to go by, one should be thankful that Aubry and Hollande haven’t tried their hand at it).  Thomas Legrand at France Inter had the same sentiment this morning in re to the wonkishness of the debate.

Art Goldhammer concludes his commentary by contrasting the French Socialists with the US Republicans

P.S. A comparison of last night’s Socialist debate with the previous night’s Republican Party debate in the US is enough to make one weep for America. The French debaters may have been a little too intelligent, a little too well-informed, but the Republicans ranged from the ignorant (Rick Perry placed the American Revolution in the 16th c.) to the deplorable. What a contrast. Mitt Romney might last 15 minutes in a French debate format; the rest of them would be laughed off the stage.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. But one thing. If Mitt Romney is elected next year—God forbid—he will be the first American French-speaking president since FDR (in fact, he’ll be the first American president since FDR who speaks a foreign language fluently, period). But while Romney speaks French he apparently came away from his late-’60s Mormon missionary stint in France hating the country. One can imagine the chemistry between a President Romney and Présidente Aubry. Talk about a clash of civilizations…


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PS debate 4

Reaction à chaud to the Martine Aubry-François Hollande debate, which finished in the past hour. It was an excellent debate. Both were very good, as expected, well spoken and showing a mastery of the issues. In my commentary on the third debate I wrote that policy wonkishness is not called for in a presidential election. It is true that in the French system this is what a prime minister needs more than a Président de la République, but it is still good and reassuring to see that the latter has a technical understanding of policy. As I said yesterday in my analysis of the primary, there are no fundamental political differences between Aubry and Hollande. But there are nuances and differences at the margins in their current discourse, and as we saw in tonight’s debate. On the economy Hollande gives priority to debt reduction, whereas Aubry, though not minimizing the importance of drawing down the debt, emphasizes job creation and economic growth. If Paul Krugman were watching, he’d give the thumbs up to Aubry. Me too. Aubry also played up her links with European socialist and social democratic parties, and her extensive relationships with their leaders. Hollande of course knows his European counterparts but Aubry seems to be more embedded in epistemic EU political and policy networks. And she stressed that she would meet with Angela Merkel as soon as she’s elected. A good sign to symbolically emphasize the partnership with Germany. I voted for Hollande in last Sunday’s first round but now think I’ll switch to Aubry in the second. She’s really very good. I’ll be happy if either wins but more so if it’s her.

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Le Monde and the union

Today is the third day running that Le Monde has not appeared in hard copy, due to a strike by a part of the personnel at its printing plant. One can read it online but it’s not the same as having it in paper. The financial prejudice to the paper is considerable, of course, and this is the first time in its history that it has not been able to appear on the news kiosks following an election result and with another coming up the following weekend. I first read about the impending labor conflict two months ago, which prompted me to write a post on the specific problems of trade unionism in French daily newspapers. I’m posting it again here.

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PS primary

Here’s my instant analysis of the primary, 48 hours late. I was an assesseur titulaire all day Sunday in a bureau de vote in my middle-class, majority right-wing banlieue. It was already clear from the morning turnout that the primary was going to be a success, of up to 3 million nationally. I had pretty much predicted this, in view of the high interest provoked by the debates and just talking with people beforehand. Arnaud Montebourg was of course the big winner and not only because of his unexpected score and solid third place finish. Holding an American-style open primary was his brainchild. The PS had been toying with the idea of an enlarged primary over the past few years but à l’italienne, modeled after the primary organized by the Italian left in 2005. Montebourg, however, looked outre-Atlantique, going to the US in 2010 to study the American system and meeting with operatives of the 2008 Obama campaign. His model was America and Obama—e.g. see here, here, and here—and he sold it to the PS.

Personally speaking, I thought this was inappropriate for France and just not a good idea, and for several reasons: (a) the French and American party systems differ in important respects, one being that the US does not have hierarchically-organized parties with card-carrying militants, so, e.g., the sort of primary the PS organized in 2006—open only to dues-paying members but with access to membership greatly facilitated, which I thought was the right way to go—would not be possible in the US, (b) American primary voters do not, in fact, vote for candidates but for lists of delegates pledged to the candidates, who then go to the national convention—with its contingent of unpledged superdelegates, who make up a fifth of the convention and act as a sort of garde-fou—and where all sorts of things can in principle happen, and (c) American-style primaries are a terrible way to select party nominees. I’ve long regretted the generalization of primaries in the US. They make campaigns hugely expensive—so that candidates have to spend all the more time fund-raising and with the monied classes and interests—, candidates have to shamelessly pander to all sorts of special interest constituencies (and in the case of the GOP, to ideological extremists) who turn out to the polls in greater numbers, and the end result—of the candidate who ends up on top—is invariably the same as what would have ensued in the old, pre-1970s mix of primaries, caucuses, and state nominating conventions but with the nominee enjoying no greater popular legitimacy after having gone through the grueling process.

But my objections are neither here nor there. Montebourg succeeded in his wager. The PS primaire à l’américaine is now the new French model for all eternity (it will certainly be adopted by the UMP in 2017, one may be assured of that). Watching the election coverage on Sunday night on BFM and i>Télé, it just seemed all so American, or at least very familiar to anyone who knows American electoral campaigns. In this respect, there’s one thing about Montebourg that is interesting and seems to have been overlooked. He is now the standard-bearer of the French Socialist left but who has unabashedly been emulating an American model, in however limited a domain, and whose rhetoric is devoid of anti-Americanism. Last week I called him an Olivier Besancenot wannabe but this was not fair. Besancenot would not extol America for anything, and certainly not travel there to study its us et coutumes politiques. The comparison with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, erstwhile porte-drapeau of the PS left, is even more marked. Mélenchon outright hates America, not only for what it does but for what it is (which is the definition of anti-Americanism). At the founding congress of Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche in January 2009 Barack Obama’s name was not mentioned once by any of the speakers—what was happening outre-Atlantique in that momentous period was copiously ignored—, and at a time when Obamania was at its peak in French public opinion and among mainstream Socialists. None of this for Monsieur Montebourg, for whom Obama still seems to be a model (uh oh).

Something else that seemed to be overlooked in Montebourg’s good score. He was the only one of the six candidates who voted non in the May 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which, pour mémoire, was rejected by 54.7% of the voters and a higher percentage of those on the left. The mainstream PS enthusiastically supported the Treaty—as did I—but was out of step with the party’s voters. Montebourg regularly reminded all of his nonisme, which was a little disingenuous in that he said nothing publicly on the matter after the internal PS referendum on the question in December 2004—which ratified the oui—and did not join Mélenchon, Henri Emmanuelli & Co in campaigning for the non and in defiance of the party line. Mais c’est de bonne guerre. It stood to reason that a sizable number of left PS voters would find Montebourg’s nonisme a compelling reason to vote for him, as, given the current economic context, his rhetoric on “deglobalization.” I have already expressed my low opinion of his absurd discourse here. But that said, one notes a couple of interesting points. First, in his indictment of globalization he does not at all link it to America or Americanization. In his pamphlet on the question he makes it clear that he sees working people the world over—in the US, China, India, Germany, etc—as being victims of globalization, not just the French. The absence of gaucho-nationalisme here—a not insignificant reflex on the French left (e.g. see here)—is refreshing. Second, his proposal for a “capitalisme coopératif.” When I first heard him say this I went ‘wow!’ For French Socialists ‘capitalism’ is a bad word. Capitalism is a horrible, awful thing! Since the late 1980s Socialists have come around to accepting the permanency, even necessity, of a market economy (économie de marché) but absolutely not something called ‘capitalism’. So to hear a Socialist—and a leftist one to boot—not only speak about capitalism unpejoratively but positively integrate it into his program is something very new.

Some final observations on Montebourg (on whom I’ve already spent way too much time). First, his arguments on démondialisation should not be redhibitory if he is invited to serve in a high-level post in a future PS-led government. He can and will no doubt do what Sarkozy did in regard to his bold and interesting arguments on Islam, laïcité, and the Republic that he developed prior to his election (laid out here in 2004), which is to declare that his party is not following him on it and that he will therefore not insist. The idea will be shelved. Second, as the new chef de file of the Socialist left, his general persona is far more avenant than that of the permanently scowling Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his sale gueule, or of the curmudgeon Henri Emmanuelli. Finally—and which really is neither here nor there—, Montebourg’s political ascent will in no way be harmed by his Significant Other, the glamorous, beautiful, and high-profile Audrey Pulvar. Un couple moderne pour la France de demain…

As for François Hollande and Martine Aubry—for whom the first and second place finishes were never in doubt—the results were not too good. Hollande was certainly counting on getting in the mid 40s, which would have put him in a commanding position for the second ballot. I wouldn’t be surprised if his inner circle even hoped to finish over 50% and put the thing away in one round, as Ségolène Royal did in the 2006 primary (I, for one, did not exclude this possibility). Not breaking 40% was unexpected. The problem with Hollande is that his main campaign argument seemed to be that he was the most electable, that he would be stronger against Sarkozy than Aubry, more able to win over centrists and Sarko-disappointed moderate conservatives. Why? Because this is what the polls say. This was indeed offered as the principal reason by Hollande-supporting voters-on-the-street interviewed in the media (as well as by numerous persons I know). Hollande is like John Kerry in ’04: solid but stolid, mainstream, and safe. A Third Republic notable. But electability is not a very compelling argument. Nor is it a strong one, particularly as the sentiment that Sarkozy is toast in ’12 is increasingly widespread. This election is shaping up to be like the US one in 2008, where the unpopularity of Bush and the GOP was such that just about any Democrat could have beaten any Republican. If it is perceived that Sarko is a loser no matter who the Socialist candidate is—including Martine Aubry—, then the Hollande campaign’s main argument falls apart.

But Martine Aubry is not in a brilliant position either. For a party Première secrétaire to finish second and with a mere 30% is not something to write home about. Her late entry into the campaign—as the last minute substitute for DSK (who’s dropped off the radar screen, unmentioned and ignored by his party camarades)—, lack of a readable and coherent campaign theme (her platitudinous slogans about changement and the like are pure boilerplate), and the sentiment that her heart’s not really in it—she has made public utterances that it indeed is, which means that the suspicions are not without foundation—have not helped her. As I’ve already written, Aubry was sharp as a whip a decade ago—she was the Hillary Clinton of French politics—but is no longer in my subjective estimation (Hillary, of course, is as sharp as always). But she does enjoy a reservoir of sympathy by mainstream Socialist voters—and particularly women—, as well as the perception that she’s more reliably on the left than Hollande. This perception, which is indeed widespread, is based on nothing concrete. In point of fact, there is no discernible political difference between the two. They are both pragmatic, mainstream Socialists with deloriste roots—and with Aubry of course being Jacques Delors’ daughter—, énarques of the same generation, and who have been around for a while. Hollande has been speaking more about taking votes from the center, with Aubry apparently more inclined to a rassemblement with the Front de Gauche, but as she has already allied with the MoDem at the local level in Lille it stands to reason that she’ll do likewise at the national level if she’s the PS nominee. If she didn’t have the RTT millstone around her neck—which has so undermined her poll numbers outside the left—she’d be in a stronger position.

Next Sunday’s square-off between Hollande and Aubry will be close, no doubt about it—we could be looking at a 51-49 outcome—, and Wednesday evening’s debate may well be decisive. It is being assumed that Montebourg’s 17% will go to Aubry, as she is supposedly to the left of Hollande, but there is no a priori reason to predict such a clean, ideologically-driven transfer. We’ll have to see what kind of rhetorical pitches the two candidates make to Montebourg’s voters and if it will matter. I will be most surprised if Montebourg endorses Hollande or Aubry. He has nothing to gain by joining one camp or another and potentially much to lose. Whey make enemies? (particularly as his relationships with Hollande and Aubry have not always been excellent). And it’s unlikely a consigne of his would be followed in any case; voters nowadays are educated and will make their own decisions.

If Sunday’s winner is Hollande or Aubry, will it matter? Both will be well-positioned to beat Sarkozy next May. If Sunday’s result is close, look for party unity to be maintained by strong hints of a ticket: if it’s Hollande, he’ll name Aubry as his prime minister, and vice-versa.

As for Ségolène Royal and her catastrophic result, I felt badly for her, even though she certainly didn’t deserve to finish higher than fourth. She was dignified in defeat but clearly humiliated. According to those who closely followed her campaign (I was not one), she was a better candidate than in 2007. But she didn’t understand that in the pitiless world of primaries, the last election’s losers don’t get a second chance (this is the case for US Democrats—Republicans are more legitimist and less inclined to throw their veteran leaders overboard—and is no doubt the case now for French Socialists too; the voters of the two parties are demographically very similar). Royal’s standing with left voters started to sink almost on election night in 2007, after her Eva Peron act on the balcony of the Rue de Solférino and the devastating insider accounts of her campaign that started to come out almost right away (such as this). Her political incoherence—a jab to the right here, a lurch to the left there, a leap up to who-knows-where—, peculiar formulations, zany locutions, and mercurial personality were such that left voters simply didn’t want to hear about her anymore. They tuned her out. If she weren’t so attractive, self-confident, and determined, she wouldn’t have even gotten this far.

Manuel Valls, the PS equivalent of a Blue Dog Democrat: his 5% score wasn’t bad for someone of his political positioning. Jean-Marie Bockel—Valls’ predecessor on the right fringe of the party—would have never attained that. Valls will never be President of the Republic or probably even prime minister but he does have a good political future and is driving debates on a number of issues. He’ll definitely be a minister in the next PS-led government.

Jean-Michel Baylet: I hope that in the next left government he’s appointed Ministre délégué auprès du Premier Ministre, chargé de la réflexion sur les questions de société. Pourquoi pas ?

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Melancholia

The first film I’ve seen by Lars von Trier. For different reasons his previous ones didn’t interest me, though I will now see one or two, not only as they’ve been recommended by friends whose taste I trust but also because, as various reviews inform us, one needs to know his œuvre in order to fully make sense of this one. Technically it’s excellent. Beautifully shot. Reminded me at points of Terence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life‘. It certainly holds one attention throughout, though I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when leaving the cinema. This review by Todd McCarthy gets it about right.

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This film, just out in Paris, is the second by Lebanese director-actress Nadine Labaki (whose first was the 2007 ‘Caramel‘, loved by everyone who saw it; everyone I know, at least). It is a comedy-fable, set in a mixed Christian-Muslim village during the Lebanese civil war (Lebanon is never mentioned in the film nor is it situated historically, but it’s rather obvious what it is). The village has not been caught up in the surrounding war and the communities get along fine—everyone knows everyone else—but the slightest incident can set off quarreling and worse. In order to prevent their excitable menfolk from dragging the village into sectarian bloodletting the women of both communities band together and hatch a madcap scheme. The film is quite funny and with some great moments, among them the hilarious ending. It won the audience award at the Toronto film festival last month. The audience at my suburban Parisian neighborhood cinema—middle-aged and older, middle class French—manifestly liked it too (a lot of laughter). Reviews in France have been tops. À ne pas louper.

Last month I saw a new Iranian film, ‘Good Bye’, which also focuses on women—or a particular woman, played by the sublime actress Leyla Zareh, who is in practically every scene—and with a contemporary political theme. But it is absolutely not a comedy. The lead character is a Tehran lawyer, pregnant, and whose politically engagé journalist husband is on the run from the authorities. It’s a slowly paced film—not one for the masses—and which pretty effectively depicts the political horror of the Islamic Republic, and particularly for women. It showed at Cannes this year (as did Nadine Labaki’s) but director Mohammed Rasoulof could not be present, as he was sentenced (along with the great Jafar Panahi) to a six-year prison term last year by a Tehran kangaroo court, for his participation in the 2009 Green Movement. An outrage. For reviews, see here and here.

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