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Archive for February, 2012

Franco-Turkish follies – IV

[update below]

The French Constitutional Council has ruled that the law passed by parliament last month criminalizing negation of the Armenian genocide is unconstitutional. Alhamdulillah. The reason: it violates freedom of expression. Duh. Full text of the ruling is here. Judges of the Constitutional Council are nicknamed “les Sages“: the wise men. In this particular case they were definitely wise. But now we read that Nicolas Sarkozy wants a brand new bill that criminalizes Armenian genocide negation and before the National Assembly adjourns next month. Not only is Sarkozy not wise but he is the opposite of wise. Worse, he is unhinged. Get him out of there! He absolutely positively needs to lose the election. And inshallah he will.

UPDATE: François Hollande, engaging in base electoralism, says that he’ll take up the Armenian genocide negation question if elected. Borrowing from a former Président de la République, Monsieur Hollande a perdu une bonne occasion de se taire. But I’ll bet he won’t do it. Les promesses n’engagent que ceux qui y croient.

(Photo: Three of the Sages: Council President Jean-Louis Debré (middle) and ex officio members Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac. They aren’t necessarily sage—and definitely not two of them—but that’s another matter.)

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in Maureen Dowd’s column in today’s New York Times

“Republicans being against sex is not good,” the G.O.P. strategist Alex Castellanos told me mournfully. “Sex is popular.”

Dowd has other notable quotes from disoriented and dismayed Republicans, such as this

“It makes the party look like it isn’t a modern party,” Rudy Giuliani told CNN’s Erin Burnett, fretting about the candidates’ Cotton Mather attitude about women and gays. “It doesn’t understand the modern world that we live in.”

And this from Jeb Bush

“I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed, but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective.”

Arlen Specter, for his part, offers this

“Where you have Senator Santorum’s views, so far to the right, with his attitude on women in the workplace and gays and the bestiality comments and birth control, I do not think it is realistic for Rick Santorum to represent America.”

And this from Ed Rollins, referring to Mitt Romney

“If we are only the party of Wall Street and country clubbers, we will quickly become irrelevant.”

And then there’s the Rickster himself

Santorum, whose name aptly comes from the same Latin root as sanctimonious, went on Glenn Beck’s Web-based show with his family and offered this lunacy: “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college,” because colleges are “indoctrination mills” that “harm” the country. He evidently wants home university schooling, which will cut down on keggers.

It’s way too early to be making predictions for November but I’m increasingly liking Obama’s chances…

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America is Europe

Well, well, David Brooks—whom I normally skip over—writes today on the American welfare state, which he says is comparable to those in Europe. His column thus begins

We Americans cherish our myths. One myth is that there is more social mobility in the United States than in Europe. That’s false. Another myth is that the government is smaller here than in Europe. That’s largely false, too.

The U.S. does not have a significantly smaller welfare state than the European nations. We’re just better at hiding it. The Europeans provide welfare provisions through direct government payments. We do it through the back door via tax breaks.

For example, in Europe, governments offer health care directly. In the U.S., we give employers a gigantic tax exemption to do the same thing. European governments offer public childcare. In the U.S., we have child tax credits. In Europe, governments subsidize favored industries. We do the same thing by providing special tax deductions and exemptions for everybody from ethanol producers to Nascar track owners.

These tax expenditures are hidden but huge. …

Read the whole thing. The American welfare state is, in fact, less generous and comprehensive than that in France and the Scandinavian countries but Brooks is on the right track. Not bad for a conservative. But then, Tea Partiers will likely retort that this shows that Brooks is really a “socialist” (as one actually informed me some time ago). Oh well.

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[update below] [2nd update below]

I have no idea. Something clearly has to be done, as the civilized world cannot sit by and passively watch a tyrannical regime massacre its people. But if doing something means military intervention or increasing the level of violence I say no. And loudly. On the subject I came across this pertinent analysis of a week ago, from the web site of the Brussels-based Centre for European Reform

Russia is not completely wrong about Syria

by Edward Burke

Russia has been roundly criticised for vetoing a draft UN Security Council resolution aimed at stopping the violence in Syria and ousting President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow is reluctant to give up on the al-Assad regime for the moment: it has a direct interest in the survival of the regime, which buys its arms and provides a naval base; it is strongly opposed to Western-led interventions, on principle; it believes that Arab revolutions are likely to lead to takeovers by Islamic fundamentalists; and it is still fuming that, after it refrained from vetoing UN Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya – about the protection of civilians – the West abused the resolution by using it to justify regime change.

However, Russian diplomats concede that change is inevitable if the violence in Syria is to be contained. Russia wants a managed transition that preserves its influence. The draft UNSC resolution called for the confinement of the Syrian army to barracks and endorsed the Arab League plan for al-Assad to hand over power to his vice president prior to the holding of elections. Russian diplomats are right to say that such a resolution would have been unenforceable and, if implemented, would have led to the sudden collapse of the Syrian government without a credible alternative to take its place. Anarchy could have ensued. The Kremlin may be playing realpolitik and taking pride in blocking the West, but it has a point.

Western leaders have been sincere in expressing revulsion at the continued crackdown by the Syrian military upon largely peaceful protestors. But their diplomacy has been ineffective. Preferring to issue ultimatums from afar, they have given up on dialogue with the Syrian regime when there is no other viable alternative.

A number of diplomatic rules have been ignored by Western governments in Syria. First, never rule out force publicly even if you have done so privately. The numbers killed in Syria are beginning to dwarf those murdered by the Gaddafi regime prior to the NATO intervention in Libya. The brave political decision by European leaders to come to the aid of the Libyan people should have reverberated throughout the region, sending a warning to Syria and other dictatorships in the region. The message should have been clear: nothing is off the table if you murder your own people. Instead, from almost the moment the protests in Syria began, Western leaders fell over themselves to tell Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he had nothing to fear, since military intervention was simply unthinkable no matter what he did. Western diplomats say that this was necessary in order to secure Chinese and Russian support at the United Nations. That is correct, but such assurances could have been provided discreetly, while the regime in Damascus was left to guess about NATO’s real intentions.

Second, the main function of an embassy is to act as a liaison with a host government, even one as odious as that in Damascus. The closing of Western embassies has had little effect upon regime behaviour but has blocked channels of communication. Despite ruling out military intervention or the provision of assistance to defectors from Syria’s armed forces, Western diplomats have not managed to do much about Syria other than criticise the violence and call on President al-Assad to stand down.

Western leaders have painted themselves into a corner. They have misread the situation on two counts: firstly, they have assumed that the removal of al-Assad is critical towards ending the violence and issued ultimatums to that end. Secondly, they have also over-estimated the weakness of the Syrian regime and the willingness of the military to turn upon its leaders. The President of Syria is no Gaddafi – power is distributed more horizontally among the elite in Syria, and the President’s control over the security services is by no means absolute. The removal of al-Assad by itself would not solve much unless accompanied by a broader commitment to reform. Syrian military leaders have now gone too far to turn back. As in Spain at the end of the Franco dictatorship, they will want assurances that a transition will not mean prison or worse for them and their supporters. Moreover, they are not being defeated – on the contrary, defections have so far been minimal and they believe that they have groups such as the Syrian Free Army on the back foot.

Third, do not encourage regime change without any concept of how, and with what means, such a revolution might come about. The West should have learned this lesson after the slaughter of Iraqi Shia rebels who rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991 – when the insurgents received nothing more than words of support despite expectations of financial aid and military equipment. Also, if political and economic sanctions are to be the exclusive means of weakening the Syrian regime, it is essential that neighbouring countries are on-side. Here the West has put too much faith in the Arab League. The Arab League may have become more vocal, supported by countries such as Saudi Arabia that have long resented Syria’s ties with Iran, but it remains incapable of enforcing its resolutions.

The Syrian government knows that Arab League resolutions are toothless, and that they have supporters in key neighbouring Arab countries, notably Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and leading figures in the Lebanese government. Economic sanctions may yet prove to be fatal, but like Chinese water torture, they will need time to take effect. Iran is increasing its support while Turkey, after a brief period of sabre-rattling, has gone cool on the idea of military intervention. Damascus also knows that calls by the Qatari government for intervention by an Arab peacekeeping force will come to nothing.

The West should try to rein in efforts by Gulf countries to arm a range of insurgent groups, many of which are deeply mistrusted by important minority groups such as Syria’s Kurds and could do significant damage to the credibility of the opposition movement. Syria badly needs a credible shadow government to negotiate with external parties. Until one emerges, Western diplomats should discourage the distribution of weapons to disparate groups feuding for leadership.

Given the enduring strength and resistance of the Syrian regime, and the lack of any immediate military means to weaken it, it is disappointing that Western countries have all but cut off diplomatic contacts with Damascus. The West should re-start diplomatic dialogue with Syria without pre-conditions. In the end an unsavoury deal such as that made with President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen – granting him immunity from prosecution – may be appropriate for key members of the Syrian elite. Western leaders need to grapple with what an acceptable deal could look like. Issuing statements that condemn a regime is easy; but it is tough diplomatic negotiations with the government in Damascus that can best help the Syrian people.

However, there are limits to the role Western diplomacy can play. Although the West can embark on a supportive dialogue, it is now impossible for the West to play a leading role as an intermediary in the conflict. A trusted interlocutor is urgently required to negotiate a credible transition in Syria. Such leadership cannot come from Europe, the United States, the Arab League, or Russia – none of whom are trusted by all sides. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been content to sit on the side-lines, choosing not to deploy his ‘good offices’ in the manner of his more courageous predecessors. It is time to appoint a UN Special Representative to engage with the regime and opposition alike. Even if his or her proposals are ultimately rejected by Moscow or Washington, some options are better than none.

Edward Burke is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

After the catastrophic civil wars in Lebanon—which lasted 15 years—and Iraq—off and on for the past nine and counting—, any Western-led action that risks sending Syria down the path of those benighted lands must be strenuously opposed, even if it means prolonging the longevity of the Ba’athist regime. The experience of Lebanon and Iraq is instructive. Though riven by internecine contradictions, it was the interference of external actors that precipitated full-scale civil war and then sustained it; in Lebanon, the Palestinians, Israel, and Syria the principal ones; in Iraq, the US, followed by Al-Qa’ida and Iran, among others. The number of external actors and with contradictory interests who would  implicate themselves in Syria would be that much greater. For this reason, one should be wary of slippery-slope proposals such as the one advanced by Anne-Marie Slaughter—a liberal Iraq hawk in ’03—in today’s NYT. I have a certain sympathy with the moral concerns of the R2P crowd but, as David Rieff argued recently, they risk getting us into a lot of trouble.

UPDATE: Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group—a first-rate analyst of Syria who has lived there for most of the past decade—and Sarah Birke of The Economist have an excellent article on the MERIP web site entitled “Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime.” On the question of foreign intervention they have this to say

…as increasingly desperate protesters call for help, there is a danger that the outside world will make matters worse as it plays at being savior. Calls for aid are somewhat worse than a pact with the devil: They entail pacts with many devils that do not agree on much. The Gulf monarchies, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, the US, Iran and others all see geostrategic stakes in the fate of the Asad regime. The greater their involvement, the less Syrians will remain in control of their destiny. Crying out for foreign intervention of any kind, to bring this emergency to an end at any cost, is more than understandable coming from ordinary citizens subjected to extreme forms of regime violence. Exiled opposition figures who pose as national leaders have no excuse for behaving likewise, when what is needed is a cool-headed, careful calibration of what type of outside “help” would do the minimum of harm.

2nd UPDATE: Sadek Jalal al-Azm, Jane Mansbridge and Chibli Mallat have a must read tribune on Ahram Online (February 26), “Saving the nonviolent revolution in Syria: For a credible strategy.” I’m still wary of R2P in this particular case but Sadek al-Azm’s views here carry weight with me. (For those who don’t know him, Sadek al-Azm is Syria’s most brilliant intellectual of the past several decades.)

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This is an incredible and terrifying report from Homs (h/t Martin Kramer)—and on this day of the no doubt deliberate killing of the American grand reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik. There is a civil war underway in Syria, no doubt about it. Algeria in the 1990s—which I labeled a civil war at the time, but do no longer—never had anything like this. What a disaster.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

This was the New York Times’ most emailed article of the past two days, on child-rearing techniques in America and how these contrast with such techniques in France and among Chinese. I would normally not comment on such a subject except for the comparative France-America angle, my experience as an American father of a child (now in her late teens) entirely raised in France, and extensive personal observations on the matter. For the authors of the article—Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, both neuroscientists—the comparative perspective is driven by Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was the talk of the town last year, and Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, just out this month. Druckerman had an essay on the subject a couple of weeks ago in The Wall Street Journal, “Why French Parents Are Superior,” where she explained some of “the Gallic secrets for avoiding tantrums, teaching patience and saying ‘non’ with authority.”

I don’t know if French parents are superior overall to American but they absolutely are in one respect, which I began to notice in the 1980s, several years before I became a parent but when my (American) friends started to have children. Going to the homes of American friends with small children was often exasperating, as the kid(s) would make a ruckus in the presence of the adults, constantly interrupt their parents—and the adult conversation—and distract everyone’s attention, but without the parents doing anything about it. On numerous occasions I would seethe, wanting to tell my friends “Will you please control your damn kid(s)!” (which of course I didn’t; ça ne se fait pas). American children were mal élevé; not all, of course, but many. But the problem was ultimately not the kids but their parents.

The behavior of the American children was and is almost inconceivable in France. I can’t imagine seeing it in anyone’s home here. I never cease to remark on how polite French children are to adults. E.g. when passing neighbors’ children at play in front of my building, they always turn and say “bonjour, Monsieur.” Such would not happen with American children, who would royally ignore my presence. (The behavior carries over to adulthood, BTW; when passing neighbors here—with whom I have never spoken a word but where there’s a semblance of recognition—one always greets; this rarely if ever happens with Americans; hell, I’ve passed by or been in the presence of Americans—and countless times in my life—whom I’ve actually met and spoken with in the past but who don’t even acknowledge my presence, let alone say hello!).

In their NYT op-ed Aamodt & Wang have this to say about France

In “Bringing Up Bébé,” Ms. Druckerman, a journalist, is envious of Parisian parents whose children don’t throw tantrums in public or fight on playgrounds. She ascribes this good behavior to stern French methods like forcing children to follow schedules and wait for attention. But in the school system, this strict approach translates to a rigid curriculum with an emphasis on memorization. French children also are tracked into different academic paths by age 12, a practice that reinforces the influence of parental socioeconomic status on educational and career outcomes, reducing social mobility.

I don’t how well Aamodt & Wang know France but there’s a bit of an American stereotype here, e.g. on the “emphasis on memorization” in French schools. When comparing the American educational system to others, it is almost an American reflex to critically note that schools in other countries and cultures emphasize “rote memorization” (I’ve never understood what the “rote” here means or what the difference is between “rote memorization” and just simple “memorization”). At least Aamodt & Wang didn’t add the “rote” for France. Now it is absolutely true that French schools do place great emphasis on memorization. But this is a good thing, no? It is very important that students memorize. As a pure product of the American educational system, I had to do a lot of memorizing so far as I remember. And there is no contradiction or trade-off whatever in emphasizing memorization and instilling a critical spirit at the same time, of teaching children to think independently. On this score, French schools perform equally to their American counterparts, if not more in some respects.

On rigidities in the French educational system, this is absolutely the case—I could discourse on the subject at length—but not for the reasons Aamodt & Wang cite. In terms of curriculum the French system—in middle and high schools—may offer somewhat less choice than in America but this is not necessarily a point in the latter’s favor. One can argue that there’s too much choice in American schools—as in American supermarkets—and that the students (or shoppers) are objectively not better off for it. (And to push the school-supermarket parallel a bit, just as the “choice” one gets in American supermarkets—of aisles of junk food and/or variations of the same thing—is not really choice at all, American high schools and, above all, universities are full of elective courses that add little to the educational nutrition, as it were, of the students). As for being tracked into different academic paths, this happens in France at age 14-15, not 12—at the end of 9th grade—, where students are streamed into separate lycées for those who are university bound and for those who are not. But parents do have a say and the choice is not definitive. Lateral movement is possible at any point along the way. Going to a vocational high school in no way precludes higher education. There are many problems with the French educational system but one has to have observed it up close over a period of time—to have had a child in it or been in it oneself (and with a point of comparison)—to know.

Not to sound like I’m dumping on Americans here, the situation does change when the children become teenagers and then college students. In the past, American teens were more independent and self-reliant than their French counterparts. It was almost a rite of passage for American teens to have part-time and/or summer jobs, for even middle and upper-middle kids to work as store clerks, in restaurants, or doing manual labor. French teens from the well-to-do classes never did any such thing. And at the university level, American students were more outspoken in class—and not hesitating to interrogate the professor—but also more attentive and generally well-behaved. French students were and are exceptionally deferential to the prof, quieter in class, but also less mature (talking among themselves in class like 4th graders while the prof is lecturing). But this is all changing. My American students are more outwardly respectful of me than I was of my professors. And my French students are more self-confident, attentive, and outspoken nowadays than they were even ten years ago. And French university students hold part-time jobs in a way Americans of their corresponding social class don’t anymore. It is unexceptional for a French student to work part-time at a fast-food restaurant. But no self-respecting American college student, or even a college-bound high school kid, would be caught dead working at McDonald’s. N’y pense même pas…

So there’s convergence. France is “Americanizing” and America is become more like Europe (sorry, Tea Partiers, but it’s true). Encore un sujet de réflexion.

ADDENDUM: One other thing. Pamela Druckerman, in her WSJ article, writes the following

Rather than snacking all day like American children, [French children] mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.).

Absolutely. Snacking is an American malediction. Our daughter grew up eating on precisely the above schedule. No eating throughout the day or at odd hours. And no second helpings during meals. As a consequence she has never had a weight problem, nor have the near totality of her friends over the years. If Americans want to know where their obesity epidemic comes from, they need look no further than their atrocious eating habits.

UPDATE: TNR senior editor Ruth Franklin has a piece on how “no book will fix what’s wrong with American parenting,” and where she refers to Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé. The video “Sh*t Park Slope Parents Say,” which she links to, is amusing. On this general subject I had a post almost a year ago on French mothers and breast feeding (a subject on which I am not a world-renowned authority but had something to say at the time).

2nd UPDATE: Elaine Sciolino reviews Pamela Druckerman’s book in the Sunday NYT. (February 26)

3rd UPDATE: Jennifer Conlin, a frequent NYT contributor, has an op-ed on “the non-joie of parenting.” (April 7)

4th UPDATE: Karen Le Billon has an op-ed in the NYT on the superiority of French parents when it comes to teaching their children to eat properly (and of the French proscription on snacking). (April 13)

5th UPDATE: Elizabeth Kolbert has a review essay in The New Yorker on “why are American kids so spoiled?” where she discusses Pamela Druckerman’s book. (July 2)

(Translation of above cartoon: “You can do what you want” “If, however, it remains within the framework of what I want you to do”)

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A friend in Canada—who knows Iran well—sent this to me. It is the testimony of McGill University international law professor Payam Akhavan before the Canadian Senate’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade this past Wednesday, arguing strongly against a military attack on Iran (by America or Israel, obviously, as it’s not too likely it would come from Canada). It is very good. Here’s the text in full, with noteworthy passages highlighted by me in bold.

Senate of Canada

Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Hearing on Canadian Foreign Policy Regarding Iran,

Its Implications, and Other Related Matters

Testimony of Professor Payam Akhavan

McGill University Faculty of Law

February 15th, 2012

For the past decade, I have maintained that a lasting peace in the middle-east can only come about with the democratic transformation of Iran.  This view is shared by many in the Iranian human rights movement.  But today, it contends with the looming threat of war, foreshadowing a catastrophe that could set back the region for many years.  In this light, how can we best understand the context within which Canada must craft a just and effective foreign policy towards Iran?

Prior to the rise of Iran’s “Green Movement” in 2009, pundits and analysts ridiculed us for suggesting that an emerging civil society would profoundly re-shape the middle-east.  While we laboured to educate students in Ghandian philosophy, or to train them in non-violent resistance at secret workshops, those in the corridors of power considered only two options: war or appeasement.  When millions of Iranians poured into the streets calling for democracy, the post-9/11 image of a “clash of civilizations” with Islamic fanatics and suicide-bombers was confronted with a radically different reality.  While President Ahmadinejad distracted the world with his Holocaust denial and hate-mongering, the Iranian people exposed the other veiled face of their country: a youthful, idealistic, and inspiring generation, engaged in a heroic struggle to reclaim its lost humanity.  It was this unprecedented “Twitter Revolution” that became the prototype of the Arab Spring two years later.  The difference was that after thirty years of suffering totalitarianism masquerading as religion, Iranians had arrived at a post-ideological, post-utopian ethos, with human rights as their unifying theme.  Despite brutal repression, this movement represented a seismic shift that seriously undermined the legitimacy and future prospects of the Islamic Republic.

With the exclusion of Islamic reformists, the prospect of gradual change within the existing system has become increasingly remote.  Iran has become a mercantile-militaristic state – as much a kleptocracy as a theocracy – intensifying the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the regime’s enforcers: the IRGC Revolutionary Guards.  This radicalization is reflected in the dramatic increase of show trials and hate propaganda, widespread imprisonment and torture of dissidents, and an alarming rate of executions.  According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, there were at least 59 executions in January of this year alone. The picture that emerges is that of a regime terrorizing its citizens for want of power; a regime that is weak and fighting for its survival.

Given this duality, we argued that the international community must pursue policies that empower the democratic movement while isolating the regime and its principal instruments such as the IRGC.  We argued that human rights rather than the nuclear issue should be the focus of foreign policy.  We lobbied for years to subject those responsible for crimes against humanity to travel bans and asset freezes: a policy finally adopted by the US and EU after the atrocities of 2009.  As a first step in bringing such leaders to justice, we established the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre in 2004 as part of a campaign of “naming and shaming”.  Our Report on the post-election violence in 2009 – prepared with support from the Government of Canada – became a basis for blacklisting individuals by the US and EU.

In this context, you can only imagine our astonishment to discover in September of last year that Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the head of the Iranian National Bank – the financial lynchpin of the IRGC, Hamas, and Hezbollah, not to mention Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear program – was granted Canadian citizenship in 2005 and thereafter lived an opulent Toronto mansion!  For too long, we in Canada turned a blind eye as the Islamic Republic’s insiders made our country into a haven for their ill-gotten fortunes and spread their networks and influence to silence dissidents abroad.  In that light, to the extent that economic sanctions isolate the regime, they may be a positive development.  But this is not without qualifications.  First, the sanctions are linked to the nuclear issue rather than exacting a cost for human rights abuses.  Second, we must not remain oblivious to its effects on ordinary Iranians.  When, for instance, students at my university cannot pay their tuition fees because of a complete freeze on banking transactions we have to consider whether certain adjustments are required on humanitarian grounds.  So we must bear in mind that the purpose of sanctions should be to isolate the regime, not to punish the Iranian people, and that we must incentivize respect for human rights rather than focusing exclusively on strategic threats, not least because the two are closely related, as I shall explain.

In addition to sanctions, we should also consider whether our practices in other areas such as immigration policy are consistent with our condemnation of Iran’s human rights record.  For instance, while we are using diplomatic channels to prevent the execution of two Iranian-Canadians – Hamid Ghassemi-Shall and Saeed Malekpour – who have been sentenced to death on spurious charges, our immigration officials are in the process of deporting Kavoos Soofi – an Iranian dissident in Toronto – despite Amnesty International’s view that he faces a substantial risk of torture or execution.  If we truly believe that Iran is abusing its citizens, then we should be increasing our intake of refugees rather than deporting the likes of Mr. Soofi.

I turn now to the most pressing issue; namely, the nuclear question and the threat of war.  Like the vast majority of Iranian-Canadians, I am against a military confrontation, because of its impact on innocent civilians, and its unpredictable consequences on sectarian violence in the region.  Consider for instance the 2006 study in the reputable Lancet Survey medical journal, putting the number of excess civilian deaths in the Iraq war at 650,000.  But beyond humanitarian considerations, allow me to explain why war is such a bad idea by looking at the current situation through the logic of the Islamic Republic’s leadership.  First, the “Green Movement” has dealt a serious blow to its legitimacy and remains a threat.  Second, the power struggle between the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad is reaching a point of crisis.  Third, its sole regional ally – the murderous Assad regime in Syria – is facing collapse, and with it the capacity to send weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Fourth, Hamas has been lured out of Iran’s orbit by Turkey and Qatar.  And fifth, economic sanctions are taking a heavy toll on the regime’s finances.  Under such dire circumstances, what is the only thing that can save the leadership?  The answer is war with Israel and America!  It is the one thing that can rally the masses behind the leadership, and under the cover of war, provide an opportunity for mass-execution of thousands of opponents, similar to the atrocities justified in the 1980s by pretext of the Iran-Iraq war.  At best, a military attack will delay the acquisition of nuclear capability by two years, whereas the democratic movement would be set back by at least a decade.  It cannot be disregarded that the problem is the nature of the regime rather than nuclear capability.  Consider for instance, how in the 1980s, the newly established democracies in Argentina and Brazil dismantled the nuclear programs pursued by prior military regimes.  In this context, talk of war is exactly the distraction that the regime needs to bolster itself at a time of weakness and vulnerability.

It is useful to recall the situation after the September 11th terrorist attacks, when the reformist Khatami government played a crucial role in helping the Americans defeat the Taliban.  This cooperation was rewarded with threats of a military invasion of Iran, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.  Not surprisingly, it was the hardliners that benefited most from these hawkish policies.  Ironically, it was Saddam’s overthrow that helped transform Israel and Iran from unwitting strategic allies against a common enemy to regional rivals.  During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, while Ayatollah Khomeini called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, the Islamic Republic was enthusiastically receiving Israeli weapons shipments, just as the United States and the Europeans were arming Saddam Hussein, while he bombed Iranian cities and gassed his Kurdish population.  These are the cynical power politics that have brought us to the unfortunate reality we face today.  There is no doubt that nuclear proliferation would destabilize the balance of power in the middle-east and lead to an arms race.  But by buying into the Islamic Republic’s inflammatory apocalyptic rhetoric with alarmist rhetoric of our own – namely, the suggestion that Iran intends to use nuclear weapons in a suicidal attack against Israel – we are giving the regime the enemy that it needs to survive.  By invoking Armageddon, we are throwing the hardliners a life-line just as they are finally drowning in the morass of treachery that is of their own making.

It cannot go unnoticed that even the likes of ex-Mossad director Meir Dagan and former Israeli Defence Forces chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi have serious misgivings about the wisdom of war.  In the words of Yossi Alpher – Defence Minister Barak’s former Senior Adviser – there is an “obvious disagreement” on Iran between hawkish elements and “a more cautious and less alarmist camp that comprises much of the professional security community”.  Now is a time then that our leaders should avoid the politics of fear, lest it lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy with catastrophic consequences.

In conclusion, Madam Chair, you may recall that we first met in Kiev, in September 1990, at the first UN human rights workshop in what was then the Soviet Union.  We could have scarcely imagined what was to transpire in the coming months and how it would irreversibly change the world.  Beyond attempting to grapple with the current crisis, Canadians should also look with hope and imagination into the shared destiny that awaits the peoples of the middle-east.  I remember from my childhood that Iranian and Israeli tourists could take direct flights between Tehran and Tel Aviv to visit each others’ countries.  Surely that too is a possible scenario for the future of the region.  As Rumi wrote almost a thousand years ago, war is “unnecessary foolishness” because just beyond “there is a long table of companionship.”

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Anthony Shadid R.I.P.

There have been countless tributes today—in the media and on my Facebook page—to the New York Times’ Middle East grand reporter Anthony Shadid, who died suddenly and tragically yesterday while clandestinely crossing the Syrian border from Turkey—not from bullets but an asthma attack. I won’t even link to them—except for this from the NYT—, as there are so many. Shadid was the best American reporter in the Middle East of the past decade hands down. I’ve been following him since his coverage from the West Bank during the second Intifada. His reporting from Iraq during the early years of the war was unequaled. Every article I saw by him I read. His books too. This is a huge loss, not only to Shadid’s family and many friends, but to journalism. Foreign correspondents didn’t get better than Shadid.

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

Last week I had a lengthy post explaining why Marine Le Pen has almost no chance of making it to the second round of the upcoming presidential election. As I concluded, though, it may be a moot question, as it is not certain that she will even be a candidate on April 22nd. The question didn’t arise until last month, when MLP publicly whined about the difficulty she was having in collecting pledges from enough elected officials to ensure that she would have the 500 signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot. In raising the issue three months before the election, MLP was following in the footsteps of her father, for whom it was a tradition to rail on against the mainstream parties that were supposedly plotting to deprive him signatures and thereby invalidate his candidacy. But he ended up getting the signatures in every presidential election from 1974 through 2007 save one (1981). It was regular Le Pen campaign cinema, to draw attention to himself and play the victim of the system. But this time the Le Pen candidate may indeed not make it.

First, the way it works in France. All presidential candidates need 500 parrainages—sponsorships, or signatures—from elected representatives (élus), principally deputies, senators, regional and departmental councilors, and mayors (but not members of municipal councils). The number of eligible sponsors is around 43,000, of which some 36,600 are mayors, over half of them from communes of under 500 inhabitants. The signatures must be spread among at least 30 of the 106 departments and overseas collectivities, and with no more than one-tenth coming from any single one. And eligible élus can only sign for one candidate.

For candidates from established parties with dense networks of élus, the affair is settled right away. For candidates from small formations—or who are in effect independents—, who have few or no elected representatives at any level and are not well-known, it is much more complicated. Their pool for signatures is the plethora of mayors of the tiny communes in rural France, most of whom are non-partisan (sans étiquette). If a mayor is not personally visited by representatives of the candidate—if s/he just receives a letter or email—, s/he most certainly will not pledge his/her signature; this thereby necessitates an organization of committed supporters who will crisscross la France profonde and try to persuade rural mayors to sponsor the candidate. But the mayor, if s/he agrees to sign for a candidate, can only pledge to do so, as the signature form has to be mailed or hand delivered by the elected representative him/herself to the Constitutional Council. And as a certain number of pledges are not honored—with the mayor not mailing the form—, the candidate needs at least 600 or 700 of these in order to be sure of qualifying. As it is, no élu even has the signature form in hand yet; these will be mailed by the Prefectures to the eligible élus on February 24th. The élus who sign will then have until March 16th to submit the form to the Constitutional Council, which will announce on or around March 20th the list of candidates who have qualified for the ballot. In early April, the names of 500 sponsors of each candidate, drawn at random, will be published in the Journal officiel.

In the 1965 and ’69 presidential elections—the first two of the Fifth Republic by universal suffrage—, the number of signatures was 100. But as an obscure, unserious candidate qualified in each of these votes, the number of signatures was subsequently raised to 500. All democracies have more or less stringent ballot access rules to bar frivolous or extremist candidacies (in the US, the number of signatures—of registered voters—varies by state). The French system of limiting the signatures to elected representatives for presidential elections is perfectly acceptable and legitimate, as it has never prevented minor candidates representing an existing current of political opinion, however obscure or flaky, of qualifying if they possessed some semblance of an organization. E.g. Gérard Schivardi in 2007, the rank unknown candidate of a sectarian Trotskyist groupuscule, whose incomprehensible rural Languedocien accent was a source of mirth in the final phase of the campaign (he received 0.34% of the vote). Or Jacques Cheminade in 1995, the French representative of Lyndon LaRouche—no joke—, whose qualification for the ballot provoked mass head-scratching when it was announced, as no one outside the LaRouche cult had ever heard of him (his vote score was 0.28%, the lowest ever in a presidential election; but he’s running again this year and already claims to have over 500 pledges).

So the 500 signature threshold is manifestly not a prohibitive barrier to small, even fantastical candidates. The question is why the Le Pens—père and now fille—should have had—and are still having—such trouble with it, in view of the double-digit figures obtained by Le Pen père in the last four presidential elections—not to mention his making round two in 2002—and Marine’s high poll numbers this year (e.g. the Harris Interactive poll released yesterday has her at 20%, just four points behind Sarkozy). And no one denies that the Front National represents a not insignificant current on the French political spectrum. But if the FN has to struggle in every presidential election to get the 500 signatures, it has only itself to blame. Since it burst onto the scene electorally in 1983-84—obtaining in the low to mid teens nationally in almost every contest from that point on—the FN has succeeded in electing exactly three deputies in single-member constituency races. Today it has not a single member of the National Assembly or Senate. In the 1990s the FN managed to elect four mayors (one of whom is still there, though he quit the party years ago). Today, of the 36,600-odd mayors, not one is a card-carrying member of the FN. Not a single one. If the FN has no mayors, even in tiny rural communes, it is because Jean-Marie Le Pen was never interested in having them. He disdained the very notion of trying to capture mairies in Trucmuche and Trefouilly-les-Oies, i.e. chez hicks in the sticks. And he did nothing to render the FN minimally respectable so as to enter into electoral alliances with the mainstream right. The only election that ever interested JMLP was the presidential—and with him in it, of course—, where he could do his number as the anti-system candidate, seul contre tous. JMLP never had a strategy for acquiring political power, as this is not what he sought. His goal was never anything other than having a high-profile soapbox where he could run his grande gueule and with the TV cameras permanently trained on him. This was indeed one of the main factors in the FN split in 1998, with the Mégret group reproaching Le Pen not only for his absence of a strategy for conquering power but for seeming to have no real interest in it at all.

So Marine is paying for the sins of her father—or, rather, for the consequences of his decades-long political strategy. Too bad for her. In her current lament, she is claiming that mayors who would normally sign for her are reluctant to do so, as they don’t want the negative publicity that would be brought to them if their names appeared as Le Pen sponsors in the Jounal officiel. The reluctance of village mayors who signed for Le Pen père in 2007 to do so for his daughter this time—as a few of their constituents gave them a hard time for it—was reported in Le Monde last week. If the FN is the only party in France and Navarre which carries such a stigma—which is viewed as so sulfurous that even the non-partisan and no doubt apolitical mayor of Trefouilly-les-Oies does not wish to sign for it (though would for anyone else, including a Trotskyist or LaRouchie)—, well, the FN just needs to look in the mirror.

To get around the problem, Marine LP has been calling for a change in the law, so that parrainages would be rendered anonymous and not subject to publication in the Journal officiel. To this end she has submitted a question prioritaire de constitutionalité (QPC) to the Constitutional Council, which has agreed to take it up. This is a new provision of the Constitution—and defined by a loi organique—, that allows any citizen to challenge the constitutionality of a law—with a tribunal that agrees to hear it—that s/he deems violates his or her constitutional rights. The Constitutional Council will rule on MLP’s QPC petition next week. It is unlikely that it will rule in her favor, though even if it does it will most certainly not change matters for this election.

Marine LP has a certain amount of sympathy on this question, as many Frenchmen and women—including those who intensely dislike the FN—think it would be a travesty of democracy if MLP, given what she and her party represent in terms of public opinion, were excluded from the presidential election. This argument is valid up to a point—it would indeed be strange if Marine LP failed to qualify but Jacques Cheminade did—but it misses the point as to what a presidential election is all about. A presidential election is held to elect the President of the Republic, not to provide an ephemeral tribune for publicity-seeking politicians who have no chance whatever of being elected, who know they don’t, and do not enter the race for this purpose. In view of the strict rules governing equal time in the broadcast media for all qualified candidates in the final phase of the campaign, a plethora of minor and/or frivolous candidates cheapens the process and turns it into circus. After the spectacle of the 2002 campaign, where 16 candidates qualified for the ballot—with 13 of these receiving less than 7% of the vote—, I argued that the 500 signature threshold should be raised to 750, if not to 1000. The small parties—that have no aspirations for the Elysée—would scream bloody murder but so what? Presidential campaigns with five candidates—UMP, Socialist, centrist, Communist-backed leftist, and maybe one other right-winger—would hardly undermine French democracy. It would enrich it in fact, and possibly raise the level of political debate as well. If the small parties are serious about politics they should build a base from the bottom up. Concentrate on the local while trying to be national.

In 2007, Jean-Marie Le Pen received 507 signatures. In 2002, when he knocked off Lionel Jospin, he also barely crossed the threshold. It has been more or less confirmed that he was quietly helped in his quest by the Elysée, which facilitated signatures by rural mayors (this was affirmed by the extreme right-wing weekly Minute, as reported in the February 15th Le Canard Enchaîné). Jacques Chirac was President, of course, but despite his personal and political antipathy to Le Pen and the FN—which the latter reciprocated; the two men were enemies—he found it politically expedient to have Le Pen in the race. Without this underhanded coup de pouce from Chirac, it is unlikely Le Pen would have qualified. This time around it is increasingly apparent that Sarkozy and certain members of his entourage—notably Patrick Buisson, a former Le Pen acolyte himself and with far right views—have determined that Sarko’s only hope of catching up to François Hollande—of matching his score in the first round and possibly altering the dynamic for the second—is for Marine LP to be disqualified. Thus Sarkozy’s hard right tack of the past week. He’s desperate and is going for broke. If Marine doesn’t qualify, the outcry will be deafening. There will be outrage. It will be a political earthquake. But Sarkozy, who has little to lose, looks like he’ll risk it. As for Hollande and François Bayrou, they want Marine to qualify and will try to discreetly help her get the signatures, however tricky it may be for a candidate of the left and center to do this. We’ll know in five weeks.

UPDATE: Art Goldhammer, in linking to me on his French Politics blog, writes that I think

that Sarkozy is desperate enough to risk attempting to prevent Marine Le Pen from obtaining her 500 parrainages. I think Arun might be right, but I hope he isn’t: the potential for a real eruption of anger is not to be underestimated.

I did not precisely say that Sarkozy would prevent Marine from qualifying, but simply that this is what he now seems to wish for. If Marine ends up not qualifying because she did not receive a coup de pouce—as did her father—, the current system of parrainages will be denounced as undemocratic and with loud demands for reform, of rendering them anonymous and/or allowing for a recourse to citizen signatures. The indignation of Marine’s absence on April 22nd will be understandable but reforming the system to facilitate minor or extremist candidacies would not be a good thing. But if it is revealed that Marine did not qualify because the Elysée pressured mayors not to sign for her, there will be outrage and with a near certain boomerang effect against Sarkozy. I don’t see how he could possibly benefit from MLP’s elimination under these circumstances. Le Pen and the FN would declare open war on him, and many FN voters would sit out the election or cast a protest vote for Hollande. It would not be pretty. Personally, I hope she qualifies, so as not to tarnish the election, in which MLP’s absence would likely become the nº 1 issue and poison the debate.

2nd UPDATE: The Constitutional Council has ruled against Marine Le Pen in her QPC petition. (February 21)

3rd UPDATE: A clarification. Élus who sign for a candidate can mail the parrainage directly to the Constitutional Council or to the candidate him/herself, who may then hand-deliver the form(s) to the Council. (March 9)

(Photo: Gérard Janus, mayor [sans étiquette] of Fort-Louis [Bas-Rhin], publicly pledges his signature to Marine Le Pen, 14 February 2012; ©Reuters)

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This movie just came out in France. No US release date yet, though it will certainly make it there at some point. It’s based on the 2005 novel of the same name by the Franco-Israeli writer Valéry Zenatti, which was aimed at a teenage readership (here and here). The story, as recounted in the pic, is of an Israeli girl in Jerusalem age 17-18—of a recent aliya French family—who, in response to a terrorist bombing in J’lem, writes a letter—in English, and with an email address—to Palestinians asking why such attacks are perpetrated, which she puts in a bottle and has tossed in the Mediterranean, so it will float down to Gaza and presumably be found and read by someone there, thus starting a dialogue via the Internet. Which is precisely what happens, with a 20 year-old guy in Gaza city. The reaction is initially mocking and negative from the Gazawi but the interaction becomes friendly and, as an inevitable boy-girl dynamic develops, increasingly intimate.

In the movie the story begins in 2007 and continues for two years to mid-2009, with Gaza under Hamas and spanning the winter 2008-09 war, which naturally introduces tension in the young people’s virtual relationship (as he is getting bombed and her brother is in the army). Movies that take up the theme of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict usually risk being cliché-ridden, biased toward one side or the other, and/or replete with bons sentiments—and particularly the latter when romance across the ethno-confessional divide is mixed in (so close, yet so far away…)—, but this one managed to avoid it all. I thought it was a touching film and not at all bad for what it was. What really carried it were the performances of the main characters, the young French actress Agathe Bonitzer, who plays the Israeli girl, and the Israeli Arab actor Mahmud Shalaby—the beau gosse who starred in ‘Jaffa’ and ‘Les Hommes libres’—, who plays the Gaza guy. Both were very good in the roles. Even initially dubious French critics were finally won over to the film on the strength of their performances (French reviews are mostly good). As the father of a teenage girl the same age as the one in the film—who who thus knows something about kids this age and how they are with their parents—, I thought her character was well done. I wondered during the movie of how it was going to end—as a hokey or clichéd ending could have tarnished the whole thing—, but it was just as it should have been.

In films on Israel-Palestine—and I make a point to see all of them—I am extra vigilant in detecting goofs, implausibilities, factual errors, and distortions of the historical record. There were hardly any in this one. Maybe just two: the Shalaby character mastered the French language—from a class he enrolled in at the Gaza Alliance Française—just a little too quickly and the Israeli girl’s family, we learned, was from the Paris banlieue Créteil. This was maybe a little too clever on the part of the writers (Zenatti and director Thierry Binisti). Créteil, which I know well, has a sizeable Jewish population, mainly Orthodox Sephardis from Tunisia and Morocco. But this family was Ashkenanzi and looked to be secular. They would have probably been from Paris itself or some other banlieue. It’s just a tiny detail. Ce n’est pas bien grave.

The pic was shot in Israel—with the Gaza parts in an Israeli Arab town, the name of which I couldn’t catch from the credits—and was in English, French, Arabic, and Hebrew.

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i.e. April 21, 2002, the day of the first round of the 2002 French presidential election, when Jean-Marie Le Pen overtook Prime Minister Lionel Jospin—the Socialist party candidate—to finish in second place, thereby moving on to the second round two Sundays later to square off against incumbent President Jacques Chirac. The 21 avril 2002 was the darkest day in recent French political history. Practically no one saw it coming (though I did; more on that below). The shock of Jospin’s elimination and Le Pen’s making it to the second round cannot be understated, and not only on the left. Even Chirac and the mainstream right seemed dazed. They did not exult. As for Le Pen, he was manifestly not expecting it. While there were tearful celebrations that night at Front National HQ Le Pen himself was subdued, which was out of character for him and particularly given the enormity of his success.

The outcome of the election was a foregone conclusion. There was a union sacrée of the left and parliamentary right, with voters of the left casting ballots en masse for Chirac in the second round to bar the route to Le Pen (who didn’t have a prayer of winning in any case). So Chirac won reelection and with 82% of the vote. Chirac did not campaign during the two weeks between the two rounds. There were no rallies and no debate with Le Pen. What was supposed to have been a closely fought election between Chirac and Jospin turned into a Bonaparte-like plebiscite, and with the entire Socialist party leadership calling for a vote for Chirac. (An American equivalent was the 1991 gubernatorial election in Louisiana, when David Duke, running as a Republican, made it to the run-off, causing the national GOP to endorse the corrupt Democratic incumbent Edwin Edwards). So in 2002 the French people were in effect deprived of a presidential election. Chirac was given another five years in office on a silver platter, and with his reelection paving the way—in a coattail effect—to a large victory of the right in the legislative elections the following month (which would most likely not have happened had Jospin faced off against Chirac in the second round and won, which he may well have).

There has been much talk over the past year, in view of Marine Le Pen’s rise, of a repeat of the 21 avril in the upcoming presidential election—of Marine LP overtaking the Socialist candidate to face off against President Sarkozy—or of a 21 avril à l’envers, i.e. a reverse 21 avril, where the candidate of the mainstream right is eliminated—in this case Sarkozy—and with Marine LP going head-to-head with the candidate of the left in the second round. The former prospect is now pretty much excluded given François Hollande’s consistently high poll numbers. But the latter possibility, of Sarkozy being eliminated, is very much on the table in view of his weak poll numbers and high unpopularity. This is, in any case, the conventional wisdom in the political class, media, and among the public in general. Just about everyone who weighs in on the matter believes that a repeat of the 21 avril is at least a possibility this coming April 22nd, if not an outright danger.

I have been arguing strongly against this, though. I have been insisting for years—and particularly over the past one—that there is almost no chance of a repeat of the 21 avril, that Marine LP will not make it to the second round in the upcoming vote. The reason why I insist on this has to do with an analysis of what actually happened on April 21, 2002, of why the infréquantable candidate of the extreme right made it to the second round and the major candidate of the mainstream left was eliminated—and why this will most certainly not be repeated in the future. There is a fundamental misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, in France as to why the 21 avril happened, including among political professionals, political scientists, and pollsters. I will set the record straight.

I will say straight out that the 21 avril was an accident. It should have never happened. And it would not have happened had the election been in America (more on that below). The situation in early 2002 was thus: France had gone through five years of cohabitation government, with a President of the Republic on the right—Chirac, who had decisively defeated Jospin the 1995 presidential election—and a government of the left led by PM Jospin, that had come to power in the early legislative elections called by Chirac in 1997 and which blew up in his face (in a political miscalculation of epic proportions). Both men were actually popular during the years following the ’97 elections, as the economy was doing well and unemployment declining. Jospin’s gauche plurielle government was well-regarded and not just by French public opinion but also by normally skeptical free-marketeers abroad, including The Economist magazine, which had editorially attacked Jospin as a socialist dinosaur when he took office in June ’97 but changed its mind later that year. But when the economy started to slow down after three good years, Jospin’s popularity dropped in tandem, particularly as delocalizations and stock market-driven layoffs increased. And then there was Jospin’s famous “l’Etat ne peut pas tout” (“the state can’t do everything”), which is what he imprudently told protesting, laid-off workers outside a Michelin plant in 2000, who demanded to know why he, as Prime Minister—and of the left no less—, could not intervene with the company and save their jobs. Jospin’s words were a statement of fact but given the way things work in France—in terms of discourse and expectations of citizens from the state—it was not a politic thing for him to say, particularly at that time and place. And, above all, as the then uncontested leader of the French left.

So by the time the campaign for the 2002 presidential election began, there was discontent among voters of the left with Jospin and his government. The base was unhappy. There was also an exceptionally high number of candidates that year who qualified for the ballot: 16, compared to nine in both 1995 and 1988. In the 1995 election, there were three other candidates of the left in addition to Jospin: Robert Hue of the Communists, the Green candidate, and the perennial candidate of the flaky Trotskyist sect Lutte Ouvrière, the pasionaria Arlette Laguiller (whom the majority of Frenchmen and women found charming and adorable—her personal popularity ratings were always high—, despite her amusingly archaic Marxist rhetoric, which practically no one paid any attention to). The presence of candidates from these formations was normal and there was minimal competition between them and the Socialist candidate for votes, as their electorates were distinct and the first two—of the PCF and Les Verts—could be counted upon to rally to the Socialist in the second round against the right.

In 2002, though, there were an additional four left-wing candidates and which complicated matters for Jospin’s first round campaign. Two of the new candidates were Trotskyists—for a total of three Trots, which was certainly a world record for a presidential election anywhere—, one being the charismatic, well-spoken Olivier Besancenot, who was 27 but looked younger, and with distinct appeal to younger voters (and particularly women in the 18-22 cohort). The Green—the outspoken, media savvy Noël Mamère—was a stronger candidate than the one in 1995. But two candidates of the left ended up posing a problem for Jospin (though this was not perceived until after the fact): the left-wing souverainiste Jean-Pierre Chevènement and Christiane Taubira of the center-left Parti Radical de Gauche. Chevènement was a political heavyweight and a longtime leader of the PS left-wing before forming his own party in 1993. But he remained allied with the Socialists and was Jospin’s Minister of Interior before quitting in 2000 over major policy differences. Normally Chevènement would have supported the Socialist candidate—and particularly Jospin, with whom he had collaborated politically since the 1970s—and despite his euroscepticism, but he was so unhappy with the Jospin government—and convinced that he himself had the stature to be President of the Republic (which he did)—that he decided to throw his hat into the ring. As for Taubira—a black deputy from French Guiana—, her candidacy showed how fractious the governing coalition had become, as the PRG was a small party permanently allied with the Socialists and that had supported the Socialist candidate outright in every previous presidential election save one.

So the final phase of the 2002 campaign had a circus atmosphere—as all 16 candidates were legally entitled to equal coverage on television and radio, and equal ad time in the final two weeks—, though it was absolutely assumed by almost all that Chirac and Jospin would finish in first and second place respectively, and move on to the second round, where a tight race was expected. This is what the polls were projecting in any case. Furthermore, Jean-Marie Le Pen—who had won 15% of the vote in the 1995 first round—had suffered a major setback with the Front National’s internal crisis and split in late ’98-early ’99, that caused the FN’s vote in the ’99 European Parliament elections to plummet. For the first time since the mid-80s there was relatively little hand-wringing in the usual quarters (the left, intellectuals, media pundits, etc) over Le Pen and the FN. During the winter of 2002 Le Pen’s poll numbers were lower than usual. He did not appear to be a threat. So going into the first round of the election, left voters who would normally have voted Socialist from the outset but who were unhappy with Jospin, or who simply didn’t feel like voting for him in the first round—though solid and serious, Jospin was not an exceptionally exciting, charismatic politician—, dispersed their votes, casting ballots for Chevènement, Taubira, Mamère, or Besancenot. No one expected these four to do any better than they did (see bar graph below); as just about everyone assumed that Jospin would go through to round two, voting for one of the others was seen as a no cost way of sending a message, expressing discontent, or simply amusing oneself. Some voted for Chevènement because they liked his militant républicain discourse—there is no equivalent of Jean-Pierre Chevènement in American politics, of a man of the left who wraps himself in the flag—, others voted for Taubira in a symbolic gesture, as she was the first ever presidential candidate of color to qualify for the ballot. The important point here is that the Chevènement and Taubira voters—who constituted almost 8% of the vote—would have voted for Jospin almost to a man or woman if their candidate had not been on the ballot, and practically all—along with the Mamère and Hue voters, plus the majority of Trot voters—intended to vote for Jospin in the second round against Chirac.

In the post-mortem analyses after the first round—and in the mutual recriminations and finger-pointing—, the principal explanation of Jospin’s failure focused precisely on the plethora of candidates and dispersal of left votes. Jospin himself never forgave Chevènement for having run (though in view of Chevenèment’s stature, discourse, and programmatic differences with the Socialists, his candidacy was perfectly legitimate). And while Taubira’s candidacy may have been symbolic, she had a particular message, so why not? Political analysts in the media and academia also dwelled on Jospin’s mediocre, uninspired campaign, his numerous missteps, and projecting himself into a second round face-off with Chirac before solidifying his base, as well as Chirac’s seizing of the insécurité issue (i.e. criminality, law and order), which became the centerpiece of his campaign—and a club with which to bash the Jospin government, under whose watch crime had supposedly risen—, but that also contributed to Le Pen’s late surge. Insécurité is one of the FN’s fetish issues—linked to immigration, of course, as a disproportionate number of muggers and louts are of immigrant origin (“immigrant” in France being a code word for North Africans and blacks)—, so whenever the media and politicians focus on it, the FN’s and Le Pen’s fortunes rise accordingly. As for the reaction of left voters who had “dispersed” their votes, there was huge regret that their failure to vote Jospin had enabled Le Pen to overtake him. This was reported in the press and I heard it from numerous people—including quite a few friends and acquaintances—over the subsequent period. The collective reaction of these voters—and particularly those who voted Chevènement and Taubira—was “If only I had known!” (si on avait su !).

If only they had known… The near totality of the French electorate went to the polls on the 21 avril with no idea that Le Pen could overtake Jospin. When the result was announced at 8 PM, the country was collectively blindsided. The question was WHY the voters—not to mention the politicians and pundits—did not see it coming. Well, I did. I had been worried about Le Pen overtaking Jospin for four days prior to the vote. This was on account of my unique American perspective. Voilà, je m’explique.

Until February 2002 there had been a ban on the publishing of public opinion polls a week prior to an election. With the modification of the law, polls could now be published up to two days before the vote. As there is usually a lag of two or three days between the conducting of the poll and its publication—after the data has been processed and weighted—this means that movements in voting intention during the final five days of a campaign cannot be tracked—or if polling institutes do so, they cannot legally announce the results in France (though the results can be published in the Swiss and Belgian press, whose web sites now have heavy traffic on election day). In the 2002 election the final poll was announced on Wednesday, April 17th, based on numbers collected over the previous weekend. It had Chirac in first, Jospin in second at 18%—which was a drop for him—and Le Pen in third at 14%. This was Le Pen’s highest poll number of the campaign. When I heard the numbers on France Inter that day my alarm bells went off, based on one aspect of my American way of thinking.

In the US, public opinion surveys are based on random samples of the population and with a statistical margin of error, which is normally 3% for samples of around 1,000. Polling methodology in France is different, based on quotas of the population by profession. As the statistical model for this method does not have a confidence interval, no margin of error is given, though there is in fact an implicit one and of around 3%. So when I heard the final poll numbers, I thought that Jospin could in fact be at 21% or 15%, and Le Pen at 11% or 17%. In other words, the two were inside the margin of error and with Jospin dropping and Le Pen surging. My alarm bells went off again the day before the first round, when the lead story on the television news was a fait divers in Tours, where an elderly man was assaulted by two young thugs, who burned down his little house before taking flight. In view of the Le Pen surge that I perceived—though which the media had not—, this was the kind of story tailor-made to add another point or two to his vote (and after the 21 avril a number of analysts did think that it had had that effect). On the day of vote I was quite nervous about Le Pen and expressed it to a colleague—a far-left Besancenot voter—over the phone, who dismissed my concerns. When France 2’s David Pujadas said in the hour preceding the 8 PM projection that there was going to be a “grosse surprise” and that would “faire couler beaucoup d’encre” (over which a lot of ink would be spilled), I knew that Le Pen had knocked off Jospin.

I mentioned above that such an outcome would have never happened in America. This is for the simple reason that there are no restrictions on the publication of polls in the final days of a US campaign. Moreover, pollsters in the US have introduced tracking polls in the final phase of presidential campaigns, which have smaller samples—and therefore a higher margin of error—but interview the same persons over time, thereby detecting late shifts in opinion. In the cliffhanger 2000 election between Gore and Bush, politicized Americans were riveted to the daily poll results in the final weeks of the campaign, and particularly the tracking polls in the final days (including the final numbers in the early hours of election day). Likewise in 2004 with Bush and Kerry. If polling-wise the French had done things à l’américaine—with tracking polls and without all the legal restrictions and regulations—, the banner headline in the news all day Saturday and on Sunday morning would have been “Jospin et Le Pen à l’égalité dans les sondages!“. The screaming headline in the weekend Libération would have likely been “Danger Le Pen!!” With this knowledge, the panic on the left would have been such that those intending to “disperse” their votes would have shifted massively to Jospin. This is a certainty. Jospin would have thus not only overtaken Le Pen—who edged him by a mere 0.7% of the vote—but possibly Chirac as well. Had Jospin finished ahead of Chirac, he would have gone into the second round with a head of steam and very possibly won—particularly as his approval ratings in the April 2002 polls were a few points higher than Chirac’s (in the high 40s, with Chirac’s in the mid-low 40s). And the rest would have been history.

Conclusion: the 21 avril happened for one sole reason, which was the absence of late polls that would have provided critical information to voters and helped them cast their ballots strategically. But so far as I know, I am the only person who had this analysis. I was continually struck over the days, weeks, and years following the 21 avril that absolutely no political analyst brought up the French law on polls as a factor. For the anecdote, in 2003 I attended a small round-table discussion on the 2002 election cycle at the office of a major Parisian intellectual revue—whose political orientation and general sensibility I completely share—, which was conducted by two specialists: a well-known political science specialist of French electoral politics and the then political director of the LH2 polling institute. Neither mentioned the absence of late polls. I wasn’t able to get a word in during the discussion but afterward offered my analysis to the pollster (who is well-known and with a high media profile). After listening to me his response was: c’est très intéressant ce que vous dites, vous avez raison. It hadn’t occurred to him.

But last-minute polls or not, there won’t be a repeat of the 21 avril, as voters now go to the bureaux de vote with that experience in mind. There was no danger of a 21 avril repeat in the 2007 election—Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal were solidly ahead of the pack—but, as mentioned at the beginning, the prospect now exists for it with Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen. Polls last month had Sarkozy in the low-mid 20s and MLP in the high teens, separated by five to seven points. The latest IPSOS poll has the gap widening, but that’s happened before. If in the final week of the campaign the gap between the two is too close for comfort—if there is a perceptible danger of a 21 avril à l’envers—, Sarko-disappointed UMP voters contemplating defection to another candidate, such as François Bayrou or even MLP herself, will “come home” and cast their ballots for Sarko, to avoid a second round face-off between Hollande and MLP. If the latter occurs, Hollande will win with 65 to 75% of the vote. A Sarkozy elimination—which would be the first ever first round elimination of the parliamentary right in a presidential election in the Fifth Republic—followed by an Hollande landslide would all but guarantee a large victory of the left in the June legislative elections. The debacle for the right would be total. Voters of the right—who remain, malgré tout, more numerous than voters of the left—won’t risk it. So it won’t happen.

There is a possibility that this may be a moot subject, as it is not entirely certain that Marine Le Pen will even qualify for the ballot. This will be the subject of a follow-up post in the coming days.

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Reflections on American football

Yesterday I had a post on American football, which provoked an irate comment from a reader. I’m used to irate, somewhat defensive reactions from American football fans when I critique the sport. As today is the Super Bowl, the biggest sporting event in America—but definitely not in the world—, I think I’ll recidivate with some observations on this curious game, which is truly an American exception (and a little bit Canadian too, to be fair).

First, I wonder if the TV announcers will inform the audience during the game that the Super Bowl is being watched by an audience of “one billion” around the world, as they used to back in the 1980s (and in the era before satellite television), as if living rooms, bars, and cafés in France, Finland, Turkey, Kenya, India, China, Brazil, and you name it were packed with people at 3 o’clock in the morning watching a game almost no one knew a thing about, of teams and players they’d never heard of, and of which they really couldn’t care less. I thought it was a complete hoot that anyone could say such a thing, let alone imagine it. In point of fact, the worldwide TV audience for recent Super Bowls has been on the order of 100 million for the whole game and spiking to 150 million for part of it (most no doubt for the half-time show). At least 97% of this is in the US, with most of the rest in Canada and among Americans abroad. Really, the near totality of the world’s non-American population has never heard of the Super Bowl, let alone has an interest in watching it. For the anecdote, when the Chicago Bears went to the Super Bowl in 1986, I was living in Cairo. I very much wanted to see the game, as I was a Bears fan and they’d had a great season and with a great team. Impossible. I couldn’t even get it on shortwave radio, let alone on television. Even the Marines at the US embassy had to wait a couple of days before receiving the video cassette tape. If you had asked 100 people at random in Tahrir Square what they thought of the Super Bowl, you would have received 100 blank stares.

Beginning in the late ’80s Canal+ in France began broadcasting the Super Bowl but for subscribers only (so the image was scrambled). In 1997, when the Green Bay Packers went to the Super Bowl for the first time since the Lombardi era, I absolutely had to see it, having been a childhood Packers fan in Milwaukee during that era (if you want to hear about the 1967 season, including the famous “Ice Bowl,” I will tell you all about it). The only place to watch it publicly in Paris was at American-themed restaurants with special Super Bowl nights. I went to the Mustang Bar in Montparnasse, from midnight to 4 AM. It was packed. Almost all Americans. Beginning in 2007 the Super Bowl shifted from subscription TV to France 2 and now W9. The NFL, in an effort (futile) to market its product abroad, is most certainly giving the broadcast rights away for next to nothing, if not for free. The proof: there is minimal to no advertizing during the game. Try watching a football game where ads are replaced by a round-table of specialists—here, Frenchmen who’ve played football in the US at some level—analyzing the game, or just the announcers yakking on while nothing is happening on the field. One realizes how much dead time there is in American football. It makes the watching experience tedious.

I mentioned the effort of the NFL to market itself abroad, to go global in the age of globalization. The NFL is looking at the NBA, MLB, and NHL, with their increasing numbers of non-American players (plus non-Canadian for the NHL) and audiences abroad—particularly for the NBA—, and wants to get in on the act. So it now holds a regular season game a year in London and exhibition games in Tokyo and Mexico City (the games quickly sell out, which is normal; it’s like the circus rolling into town for a day). It’s a joke. The NFL has no chance whatever of spawning significant interest abroad. One would think they’d have learned something from the failure of NFL Europe. First, the NFL is trying to promote itself—the league—and not the sport of American football itself (unlike FIFA, which promotes soccer in parts of the world where it is not dominant by building youth and amateur leagues; promoting the sport itself, from the bottom up). The NFL is acting like a businessman trying to market a product and make money. But a sport is not a product. It’s a lot more that that; it’s a culture and a practice, and a taste for which is developed young. If one does not become hooked on a team sport by, say, the age of 12, it will likely never happen.

For this reason, the NFL has no chance of gaining a significant audience abroad, as the game is not played anywhere except as a variant in Canada. No sport can take off somewhere if it is not actually played there. And if one does look at a sport—as it is played—as a product, American football is a bad one, or at least totally unadapted to the world market. It is unexportable. The reason why the NBA is followed around the world and with increasing numbers of non-Americans playing for it is because basketball is a big sport in much of the world and America has long been the best at it (though that’s beginning to change). It is America’s most successful sporting export (actively promoted abroad by the YMCA not long after it was invented and codified in the US). Basketball is an easy sport to learn and can be played by just about anyone (of a certain height at least). Baseball, which was brought to the countries where it is played—notably Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Japan—by American soldiers or oil company personnel, is also a relatively easy sport to learn and can be played by anyone (one does not need to be big, strong, and/or tall, or even run particularly fast). And it’s a great game, though one has to grow up with it to think this.

Not the case with American football. It is a minor sport in Germany—thanks to US soldiers, who introduced it there—and the NFL has a niche audience in Britain—dating from the 1980s, when NFL games were broadcast on Sunday nights on ITV and at a time when the soccer First Division was in crisis on account of rampant hooliganism and decrepit stadiums—, but that’s about it. One of the reasons for this is that there are other oval ball games out there that are objectively superior to American football and with greater growth potential, most notably rugby, both union and league. I used to think rugby was a game of little interest—and by definition inferior to US football—until I watched it for the very first time in 1999—France-New Zealand in the semi-final of the Rugby Union World Cup—and tried to figure out its rules and logic. I decided there and then that it was in fact a superior game to US football. And this has been reconfirmed in every game I’ve seen since. In 2009 I went to the Charléty stadium in Paris to see my very first rugby league game (France-Australia). Rugby league, which is a minor sport in France compared to union—it’s mainly played in northern England and eastern Australia—, is considered to be close to American football, so I was interested in seeing it. Again, it is a superior sport to its distant American cousin and for several reasons, which I enumerated at the time for a skeptical American friend:

First, American football has become a freak show, where the average weight of players is now around 250 lbs (113 kg), and with linemen over 300 (136 kg). This is grotesque. Rugby players are beefy but some 35 lbs lighter on average.

Second, American football is violent and dangerous, with a significant percentage of former players suffering dementia after age 50 from all the concussions they sustained during their careers. The NY Times had a number of investigative articles on this at the time and which finally got the US Congress interested (and obliged the NFL to stop denying reality). This is, BTW, the main reason why soccer has taken off in the US among middle and upper-middle class boys: because their parents don’t want them playing football and getting hurt! Rugby is not so violent or dangerous. And as one may have noticed, their players don’t wear helmets or pads.

Third, the action in football is too halting and, as mentioned above, with too much dead time. The ball is in play for maybe seven seconds, followed by 45 during which the players huddle, pat each other on the bum, or just stand around. Football players spend way more time doing nothing on the field than doing something. In rugby, the action is continuous, with few breaks in the play. A few NFL teams have gone to no-huddle offenses but they’re still the exception. The dead time in American football and the incessant breaks in the action are invariably the first critiques one will hear of the game by a non-American who has tried to watch it. (Another critique is its excessive complexity)

Fourth, and related to the above, there are 60 minutes on the clock in football but only 11 minutes or so of real action. But—and here’s the kicker—the games last for at least 3 hours! This is way too long. There are 80 minutes in rugby, almost all action, and the games last a maximum of 1 hour 50 minutes (as with soccer). The rugby league game I went to started at 3:30 PM and I was thankfully out of the stadium at 5:20.

One particularity of American football may be added that sets it off from all other team sports—and renders it all the more unexportable—, which is its hyper-specialization. Every team sport involves specialization of players at given positions but all have a chance to handle the ball and score. E.g. in basketball, all players—forwards, guards, and center—dribble and shoot, in baseball all players—be they outfielders, basemen, or even the pitcher (except in leagues with the stupid DH rule)—get to bat (likewise in cricket), in soccer and hockey all players (including the goalkeepers) can move the ball or puck and take a shot on goal, in rugby (and in Gaelic and Australian rules football) everyone moves the ball. But not in American football. In addition to the particularity of having the team split into two—offense and defense, plus specialized kickers and punters—, only six or seven of the 22+ players have the right to handle the ball and score, except in cases of fumble recoveries or interceptions.  The role of most of the players is blocking and tackling, to be the foot soldiers for the general (the quarterback) and his officers (running backs and receivers). This is not an issue for spectators but I think it is for the players themselves, at least when they start playing the game as children. This is an empirical question—which I have admittedly not looked into—but I cannot believe that the vast majority of boys who start playing football as children don’t wish to be quarterback, running back, and/or receiver. Do any willingly choose to be a guard or tackle? This is why American football can only be played in organized leagues with adult coaches assigning positions, deciding who will be quarterback, wide receiver, offensive guard, linebacker, etc, and which then becomes the player’s specialty. And a perverse effect of this: insofar as linemen have to be big, otherwise normally built boys will put on bulk, thereby becoming fat, if not obese. I’m sorry but to put it colloquially, I think all this sucks.

Another problem with American football. It cannot be played by girls. Women play everything nowadays—even rugby and judo—but not US football. Sure, some play flag, but flag is not taken seriously. It will never be the softball equivalent of baseball’s hardball.

Conclusion: American football is interesting to watch if one grew up with it but, objectively speaking, it’s a lousy game and with zero export potential. And in view of the manifest danger it poses to the health and lifespan of its players, it may well decline over time, as has boxing. With all this said, I’ll now go watch the Super Bowl, if I can stay awake for it.

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Romney: stealth candidate

Theda Skocpol—a leading light in American social science for the past three decades—has an op-ed in WaPo, arguing that

[Mitt] Romney has become the stealth tea party candidate, endorsing the essence of the movement while remaining unburdened by its public label. This makes him the ideal tea party candidate for the general-election battle against President Obama.

She concludes with this

Of course, if he ends up in the general-election race, Romney’s campaign will rarely mention the tea party. While throwing occasional red meat to the conservative faithful, he will generally repackage himself as a centrist who knows how to grow the economy and create jobs. Some voters and commentators may even conclude that the “true Romney,” the moderate Romney, is reemerging and that he simply pandered to the right during the primaries.

Don’t count on it. Research shows that presidents strive to carry out the promises they make during campaigns. If Romney defeats Obama, he could take office backed by a Republican-led House and Senate, which would quickly send radical-right bills to his desk. A President Romney would sign them all — the Ryan budget eviscerating Medicare and Medicaid, a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, harsh immigration crackdowns, the gutting of ObamaCare. Whatever his deep-down beliefs, he would be determined to overcome any lingering conservative skepticism.

In Romney, the tea party has found the ultimate prize: a candidate loyal to the movement’s agenda, but able to fool enough pundits and moderate voters to win the White House at a time when the tea party has lost broad appeal. Pushing the Republican Party to the hard right and denying Obama a second term have always been top tea party goals. In Romney, the movement has just the man it needs.

Spine-chilling. If Skocpol is right, it kind of raises the stakes in this election I would say.

Skocpol has a new book out, co-authored with Vanessa Williamson, entitled The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, based on extensive field work, as it were. I’ll no doubt be reading it between now and November.

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The cost of football glory

NYT columnist Joe Nocera writes today—on the eve of the Super Bowl—about head injuries in American football and the brain damage suffered by so many former players, particularly linemen, as they age (one may also add the long-term consequences of all the other injuries, e.g. Joe Namath’s knee problems, which worsened as he grew older). A lot has been written on the subject over the past several years, of course, but Nocera discusses the very first article he read on it, written in 1976 by a reporter for an alternative weekly, who interviewed players in Super Bowl X (Nocera links to it in his column). No one ever brought up the issue in those days. Nocera concludes the column with this

“I don’t think anyone should play tackle football before high school,” [former football player Jean] Fugett told me before getting off the phone. “Kids’ bodies are not ready.”

“Flag football,” he said, “is a wonderful game.”

I’ll go one step further. Tackle football should be banned even in high school. It is crazy and irresponsible for parents to allow their teenage sons to play such a dangerous sport. Let them play flag. Or if they want to rough it up a little, rugby.

BTW, I remember Super Bowl X. Steelers-Cowboys. Great game. I was for the Steelers.

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The latest issue of the NYRB has a report from Hebron H2, the part of the city under Israeli control and containing the most fanatical of the fanatical West Bank settlers (I tried to engage a few in conversation once; they’re not friendly).  Ground zero of the occupation. The report refers to the courageous Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, made up of ex-IDF soldiers who served in the West Bank and were revolted by the experience. Breaking the Silence is my candidate for the next Nobel Peace Prize. Among other things, it organizes tours of Hebron H2 and the South Hebron Hills (where the settlers are also particularly fanatical; I’ve been on that one). Watch this video of the Hebron tour of last November. The situation is quite simple. If the Jewish settlers there are not capable of co-existing en bonne entente with the majority residents of the city—if they are not willing to seek this (and they never have)—then they must leave. They have no moral right to be there.

freedland_1-022312.jpg

Dominique Nabokov – Palestinians outside the Mosque of Abraham, which covers the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron, 1976

If you exclude Jerusalem, Hebron has the largest population of any Palestinian city in the West Bank. It is, along with Nablus, a commercial center, and what serves today as its thronging market square brims with life and trade, noise and fumes. There are stores selling groceries and electronics, as well as sidewalk stalls consisting of simple tables laid out with fruit and vegetables, toys, trinkets, and children’s clothes. Those are concentrated especially by the bus station, with its yellow public buses, and by the ranks of taxis and private (more…)

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Le Monde a eu un entretien avec le brillantissime Paul Krugman. Le voici

“L’inflation n’est pas le problème, c’est la solution”

LEMONDE | 30.01.12 | 15h45

Paul Krugman, prix nobel d’économie et chroniqueur au New York Times, a confié dans un entretien accordé au journal Le Monde : “Jusqu’ici, aucun sommet n’a su apporter de réponses adéquates, aucune décision politique n’a su traiter le problème dans son intégralité”

Prix Nobel d’économie et chroniqueur au New York Times, Paul Krugman donnera à Paris, mardi 31 janvier, une conférence sur la crise de la zone euro à l’initiative de la société Lunalogic.

Au moment où devait se tenir un nouveau sommet européen, lundi, l’économiste américain se montre sévère envers les mesures décidées jusqu’ici, regrettant la rigidité de l’Allemagne.

Vue des Etats-Unis, comment est perçue la crise de la zone euro ?

La vieille question est toujours d’actualité : “L’Europe, quel numéro de téléphone ?” Et ce malgré l’émergence de “Merkozy”, le duo (more…)

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Franco-Turkish follies – III

The French Constitutional Council announced on Tuesday that it would take up the law passed by the parliament criminalizing negation of the Armenian genocide. The news almost passed under the radar screen, receiving relatively little attention in the media. Le Monde covered it on its web site (here) but with only a short item in the print edition (the NYT had an article here). Two groups of parliamentarians—71 deputies and 77 senators—signed petitions referring the law to the Council (only one petition of 60 signatures is necessary). The parliamentarians come from across the political spectrum, from the UMP—including its hard right caucus—through the center and to the Socialists, écolos, and MRC (the full list is here). Many deputies and senators are clearly concerned about the disastrous consequences of the law for Franco-Turkish relations and for French national interests. But President Sarkozy told UMP parliamentarians that the recourse to the Constitutional Council “ne me rend pas service,” i.e. is not doing me a favor. He really wants to sign the bill into law and continue piling it on the Turks. Amazing. Robert Badinter, who has been speaking out on the manifest unconstitutionality of the law, had another tribune on it, this time in the new French Huffington Post (here). Let’s hope his arguments prevail when the Council hands down its ruling.

ADDENDUM: Le Carnard Enchaîné reports in its February 1st issue that the Elysée sought—unsuccessfully—to persuade UMP parliamentarians from signing the petition to the Constitutional Council. Its argument: the law represents “a commitment of the President of the Republic toward the Armenian community (la communauté arménienne).”  Haro sur le communautarisme ! as Sarkozy would no doubt say in any other circumstance…

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