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Archive for March, 2012

From The Onion, so it’s a joke. Just for laughs.

MATTOON, IL—Ending the firestorm of controversy that erupted after he made a highly critical comment about the United States, 43-year-old hardware store employee Keith Nellson bowed to public pressure Wednesday and announced he would be stepping down as an American citizen, effective immediately.

Last month, when Nellson was heard in a YouTube video of a friend’s birthday party remarking that “this country really needs to get its act together,” the gaffe quickly went viral and led to extensive coverage across all major news outlets. Soon protesters were surrounding his home around the clock and calling for him to relinquish his citizenship.

The Mattoon High School graduate addressed the media at a press conference on his front lawn early Monday morning.

“First of all, I would like to offer my deepest apologies to anyone I may have hurt with my comments,” said Nellson, flanked by his wife and two children, who have supported him throughout the ordeal. “While I truly love America, I believe the best thing I can do right now—for my family and for my nation—is to resign as U.S. citizen. After the distraction of these past few weeks, I hope my decision will allow the United States to resume its pursuit of all the things that make it the best country in the world.”

Added Nellson, “I also hope that one day the American people can forgive me for my thoughtless words.”

Though Nellson initially claimed his quote was taken out of context, criticism continued to mount, and when he was confronted by reporters last week during his afternoon shift at the town’s Ace hardware store, it seemed there was little he could say or do to assuage the growing antipathy toward him.

In a Gallup poll conducted shortly before his resignation, 93 percent of U.S. residents described Nellson’s comments as “reprehensible” and “entirely unbefitting a United States citizen,” with 87 percent agreeing the time had come for him to step down from his citizenship.

“While I do believe Keith Nellson cares for this country and its core values, the reality is there’s no ‘right’ context for someone in his position to be saying the things he said,” CNN political analyst Jack Cafferty said. “By handing over his passport and constitutionally afforded native citizenship, Mr. Nellson did the right thing, and I’m glad he chose to do so graciously and with what appeared to be sincere remorse.”

Adding to Nellson’s struggles was the discovery of prior negative comments he reportedly made about the United States. The Wall Street Journal published an account of him saying to a neighbor, “Jesus Christ…this country,” after a discussion of rising gas prices. Even more incriminating was a 2008 incident in which Nellson allegedly said to members of his bowling team, “I tell you, America’s really going down the tubes.”

Making matters worse, longtime friend and local plumber Evan Klinner, 45, was forced to rescind his public support for his former high school classmate after his statement that Nellson was “a good guy and didn’t mean anything by it” was swiftly pounced on by the national media.

“It’s a classic tale of a flawed individual; worthy, I think, of Greek tragedy,” said media analyst Brian Jacoby, who is currently writing a book on the 43-year-old suburbanite’s fall from grace. “Nellson opened a Pandora’s box and found that, in our 24-hour media culture, there was very little he could do to close it back up again. We can debate as much as we like whether there was any merit in his comments—and I’m sure millions will—but in the end it won’t save his citizenship.”

Nellson told reporters that despite “what is really just a big misunderstanding,” he still loves the American people.

“The past 43 years have been truly incredible, and I wouldn’t trade my time as a U.S. citizen for anything,” said Nellson, holding back tears. “But when 300 million of your countrymen are asking for you to stand down, then I guess you have to decide what’s best for everyone, even at great personal sacrifice.”

Despite his voluntary exile, many have speculated it is too soon to rule out the possibility of a relationship between Nellson and the United States of America in the future.

“Trust me, this is not the last we’ll be hearing from Keith Nellson,” Jacoby said. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if in, a few years time, after everything has died down, he tries to make a run at becoming an American citizen again.”

Added Jacoby, “After all, America loves a second act.”

Absolutely hilarious but there’s just a little something about this that is not unserious, that’s on to something real, as there are a certain number of Americans—on the Tea Party GOP end of the political spectrum—who would no doubt like to make Americans who say things about America they don’t like “resign” from their citizenship. The kind of people who will come at you with “America love it or leave it!” or “If you don’t like it here go to Russia!” (which I was told more than once four decades back after some critical comment I made about something American). Or when, in an exchange some four years ago, a right-wing GOPer I know sent a one-line email asking me in all seriousness, after a critical remark I made about the US involvement in Iraq, “Why do you hate your country?” Huh?

(photo caption: Experts say that if Nellson had apologized sooner, it is likely he would have only had to suspend his citizenship for six months.)

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Choses racontées par Le Canard Enchaîné (28 mars 2012, p.2), qui a des sources fiables dans les hautes sphères du pouvoir

Coup de gueule du président-candidat, la semaine dernière, devant des visiteurs :

« Je suis le seul à faire le boulot. Il n’y a que moi qui ai des idées. Je ne peux compter sur personne, strictement personne. Si je gagne, je le devrai à moi à 120 %. »

Du coup, un ministre de Fillon imagine déjà l’ambiance au gouvernement en cas de réelection de Sarkozy.

« Je les plains, les futurs ministres ! s’exclame-t-il devant un journaliste du “Canard”. Sarko s’essuiera les pieds sur eux. Il les traînera plus bas que la terre. Que ce soit les ministres, le Premier ministre ou le secrétaire général de l’UMP. »  (…)

Sarko a déjà été assez imbuvable et tyrannique envers ses inférieurs hiérarchiques (c-à-d, tout le monde) pendant son premier mandat. Peut-on imaginer le deuxième ?

À propos, si on ne l’a pas fait, il faut absolument lire le dernier livre de Franz-Olivier Giesbert.

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Claude Lanzmann

[N.B. This post has been revised since its initial publication]

Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books (and dear personal friend), has a fine review essay in the LRB’s latest issue on the English translation of Claude Lanzmann’s memoir. The essay—which is lengthy (7450 words) and unfortunately behind the paywall—takes the reader through

The life of Claude Lanzmann, [which] Claude Lanzmann declares at the beginning of his memoir, has been ‘a rich, multifaceted and unique story’. Self-flattery is characteristically Lanzmannian, but its truth in this case can hardly be denied. He has lived on a grand scale. A teenage fighter in the Resistance, he became Sartre’s protégé in the early 1950s as an editor at Les Temps modernes [and, like Sartre, enthusiastically supported the Soviet Union in the early postwar years]. He also became – with Sartre’s blessing – Beauvoir’s lover, ‘the only man with whom Simone de Beauvoir lived a quasi-marital existence’. He marched with the left against the wars in Algeria and Vietnam; moonlighted in Beijing as an unofficial conduit between Mao and de Gaulle; and fell under the spell of Frantz Fanon in Tunis. Writing for the glossies at the height of the Nouvelle Vague, he interviewed Bardot, Moreau, Deneuve, Belmondo and Gainsbourg: ‘I met them all … and, I can say without vanity, I helped some of them make a qualitative leap in their careers.’ He had a brief, stormy marriage to the actress Judith Magne, and was Michel Piccoli’s best man at his marriage to Juliette Gréco. He knew how to woo his subjects off and on the page. ‘You are the only one who talked about me as I would have wished,’ the novelist Albert Cohen told him.

He certainly is modest, that Monsieur Lanzmann…  Shatz continues

It was a charmed life, particularly for a Jew who’d spent his youth on the run from the Gestapo and the collaborationist Milice. But the war never really ended for Lanzmann. Seventy-five thousand Jews were deported by Vichy, and, as Beauvoir writes in her memoir La Force des choses, ‘his rancour with respect to the goys never went away.’ Once he tired of covering the dolce vita, Lanzmann began a second, more celebrated career as a chronicler of the Holocaust. Shoah, released in 1985 after more than a decade of labour, is a powerful nine and a half hour investigation, composed almost entirely of oral testimony. Neither a conventional documentary nor a fictional re-creation but, as Lanzmann called it, ‘a fiction of the real’, Shoah revealed the way the Holocaust reverberated, as trauma, in the present. It was soon declared a masterpiece.
I have to admit that I’ve only seen part of ‘Shoah’—an hour or so on television—but never the whole thing. As a cinéphile and with an interest in this particular subject, I suppose I should fill the gap one of these days. Shatz’s discussion of this Lanzmannian episode, though, does not precisely increase my enthusiasm to make that ten-hour investment

Lanzmann’s first film was an admiring portrait of [Israel]. Released in 1973, Pourquoi Israël led to a summons from Alouph Hareven, director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hareven told him that Israel had a mission for him: ‘It’s not a matter of making a film about the Shoah, but a film that is the Shoah. We believe you are the only person who can make this film.’

Monsieur Lanzmann is almost self-effacing in his modesty, I must say…

Lanzmann accepted the assignment. The Foreign Ministry’s support for him reflected a shift in priorities. Until the 1960s, Israel had shown little interest in the Holocaust. The survivors, their stories, the Yiddish many of them spoke – these were all seen as shameful reminders of Jewish weakness, of the life in exile that the Jewish state had at last brought to an end. But with the Eichmann trial, and particularly after the 1967 war, Israel discovered that the Holocaust could be a powerful weapon in its ideological arsenal. Lanzmann, however, had more serious artistic ambitions for his film than the Foreign Ministry, which, impatient with his slowness, withdrew funding after a few years, before a single reel was shot. Lanzmann turned to the new prime minister, Menachem Begin, who put him in touch with a former member of Mossad, a ‘secret man devoid of emotions’. He promised that Israel would sponsor the film so long as it ran no longer than two hours and was completed in 18 months. Lanzmann agreed to the conditions, knowing he could never meet them. He ended up shooting 350 hours of film in half a dozen countries; the editing alone took more than five years. Despite his loyalty to Israel, his loyalty to Shoah came first, and he was prepared to do almost anything to make it his way.

One thing I know about ‘Shoah’ and that has put me off is Lanzmann’s negative portrayal of the Polish people

Lanzmann insists that he left out ‘nothing essential’ about Poland in Shoah, and that he captured ‘the real, true Poland’, where the people living near the gas chambers and death convoys ‘ate and … made love in the unbearable stench of charred flesh’. The Nazis interviewed in Shoah come off rather better than the Poles, a rogues’ gallery of Jew haters. When Shoah was shown in Warsaw a ‘tsunami’ of anger greeted it. Polish reactions were, in part, a denial of reality. Lanzmann had not invented Polish anti-Semitism, as he points out; indeed, he found enough of it in Poland to confirm the worst stereotypes. But what this anti-Semitism explained about the Holocaust was less clear. The Polish villagers in Shoah – who were themselves regarded by the Germans as scarcely more human than the Jews – would not have been capable of organising anything more than a drunken pogrom: industrialised killing was beyond not only their imagination but their competence. Lanzmann, however, alleges that the Nazis set up camps in Poland because they could count on Polish complicity, a claim no historian credits. ‘It would have been impossible to have death camps in France,’ he says. ‘The French peasants would not have stood for it.’ In fact, French peasants were known to dig into the lavatories of deported Jews in search of gold; the French government, on its own initiative, passed anti-Jewish laws more severe than the Nuremberg laws and oversaw the deportations of Jewish children.

Lanzmann’s anti-Polishness is sadly typical of Jews. The essentializing of Poles as anti-Semites is something I’ve been hearing from American Jews—including numerous friends—for decades. Jews seem to consider it acceptable to denigrate Poland and Poles in terms that would be labeled racist if applied to other groups. Poles often get it even worse from Jews than do Germans. Or Russians, who have historically been second-to-none in their anti-Semitism. But the fact is, Poles were no more anti-Semitic than any of the other peoples in the lands of Catholicism. Anti-Semitism has had its historical ups and downs, and when it was high in Poland it was likewise in France, Italy, and elsewhere. It just seemed higher in Poland, as there were so many more Jews there than in western Europe. And anti-Semitism was definitely higher in the lands of Orthodoxy. When it came to anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Russian empire—the Orthodox parts of it—and Romania were considerably worse than the Polish lands. The pogroms mainly happened in the former, with relatively few in the latter (and those that happened in the Polish lands—in Białystok, Warsaw, etc—were stoked up by the Czarist police). As for the behavior of Poles toward Jews during the interwar years and the Nazi occupation, sure, a lot of it was despicable, but then a lot of French behavior—of ordinary Frenchmen, not to mention agents of the French state—was despicable too. Of course many Frenchmen helped and protected Jews during the war. But two things. First, the penalty for Poles who were caught sheltering Jews was immediate execution and of the entire family. Such was not the case in France. The Germans were rather nicer to the French than they were to the Poles. Secondly, a disproportionate percentage of Frenchmen who aided Jews during the war were Protestants (e.g. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a Protestant village). Not that this matters, as French Protestants are French above all. But still…

In any case, almost no one from the bad old anti-Semitic days in Poland is still alive, so there is no reason whatever for Jews to continue stigmatizing Poland and Poles. Such reverse bigotry is unacceptable.

Back to Lanzmann and his memoir, after discussing ‘Shoah’ Adam gets to Lanzmann’s film on the IDF, ‘Tsahal’, and his general relationship with Israel. I haven’t seen ‘Tsahal’—though I should at some point—but have seen most of another documentary—which I found quite interesting—that Adam brings into his essay

The Nakba’s traces in contemporary Israel have been the subject of a deeply Lanzmannian film, Route 181, a four-hour documentary co-directed by Eyal Sivan, a French-Israeli Jew, and Michel Khleifi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel. In 2003, Sivan and Khleifi spent two months travelling along the border outlined by the UN in Resolution 181, the 1947 partition plan, interviewing Arabs and Jews. Like Shoah and Tsahal, the film cuts between oral testimony and slow tracking shots of roads and infrastructure. Among those interviewed is an Arab barber in Lod who recalls the expulsions while cutting a man’s hair: an obvious, provocative allusion to the barbershop scene in Shoah. Sivan and Khleifi insisted that their intention was not to compare the Nakba to the Holocaust, but to show the thread that links them. Outraged by this scene, Lanzmann denounced Sivan as an anti-semite, and, with Alain Finkielkraut, successfully lobbied the Ministry of Culture to prevent the film being shown at a documentary festival at the Pompidou Centre. Lanzmann, Sivan said, ‘is the only intellectual in the world whom you are not allowed to quote’.

Not too tolerant on Lanzmann’s part. As we say over here, Lanzmann est imbu de sa personne, which should already be apparent by now. I’ve seen Lanzmann speak once, six years ago at the Montparnasse cemetery, at the funeral of a friend cut down by cancer, where he gave a moving eulogy. But while watching Lanzmann I couldn’t help but think of the film critic Roger Ebert’s one encounter with him, at the Cannes film festival in 2001, which he wrote about at the time

The poolside buffet of the Hotel Majestic always has a line of people eager to sample its delights. After waiting a long time the other day, I finally found myself with a plate in my hand and the buffet before me. Then a man pushed in front of me so roughly, he actually jostled me.

“There is a queue,” I said.

“I do not use the queue!” he barked.

“It is not for you?” I asked.

“It is not for me. I pay no attention to it.”

He began to pile his plate with cold shrimp. As an American, I believe the Declaration of Independence when it says that everyone in a buffet queue has been created equal. I was not willing to let this jerk off the hook.

“But all of these people have been waiting,” I said.

“So what?” he said.

“You are more important than them?”

“Yes. Now get out of my way.”

I was not in his way. He was in my way.

I stared at him, making my eyes narrow and mean. He stared at me. His eyes were already narrow and mean. I thought for a moment he might hurl his shrimp at me. Finally he snapped:

“Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”

We filled our plates in a tense silence. I went back to my table.

“I have just met the rudest man in the world,” I said.

“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” said a fellow film critic, whose name is available on request. “Is it that man over there in the white shirt?”

“Yes!” I said. “How did you know?”

“It had to be him. Do you know who that is?”

“No.”

Claude Lanzmann, the director of `Shoah.’ “

“You’re kidding! The nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust?”

“At the New York screening,” my friend said, “I introduced him to my mother, who is a Holocaust survivor. He brushed right past her. Didn’t have a moment to spare for her.”

This story has an encouraging moral. You don’t have to be a nice man to make a good film.

Or to have had an interesting life, had many interesting friends, and written an interesting memoir…

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[update below]

E.J. Dionne Jr. has an on target column in today’s Washington Post on a fundamentally undemocratic feature of the American political system

Three days of Supreme Court arguments over the health-care law demonstrated for all to see that conservative justices are prepared to act as an alternative legislature, diving deeply into policy details as if they were members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Senator, excuse me, Justice Samuel Alito quoted Congressional Budget Office figures on Tuesday to talk about the insurance costs of the young. On Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts sounded like the House whip in discussing whether parts of the law could stand if other parts fell. He noted that without various provisions, Congress “wouldn’t have been able to put together, cobble together, the votes to get it through.” Tell me again, was this a courtroom or a lobbyist’s office?

It fell to the court’s liberals — the so-called “judicial activists,” remember? — to remind their conservative brethren that legislative power is supposed to rest in our government’s elected branches.

Justice Stephen Breyer noted that some of the issues raised by opponents of the law were about “the merits of the bill,” a proper concern of Congress, not the courts. And in arguing for restraint, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked what was wrong with leaving as much discretion as possible “in the hands of the people who should be fixing this, not us.” It was nice to be reminded that we’re a democracy, not a judicial dictatorship.

The conservative justices were obsessed with weird hypotheticals. If the federal government could make you buy health insurance, might it require you to buy broccoli, health club memberships, cellphones, burial services and cars? All of which have nothing to do with an uninsured person getting expensive treatment that others — often taxpayers — have to pay for.

Liberals should learn from this display that there is no point in catering to today’s hard-line conservatives. The individual mandate was a conservative idea that President Obama adopted to preserve the private market in health insurance rather than move toward a government-financed, single-payer system. What he got back from conservatives was not gratitude but charges of socialism — for adopting their own proposal.

The irony is that if the court’s conservatives overthrow the mandate, they will hasten the arrival of a more government-heavy system. Justice Anthony Kennedy even hinted that it might be more “honest” if government simply used “the tax power to raise revenue and to just have a national health service, single-payer.” Remember those words.

One of the most astonishing arguments came from Roberts, who spoke with alarm that people would be required to purchase coverage for issues they might never confront. He specifically cited “pediatric services” and “maternity services.”

Well, yes, men pay to cover maternity services while women pay for treating prostate problems. It’s called health insurance. Would it be better to segregate the insurance market along gender lines?

The court’s right-wing justices seemed to forget that the best argument for the individual mandate was made in 1989 by a respected conservative, the Heritage Foundation’s Stuart Butler.

“If a man is struck down by a heart attack in the street,” Butler said, “Americans will care for him whether or not he has insurance. If we find that he has spent his money on other things rather than insurance, we may be angry but we will not deny him services — even if that means more prudent citizens end up paying the tab. A mandate on individuals recognizes this implicit contract.”

Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to reject the sense of solidarity that Butler embraced. When Solicitor General Donald Verrilli explained that “we’ve obligated ourselves so that people get health care,” Scalia replied coolly: “Well, don’t obligate yourself to that.” Does this mean letting Butler’s uninsured guy die?

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick called attention to this exchange and was eloquent in describing its meaning. “This case isn’t so much about freedom from government-mandated broccoli or gyms,” Lithwick wrote. “It’s about freedom from our obligations to one another . . . the freedom to ignore the injured” and to “walk away from those in peril.”

This is what conservative justices will do if they strike down or cripple the health-care law. And a court that gave us Bush v. Gore and Citizens United will prove conclusively that it sees no limits on its power, no need to defer to those elected to make our laws. A Supreme Court that is supposed to give us justice will instead deliver ideology.

UPDATE: E.J. Dionne has a follow-up column (April 2) on “The right’s stealthy coup.”

(photo credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

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Bradley Burston, who writes a column for Haaretz, linked to this article from +972 on his Facebook page today, calling it “maybe the most radical and important piece about Israel written in the last decade.” The article, by Noam Sheizaf, is entitled “One or two states? The status quo is Israel’s rational choice,” where he observes that “[t]he secret to understanding Israeli political behavior lies in the widespread (and fundamentally evident) notion that any change to the status quo is likely to bring more harm than good” (political scientists: yes, he does make reference to rational choice theory). Sheizaf argues—as have I for a few years now, BTW—that the binary choice between a two-state solution and permanent occupation leading to one-state ignores a third choice, which is the indefinite perpetuation of the status quo. For Israelis, a withdrawal from the West Bank and creation of a Palestinian state—which, according to polls, the majority says it favors in principle, if this would end the conflict—would entail not only a high risk of civil war among Jews—as a significant minority of settlers would likely resist violently—but may not end the conflict with the Palestinians and regardless of the provisions in the peace treaty, as the Palestinians cannot be expected to guarantee Israel’s security—security being Israel’s paramount priority—and no one could be sure of what would happen in the event of a future change of government or regime in Palestine (on this, see this earlier article by Sheizaf, which is also most interesting; one may also note the fate of the Evian Accords—signed fifty years ago this month—that ended the Algerian war, that the independent Algerian state did not entirely respect). So given the risks and uncertainties, the Israelis are not likely to quit the West Bank anytime in the foreseeable future.

But the other binary choice, of permanent occupation leading to annexation, is also unacceptable for most Israelis, as this would result in the dreaded (for Israelis) binational one state, which, if democratic, would signal the end of the state of Israel. And if it were undemocratic, i.e. a formalized apartheid regime, Israel would not only become a pariah state—more so than it ever was in the past—but would be a recipe for permanent instability, insecurity, and conflict (I’m extrapolating from Sheizaf’s argument here, as he doesn’t put it in these words). So given the seeming impossibility of either a two- or one-state solution, Israelis—politicians and voters—prefer the indefinite perpetuation of the status quo, particularly as this has brought them security (except for the occasional rocket around Sderot or Ashkelon), hardly undermined economic prosperity, and—appearances to the contrary—not led to Israel’s international isolation. As for the status quo being “unsustainable”—which is what one often hears—, this has not been demonstrated. The continued occupation of the West Bank may be immoral—which is what Sheizaf thinks it is (and I entirely agree with him)—but that’s not the issue here.

What about the Palestinians? What do they think? As it happens, yesterday evening I attended a two-hour talk at IISMM-EHESS by Jean-François Legrain, entitled “La Palestine au rythme de ses intifada.” Legrain has been one France’s leading academic specialists of the Palestinians for the past three decades, and notably of Hamas in Gaza (for a list of his many publications—including his translations of Hamas documents—go here and scroll down). One of his arguments, among others, was that ending the occupation is not presently a priority for either the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah or Hamas in Gaza. The overriding priority of the PA is to maintain the “peace business” (he said it in English), to keep the money from Western and other donors flowing, which is what keeps the PA and West Bank economy afloat. This does not only concern the middle class in the Ramallah-El Bireh bubble—which has gone into debt buying houses, cars, flat screen TVs, etc—but also much of the West Bank (on the relative prosperity in the WB, see my post w/photos of last September). As for Hamas, Legrain said that its priority is the “resocialization” of the Palestinian people according to its precepts of Islam. For Hamas, the “liberation” of all of Palestine is the ultimate goal, but is something that will happen in the distant future and for which it has no strategy for bringing about. In the meantime, Hamas has an interest in maintaining calm with Israel—the occasional rocket attacks being the work of Islamic Jihad, Fatah, or other Hamas detractors—so it can pursue the “resocialization” of the Palestinians under its control. One may presume that with the Muslim Brotherhood now in charge in Cairo, the Gaza-Egypt border will fully open at some point, enabling Gazawis to break out of their open-air prison and lessening some of the privations there. And allowing Hamas to further entrench its rule.

So those arguing for a two-state solution—don’t even talk about one-state—are shooting at the moon. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are interested. Not now, in any case. The only realistic solution at the present time is a long-term interim agreement, such as Ehud Yaari spelled out in Foreign Affairs two years ago. For the foreseeable future that’s as good as it will get.

(The above photo—taken by me in 2009—is of the Har Homa settlement seen from Bethlehem)

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I’ve been sort of following the Supreme Court hearings on the Affordable Care Act the past couple of days. I hope the Court upholds it, of course, though it looks uncertain. There’s tons of analyses out there of what happened today, several of which I’ve read. This one, by John Cassidy in The New Yorker, is quite good I think.

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Je me permets de publier un commentaire du psychanalyste tunisien Fethi Benslama—qu’il a publié aujourd’hui sur sa page Facebook—à propos de Mohamed Merah

Je voudrais ajouter à l’entretien sur les Salafistes que j’ai donné récemment (La Presse de Tunisie 02/03/12), un bref commentaire sur le cas de Mohamed Merah qui permet d’éclairer la configuration psychologique de certains Salafistes djihadistes qui passent à l’action violente extrême. La courte trajectoire de sa vie montre qu’il s ‘agit de ce qu’on appelait auparavant « un psychopathe », c’est-à-dire une personne qui a de puissantes pulsions anti-sociales, dont il va recycler le penchant criminel dans des idéologies salvatrices folles, idéologies qui servent de niche à ce genre de personnes, afin de les capter et de les utiliser. En général, ce sont des délinquants (Merah fut condamné 15 fois) ou des criminels qui rencontrent un jour un instructeur qui va les enrôler, en fournissant à leur pulsions meurtrières une justification idéale pour s’exercer sans limite et revêtir le sceau de l’héroïsme. C’est ce qui les rend encore plus impitoyables, c’est-à-dire capables de mettre une balle de sans froid dans la tête d’un enfant, comme à Toulouse, ou égorger n’importe qui, sans éprouver la moindre émotion. Bien plus, ils vont filmer leurs méfaits pour les montrer et en jouir, c’est aussi le cas de Merah. Le recyclage du crime dans des idéologies de salut n’est pas un fait nouveau. Les périodes de troubles ou de mutation sont propices à ce phénomène. L’Europe en a connu. Le monde musulman (je ne dis pas « les Islamistes » et tout le baratin sur ce qui est et ce qui n’est pas l’islam, comme si « les Islamistes » radicaux ne faisaient pas partie de l’islam) est propice aujourd’hui à ces productions, parce qu’il y a un dérèglement effrayant de ses structures anthropologiques fondamentales. Ce qui tient de telles structures, comme ailleurs, c’est la question du crime, son interdiction ou son autorisation au nom de…au nom de la référence la plus élevée. Je pense que des psychopathes, tels Merah, existent en Tunisie et peuvent sévir, dès lors qu’ils sont autorisés par des prédicateurs et autres sergents recruteurs. Les mouvements politiques qui se réclament de l’islam et les autorités de l’Etat sont prévenus : s’ils n’écartent pas de tels individus, s’ils ne mettent pas un terme rapidement aux discours autorisant le meurtre, ils se rendent complices de passages à l’acte atroces à venir.

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John F. Timoney, a former Miami police chief, Philadelphia police commissioner, and deputy police commissioner in New York, has an op-ed in the NYT on “Florida’s disastrous self-defense law,” which allowed for the apparently legal murder of an unarmed teenager last month. The law is more than disastrous, it is sick, pure and simple. The fact that it was enacted—along with all the other NRA-inspired pro-gun legislation across the American heartland—is indicative of a sickness that afflicts a part of American society. Triste exception américaine, parmi les pays civilisés au moins…

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Elena

Earlier this month I had a post entitled ‘Russia: Mafia state’, where I wrote, among other things, that I found Russia to be a “terrifying place.” This led to a spirited exchange with one of my regular readers, who took exception to my take on that country. As Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s latest film, ‘Elena’—which won an award at Cannes last year—had just opened in Paris, I decided to see it illico. It’s good, indeed very good. And it did not cause me to modify my sentiment on Russia being terrifying. Zvyagintsev, in the words of Variety’s critic,

retaining his fascination with the moral impact of individual choices within a fragile family unit…spins a taut, engrossing yarn about a coveted inheritance, cruel class differences and quietly monstrous misdeeds.

He makes Russia out to be a brutal society, sans foi ni loi, where there is little solidarity beyond the immediate family unit. Reviews in the Hollywood press have been stellar—it hasn’t opened in the US yet—, with critics gushing over the pic, e.g. here, here, here, here. French reviews have also been tops.

A few days after seeing ‘Elena’, I ran out to see ‘Khodorkovsky’, the documentary by German director Cyril Tuschi on the rise and fall of the billionaire oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who’s been in prison for the past eight years on what are manifestly politically motivated charges. Not that Khodorkovsky was exactly clean himself when it came to corruption and other dubious practices, but that’s not why Vladimir Putin decided that he didn’t like him and wanted him out of the way. The documentary is quite good and informative. The review in Variety thus begins

Thoroughly researched and highly entertaining, “Khodorkovsky” recounts the strange story of its eponymous subject, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the famous oligarch who’s been languishing in a Siberian prison since 2003 on trumped up tax-evasion charges. Helmer Cyril Tuschi doesn’t disguise his admiration for the tycoon who defied Putin, but the docu never descends into hagiography, and along the way it delivers a pungent portrait of contempo Russia.

The “portrait of contempo Russia” is pungent indeed, in the malodorous sense. US and UK reviews have been positive, e.g. here and here, and in France too. If one has an interest in Russia, do see it.

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Like just about everyone I’m waiting to see how the events in Toulouse this week are going to play out politically, if this will be the game changer that Sarkozy needs to alter the electoral dynamics in his favor, and particularly to close the gap in the second round poll numbers. We’ll have an idea in the coming days, with the wave of post-Toulouse polls. Sarkozy may well see an uptick in his numbers but I’d be surprised if it’s anything more than that. One reason is because what happened in Toulouse was not unprecedented. The murdering of the children with close-range gun shots to the head was particularly shocking—indicating that the terrorist was something more than your garden variety psychopath—, but apart from that gruesome detail we’ve been through this before in France. This country has been the theater of numerous acts and waves of terrorism over the years and decades, most recently the 1986 terror bombings in Paris—Iran being the near certain mastermind—and the 1995 bombing wave, which was linked to the sale guerre in Algeria, between radical Islamists and the Algerian regime (Islamists carried out the attacks but there may well have been manipulation by the Algerian security services). In neither instance did the French population react hysterically or descend into a collective psychosis of fear. The French are not Americans here. And the bombings did not cause the poll numbers of the right-wing governments of the time to go up, nor those of Jean-Marie Le Pen for that matter. And they did not lead to a campaign of Muslimophobia (at least not above and beyond the already prevailing climate).

Since Mohamed Merah was revealed to be the Toulouse terrorist, I’ve been thinking back to the 1995 bombings—one of which had an anti-Semitic character and targeted schoolchildren—, and particularly of the ringleader, Khaled Kelkal (photo below), who had a strikingly similar profile to Merah: of Algerian origin raised in France—and in an immigrant-dominated cité-ghetto—, almost exactly the same age, and who went off the rails in his teens, descending into petty delinquency and then coming under the influence of radical Islamists. And like Merah, the heavily armed Kelkal was killed by the police in a shootout. The Merah-Kelkal parallel has been mentioned in several articles in the press over the past few days, notably in this piece in Mediapart, justly entitled “Une histoire française.” Yes, this is a French story. Unlike Merah, Kelkal did not speak to the police or journalists, so little was known about him when he was killed. But in the week that followed, Le Monde published an interview with Kelkal that had been conducted by a German sociologist—doing doctoral research in French immigrant-populated banlieues—three years earlier, before Kelkal became a terrorist. It was a remarkable document, giving an insight into Kelkal’s parcours and frame of mind. In the intérêt général of my readers, here it is

Moi, Khaled Kelkal
Article paru dans l’édition du 07.10.95

Le Monde publie le texte d’un entretien avec Khaled Kelkal, réalisé le 3 octobre 1992 à Vaulx-en-Velin par un chercheur allemand en sciences sociales et politiques, Dietmar Loch. La rédaction en chef du Monde a été contactée, le 4 octobre, par Dietmar Loch, enseignant-chercheur à l’université de Bielefeld (Rhénamie du Nord Westphalie), membre du Groupe de recherches interdisciplinaires sur les conflits multiethniques que dirige le professeur Wilhelm Heitmeyer. La préparation d’une thèse qu’il achève sous la direction du professeur Claus Leggewie (actuellement titulaire de la chaire Max Weber du Center for European Studies de New York) a conduit M. Loch à séjourner durant près d’une année, en 1992, à Lyon et Vaulx-en-Velin pour une étude de terrain et la collecte d’entretiens. Il s’agissait d’une contribution à une recherche plus vaste consacrée aux politiques municipales d’intégration et aux conflits entre communautés d’origines diverses ou entre leurs membres et le reste de la population ou les institutions et autorités.

L’une des tâches que s’était assignées M. Loch consistait à entrer en contact, par l’intermédiaire d’institutions, de travailleurs sociaux, de « leaders d’opinion », ou d’autres jeunes, avec un certain nombre (more…)

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[update below]

This story has been making the rounds the last couple of days—though apparently not too much in Israel—, of Beiter Jerusalem soccer fans going on the rampage in a shopping mall after a game last Monday and assaulting Arabs with impunity. No arrests have been made. Read about it here in +972—which links to the Haaretz report and has a video— and here. The Beitar F.C.’s anti-Arab racism is well-known, of the fans—the banner in the above photo reads “No Arabs”—but also of the club’s hiring policies (e.g. see here and here). If Beitar doesn’t clean up its act it should be expelled from UEFA. And if the relevant Israeli authorities don’t move against it, all Israeli clubs should be suspended from UEFA tournaments.

ADDENDUM: In the home of a family in Ramallah’s Al-Amari refugee camp three years ago (see here), I noticed that one of the men was wearing a Beitar Jerusalem t-shirt. I was informed—and I’m not making this up—that the club has numerous Palestinian fans. Go figure.

UPDATE: Abbas Suana, a former member of Israel’s national soccer team, calls Beitar Jerusalem’s fans the “most dangerous” in Israel. (March 28)

(photo: http://www.one.co.il)

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Tough French

I’ll have more to say in the coming days on the events in Toulouse and their aftermath. In the meantime, here are two items I found in my archives on American right-wing admiration of the French when it comes to anti-terrorism. Daniel Pipes, an archconservative and who, when pronouncing himself on Israeli politics, is to the right of Bibi Netanyahu, had a piece in 2005 on “Weak Brits, Tough French.” And in 2008 Reuel Marc Gerecht and Gary Schmitt—well-known Washington “neocons” both—had an article in The American: The Online Magazine of the American Enterprise Institute on “What France Does Best,” informing their no doubt surprised readers that “France is the world’s most sophisticated practitioner of counterterrorism” and that “[t]he U.S. can learn from her experience.” Hmmm, I wonder what happened to those cheese-eating surrender monkeys?…

(photo credit: afp.com/Jack Guez)

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The always interesting Aaron David Miller has a fine piece on the Foreign Policy web site on the US-Israeli relationship. Mearsheimer & Walt probably won’t like it but who cares about them?

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[update below]

I saw this film a month ago and have been intending to post something on it. Now seems like an appropriate moment, in view of the identity of the murderer of the Jewish schoolchildren and teacher in Toulouse, and of the soldiers there and in Montauban. At first I figured that the perpetrator was a neo-Nazi but as it turns out he’s a 24-year old beur of Algerian origin named Mohammed, has an apparently lengthy police record for petty crime, is a salafist and jihadist, and has had a couple of stints with Al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He sounds like a character straight out of ‘La Désintégration’.

The film, directed by Philippe Faucon—who also did ‘La Trahison’ (good) and ‘Dans la vie’ (less good)—, is set in a cité in a lower class, heavily immigrant/Maghrebi quarter of Lille. The main character, Ali—played by Rashid Debbouze, brother of Jamel—, is in his early 20s, of a Moroccan immigrant family, the holder of a bac pro (vocational high school diploma), and is having great difficulty finding an internship in his trade, whereas his other classmates—Français de souche (i.e. “white” French) or of other European stock—are having fewer problems. Ali, who’s about as typé as you can get—i.e. he looks stereotypically Arab—, is clearly the victim of prejudice and racism, reacts with rage, falls in with a radical Islamist group in the cité, and becomes a fanatic. The film depicts the process by which an otherwise upright, not particularly religious young man is transformed into a jihadist willing to commit a terrorist atrocity. That’s what the film’s about.

The scenario is well-known, as are the characters, all of whom play well-defined roles: Ali, the beur seeking to integrate and lead a normal life but when confronted with discrimination and injustice rejects France and everything French, and becomes an Islamist; Djamel, the manipulative, evil jihadist ringleader, who recruits lost souls into his circle and brainwashes them with his violent, hateful brand of Islam, and who is disconnected not only from French society but from his own community as well; Nasser, the IQ-challenged petty delinquent layabout hiding from the police, who knows almost nothing about Islam but willingly falls under Djamel’s diabolical influence, as his parents have thrown him out of the house and he doesn’t have anywhere else to turn; Hamza, the French convert (Hamza is not his birth name), also IQ-challenged, who’s as fanaticized as Djamel, but too dim to be anything but a foot soldier (and cannon fodder); Ali’s older brother, who is also typé but is perfectly integrated into French society, has a good job, and a Française de souche wife; Ali’s sister, who would not be caught dead wearing a veil and, like the older brother, is integrated into French society; Ali’s father, who’s ill and basically out of it; and his mother—a major character in the film—, a traditional Moroccan woman who speaks to her children in darija (Moroccan dialect), wears a traditional headscarf, and is distraught by Ali’s radical turn, whose interpretation of Islam—all learned from the evil Djamel—is alien to hers. None of Ali’s immediate family members understand him. His brother tries to reason with him, saying that he also suffered from discrimination but that he never gave up, that Ali can integrate into society too if he really tries—as opposed to dis-integrating from it (thus the title of the film). Peine perdue.

Again, these are well-known, almost stock characters. (Based on what is known at the present moment, the Toulouse terrorist looks to be a cross between Ali and Nasser). Pedagogically and as sociology, it’s a very good film. As cinema, it’s good enough, though not without flaws. E.g. we know almost nothing about ringleader Djamel—who is clearly in an organization and with higher-ups—and what his story is—how he got to be the way he is—, or of Hamza the convert, though perhaps it doesn’t matter, as the center of the film is Ali and his family. I was also somewhat dissatisfied with the ending. Again, no big deal. One notes that the screenplay was co-authored by Mohamed Sifaoui, a high-profile Algerian journalist and blogger resident in France, who is second-to-none in his hatred of Islamism (and whose big journalistic coup was penetrating jihadist circles in France undercover and then writing a book about it, translated into English as Inside Al Qaeda: How I Infiltrated the World’s Deadliest Terrorist Organization). Reviews of the film—which has so far only opened in France—were good on the whole. In view of the subject matter there were also commentaries in the press by non-film critics, e.g. here, here, and here. One article interviewed young Franco-Maghrebis in the quarter of Lille where the film was set, who were critical of it on different levels. I don’t yet have a representative sample of reactions from people I know, though the two persons with whom I saw it—my wife (half-Algerian) and a friend (French from a Moroccan family very much like Ali’s in the film)—liked it very much. In fact, my friend was boulversée (blown away) by the film, which rang totally true to her; and she was particularly moved by the mother (who brought my friend to tears while watching the film; it was very close to home for her). Hopefully the film will open before too long in the US, UK, and elsewhere—and reopen in France, where it didn’t do extremely well at the box office—, as it deserves to be seen, and particularly in view of what has happened in Toulouse this week.

While I’m at it, I want to recommend two British films on the subject of radical Islamism in Europe among the alienated offspring of Muslim immigrants. One is ‘My Son, the Fanatic‘ (1997), based on a short story by Hanif Kureishi. This film is first rate and a must see. The other is ‘Four Lions‘ (2010), a spot on parody of low IQ jihadist wannabes. Also a must see.

UPDATE: Le Monde (issue dated 25-26 March) has a full-page interview with Phillipe Faucon. The opening paragraph:

Rarement film n’aura eu un si tragique pouvoir de prémonition. La Désintégration est sorti le 15 février sur les écrans français. Nourri par une longue enquête de terrain, tourné avec un budget modeste, il décrit sans pathos le basculement de trois jeunes de l’agglomération lilloise, Nasser, Ali et Hamza, dans le terrorisme islamiste. Rétif aux explications définitives, son auteur, Philippe Faucon, a préféré réunir un faisceau d’indices éclairant leur passage à l’acte : blessure narcissique, rupture familiale, scolaire ou professionnelle, fragilité psychologique, petite délinquance… Depuis L’Amour, son premier long-métrage en 1990, Philippe Faucon chronique les émois et le désarroi de la jeunesse des quartiers périphériques.

Read the interview here.

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Pascal Lamy, the director-general of the WTO and longtime member of the French PS, has a most interesting interview in Mediapart on France and Europe. Read it here.

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10 candidates

[update below]

So there will be ten candidates in the presidential election. Three of them—Sarkozy, Hollande, Bayrou—aspire to the presidency. An additional three—Le Pen, Mélenchon, Joly—know they have no chance of being elected and don’t even wish to be, but represent established political formations occupying a distinct segment of the political spectrum and have a vocation to be present, to use the presidential campaign as a tribune to advance their respective causes. One candidate—Dupont-Aignan—is an independent—with no party behind him—but has a mission and message (right-wing, orthodox Gaullist anti-EU souverainisme). Then there are the ultras and flakes: the Trotskyists Poutou and Arthaud, and the LaRouche cultist Cheminade.

My blogging confrère Art Goldhammer, commenting on the situation, poses a question:

How is it that Jacques Cheminade, Philippe Poutou, and Nathalie Arthaud, who collectively might have one percent in the polls, can round up 500 signatures but Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister, can’t, and Marine Le Pen, polling at 17%, claims she had difficulty? This is a nominating system that makes no sense to me.

The answer: Poutou, Arthaud, and Cheminade had organizations—however groupusculaire—behind them. All it takes is two or three dozen dedicated Trot militants or LaRouche cultists to crisscross la France profonde, meet with village mayors, and convince them to pledge. Villepin didn’t have that. He was bereft of a party or organization and clearly had no interest in building one. He did launch a political movement in 2010 comprised of his fans, République Solidaire, and to great fanfare, but then watched as some of its principal figures defected to Sarkozy. And then Villepin himself quit the leadership of RS, of a movement he founded and for the sole purpose of advancing his presidential ambitions. C’est très sérieux ça

So if Villepin couldn’t round up 500 signatures and is wondering why, he need only look in the mirror for the answer. As for Marine Le Pen’s difficulties, I addressed that a month ago here.

With all due respect to my blogging confrère, not only does the French system make sense but it needs to be reinforced. E.g. by raising the number of parrainages to, say, 700 or 800, to eliminate the ultras and flakes, who have no business contesting a presidential election. Their presence is a distraction and in view of the obligation of the broadcast media to cover them—a crazy rule that I’ll come back to—, a waste of the media’s and everyone else’s time.

UPDATE: So it seems that Dominique de Villepin in fact had more than enough parrainages to qualify for the ballot but didn’t want to face a humiliating result at the polls, so he made up a story. Tiens tiens…

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Lots of commentary and analysis of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s march yesterday, which is regarded across the board as a spectacular success. And all the more so as it was linked to an election. One simply does not see tens of thousands of citizens coming out on a Sunday to march for a candidate—to march in affirmation of a cause or person, as opposed to demonstrating against something. Mediapart had a good piece on JLM’s succeeding in his prise de la Bastille. Thomas Legrand’s commentary this morning on France Inter, on JLM’s “demonstration of force,” was also not bad

Vous revenez sur la démonstration de force, hier à la Bastille, de Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

 Oui, Jean-Luc Mélenchon aura créé certainement l’évènement populaire de la campagne. Si la Bastille a déjà connu, dans son histoire des mobilisations comparables, c’était toujours dans le cadre d’une protestation contre un projet gouvernemental, ou pour réagir à un évènement, comme la monté du racisme dans les années 80. Mais qu’un mouvement politique rassemble autant de monde lors d’une campagne, c’est un fait rarissime, surtout pour un candidat qui, bien qu’en progression, ne semble pas en mesure de se qualifier pour le second tour. La démonstration d’hier était remarquable aussi parce qu’elle avait un caractère identitaire très fort pour la gauche. Il y avait sur la place de la Bastille à l’ombre de la colonne de Juillet, une foule au drapeau rouge et tricolore, des bonnets phrygiens qui ravivaient l’imaginaire de ce camp politique. Le discours de Jean-Luc Mélenchon était fait pour trifouiller au plus profond de l’âme de la gauche française, lui rappeler son origine révolutionnaire. C’était grandiloquent et exalté pour la gauche, parfois chevrotant pour la République. Mélenchon recherchait l’effet frisson, il voulait du « Entre ici, Jean Moulin ». Emouvante ou caricaturale, chaque phrase raisonnait comme un appel fraternel aux peuples d’Europe, au monde, à l’humanité. L’orateur invoquait le « le cri du peuple », référence au journal communard de Jules Vallès. « L’égalité par quoi tout commence en France », Louise Michel, Jean Jaurès, les mots, les noms cités n’étaient pas puisés dans l’actualité, ni même dans l’histoire récente (rien sur mai 81) mais dans le tréfonds des mémoires de la gauche et de la République. Mélenchon a su remettre en branle le grand squelette du Parti Communiste, réactiver sa formidable capacité d’organisation pour réussir une grand messe de gauche dans le style le plus classique du genre !

Et cette démonstration de force a-t-elle de quoi inquiéter François Hollande ?

 Pour son élection non, au contraire, mais pour la suite, oui ! Jean-Luc Mélenchon rassemble toute la gauche de la gauche sous une même bannière. Des anciens trotskistes, des alternatifs de tout poil, les restes du PC et certainement des nouveaux électeurs. Il leur fait chanter l’Internationale et la Marseillaise ! Ils iront en masse voter pour François Hollande au second tour. Hier Jean-Luc Mélenchon voulait montrer sa force mais visiblement, ne pas la diriger contre le socialiste. D’ailleurs le discours n’a duré que 25 minutes. Sa grandiloquence n’avait d’égal que le vague très étudié de ses propositions. Mélenchon s’est bien gardé de faire de la surenchère sociale trop précise. Il n’a rien prononcé qu’on puisse ressortir pour mettre un couteau sous la gorge de candidat socialiste. Imaginez qu’il ait brandi, devant la place de la Bastille noire de monde, le smic à 1700 euros en interpellant directement François Hollande ! Il n’en a rien été, Mélenchon connaît les codes de la compétition du premier tour à gauche. Ce n’est pas l’inscription du droit à l’avortement dans la Constitution ou la fin du concordat en Alsace qui pourra raisonner comme un casus belli ou sera vécu, au PS comme une pierre dans le jardin programmatique du candidat François Hollande. En revanche, l’éventuel président Hollande, qui veut réserver un groupe parlementaire aux écologistes et revenir à l’équilibre budgétaire en 2017, sait qu’il existe désormais une gauche radicale prête à battre le pavé.

The consequences of this on François Hollande is of course the big question. Art Goldhammer, citing an analysis à chaud by Gérard Grunberg that he links to, writes that

there are limits to Mélenchon’s rise: if he approaches the 15% that the extreme left won in 2002, there will be strong pressure for a “vote utile” that will drive some of his supporters back to Hollande.

The reflex to voter utile was invoked by marchers quoted in an article in Libé, who like Mélenchon but will nonetheless vote Hollande on April 22nd out of fear of a repeat of the 21 avril. If late polls show Sarkozy definitively taking first place and widening the gap with Hollande, the number of votes utiles for Hollande will certainly increase. Regardless of JLM’s first round score, there is little doubt that the vast majority of his voters will vote Hollande on May 6th. The problem for Hollande will be if JLM scores into the double digits, coming on the heels of François Bayrou or even overtaking him. The pressure on Hollande to tack left in his rhetoric entre les deux tours will be intense. But in order to win the election, Hollande will need a hefty chunk of Bayrou voters, i.e. to move to the center, which is his preferred inclination. One may be sure that JLM’s Front de Gauche—which is hostile to any alliance with Bayrou and the MoDem—will be particularly vigilant on this score. They’ll be watching Hollande like a hawk. Sarkozy & Co—who think they can square the circle by mimicking the FN while attracting Bayrou voters—will savor this eventuality with delectation. If Hollande cannot net a sufficient number of Bayrou voters while politely keeping Mélenchon at bay, then he will prove that he really doesn’t have the stature to be Président de la République. Espérons que nous n’en arriverons pas là.

UPDATE: Anne Sinclair has a good account on yesterday’s event in Le Huffington Post (via Art Goldhammer). Money quote:

[Jean-Luc Mélenchon] séduit beaucoup d’électeurs de gauche par son langage direct et riche, loin des nuances souvent alambiquées ou vagues de ses concurrents. Parce que les Français aiment bien les grandes gueules, parce que la France est l’un des rares pays d’Europe à avoir encore une puissante extrême gauche post-marxiste, parce que la nostalgie existe de celui qui pendra les “aristos à la lanterne”, parce qu’on aime flirter avec le frisson du grand soir et se faire plaisir au premier tour si l’on ne risque rien.

Encore l’exception française…

(photo: © AFP)

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Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche staged a big march this afternoon, from Place de la Nation to the Place de la Bastille, culminating in an address by Mélenchon to the masses in front of the Bastille Opera. The event was a huge success. There were several tens of thousands, considerably more than the 30,000 that had been predicted. It was the biggest march in France of the peuple de gauche not directly organized by trade unions in a very long time, with legions of aging PCF militants, probably every last member of Mélenchon’s own Parti de Gauche, and activists from other sundry hard left associations and groupings. People of all ages. The other campaigns were certainly following the event very closely, particularly Hollande’s—which will be concerned by its success, as it wants as many of these folks as possible to vote for him in round one—and Sarkozy’s, which will be pleased by the success, as they hope Mélenchon will create problems for Hollande. Here are some of the photos I took. (N.B. I attended as an interested spectator. I am not a sympathizer of J-L Mélenchon or the French hard left, and definitely not of the Communist party. Politically speaking, this is not my cup of tea, even if I am not unsympathetic to some of the discourse and positions on given issues.)


Along the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, near Ledru Rollin, around 4:30 PM.

As it happens, today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Paris Commune in 1871, an iconic event in the imaginaire of the French left, along with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. And the Faubourg Saint-Antoine was the heart of revolutionary Paris and the sans culottes in the 1792-94 years. Lots of symbolism here.

Sharon from Milwaukee sees Communists for the very first time.

Demanding the regularization of sans papiers, i.e. legalizing undocumented immigrants. Mélenchon supports it. So do I.

Mélenchon speaks, toward 5:10 PM. Impossible to get near the stage, or to even move.

The speech wasn’t that long, around half an hour. He’s a good orator. The rhetoric was solidly républicain and gauchiste. Mainly boilerplate. Biggest applause lines: attacking le grand capital.

I only saw one small hammer-and-sickle, on a homemade sign. Communists ain’t what they used to be.

Singing L’Internationale. It’s stirring. Has to be sung in French, BTW. Doesn’t work in English.

Singing La Marseillaise, the greatest national anthem in the world.

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En ce 50ème anniversaire des Accords d’Evian, je veux signaler cet excellent documentaire de l’historienne Raphaëlle Branche et Rémi Lainé—adapté du dernier livre de Raphaëlle—, qui sera diffusé sur ARTE le mardi 20 mars à 22h30. Je l’ai vu en avant-première il y a quelques jours. C’est l’un des meilleurs documentaires que j’ai vu sur la Guerre d’Algérie, voire sur le colonialisme français dans ce pays-là. À ne pas louper.

ADDENDUM: Si on le loupe quand même ce mardi, on pourra le voir en streaming sur le site d’ARTE pendant une semaine. Et il sera certainement disponsible bientôt en DVD.

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“Hollande plods on,” as my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer over at French Politics observes this weekend. Art is not too impressed with François Hollande’s campaign at the moment, which he implies is less-than-dynamic and not too inspired. Une campagne pépère, si vous voulez

What Hollande is offering is not something new and different but a promise to be a bit better and, above all, a different manner of execution from the other guy’s. There are signs that voters have begun to tire of this and are looking for something a little more robust from the candidate that a good many of them would like to vote for if only he would give them one good compelling reason. If he doesn’t, he may find that the late-campaign onslaught, when Sarkozy veers back toward the center and starts pounding away with the heavy artillery of “realism” and “fiscal responsibility,” is too much for him, especially with the enemy closing in recent polls to within hand-to-hand combat distance.

Art is not alone on this. E.g. the muckracking, Sarko-loathing webzine Mediapart has an analysis up this weekend wondering if Hollande is not a “force trop tranquille,” i.e. un peu pépère. Even I have posed a question or two on this of late. E.g. Hollande’s performance on France 2 Thursday night was solid—and I thought he held his own against Jean-François Copé’s onslaught—but he didn’t hit it out of the park.

But despite the critiques and tightening first round polls—which I argued last week should not be accorded too much importance—perhaps Hollande in fact knows precisely what he’s doing, that his campagne pépère is strategic, driven by an analysis of the hard data. A new IPSOS poll—conducted the first week of this month and based on a not insignificant sample of 4,603—has some interesting numbers and which are not too bad for Hollande—but are quite bad for Sarkozy. There is a mountain of data in the poll—the report runs 42 pages—but the table that is particularly interesting is on the popularity of the candidates (the question being “do you have a good or bad opinion of…”). Hollande has the highest popularity rating of all, with 55% positive and 44% negative. Breaking these numbers down, 20% have a “very good” opinion of FH and an equal 20% a “very bad” one. Of the major candidates, only François Bayrou has a lower “very bad” percentage. If voters are beginning to tire of Hollande’s pépère campaign, it is not apparent here. As for Sarkozy, his positive-negative percentage is 38-61. But while 12% have a “very good” opinion of him, a whopping 42% have a “very bad” one. This is a huge number, the highest strong negative I have ever seen on him. There is intensity of sentiment when it comes to Sarko but it’s not where he wants it to be. In short, close to half the electorate cannot stand him. His strong positive is up—it has been in the mid single digits for years now—, no doubt on account of his combative droitisation strategy, but this is also causing more voters to recoil.

Sarkozy’s posture at the rally in Lyon yesterday, where he relentlessly hammered away at Hollande, was noteworthy. When an incumbent attacks his opponent with this vehemence, it is a sure fire sign that he is in trouble. It does not indicate strength or confidence. While such negativity may fire up the troops, it is not likely to impress fence-sitters. It may be added that going negative in this way is not only unusual for a major candidate in a French campaign but also in an American one—a presidential at least—where the candidate him/herself strives to take the high road, leaving the low blows to surrogates. Sarko l’Américain could clearly use some inspiring on this score outre-Atlantique (but then, the men who have Sarko’s ear and are driving his campaign—Patrick Buisson, Guillaume Peltier, Henri Guaino—are not precisely known for their Americophilia or looking outre-Atlantique for models to emulate).

I’m not trying to defend Hollande’s campaign here. On the substantive issues I have some critiques to make. I have not been overly impressed with some of Hollande’s discourse. I will come back to this subject soon. But when the question is whether or not a campaign strategy is working, all I’m interested in is the poll numbers. Just the numbers, ma’am, nothing but the numbers.

UPDATE: Upon finishing this I see that Art Goldhammer revient à la charge in a new post, on “the rise of Mélenchon,” where he furthers his critique of Hollande

But the real story of Sarko’s convergence with Hollande, now confirmed by 3 polls, is that Mélenchon has been taking votes from Hollande. No one would have given him a chance to get 11% a couple of months ago, but there he is, a result of both his own dogged campaigning around the country and Hollande’s dispiriting caution. For the second round, it doesn’t matter. All, or nearly all, of Mélenchon’s votes will go to Hollande by default, although there may be a substantial abstention. But it’s a symptom of the listlessness of Hollande’s campaign that Mélenchon is evidently peeling off voters who once thought they would go for the Socialist. This isn’t a vote of adhesion to the extreme left; it’s a protest vote against the Socialists, who aren’t meeting the expectations of their rank and file.

It is manifest that Hollande’s falloff in the polls has been due to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who’s picking up some of his soft voters. Now it is possible that these Hollande defectors are disappointed with the “listlessness” of his campaign. Perhaps. A more likely explanation, though, is that almost no one now fears that Hollande risks a repeat of the 21 avril. There is almost total certainty among left voters that he will be in the second round, thus lessening the reflex to voter utile in the first. Mélenchon has also been leading a pugnacious, effective campaign and has benefited from the absence of other high-profile candidates on the radical left—which, along with the PCF, can garner upwards of 13-14% of the first round vote in a presidential election. There is no Olivier Besancenot, Arlette Laguiller, or José Bové this time around. For their part, Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud—who are not exactly household names—are not cutting it. And Mélenchon is the PCF’s candidate, of course, and whose older members—initially wary—are delighted with him. So Mélenchon has a chunk of the political spectrum all to himself. Many left voters were also highly impressed with the punishing he administered to a pathetic Marine Le Pen on prime time three weeks back. If Mélenchon reaches 12% in the polls, then the Hollande campaign will have reason to start fretting. Mais on n’en est pas là, pas encore de toute façon.

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