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Archive for May, 2012

Le Prénom

This is the latest French hit comedy, that has been filling the salles here since it opened last month and which I saw a couple of nights ago. I was originally not going to bother with it but a friend whose taste I respect gave it the thumbs up. Hollywood Reporter’s critic—the only US one who seems to have seen it so far—also liked the pic (French reviews have generally been good, with those by spectateurs on Allociné particularly enthusiastic). His review begins

A bunch of forty-something buddies find their dinner date transformed into a dinner disaster in What’s in a Name? (Le Prenom), an amusing and well-acted French farce in the pure tradition of boulevard classics Le Diner de cons and Le Pere Noel est une ordure. Adapting their highly successful stage version to the screen with keen comic-timing but much less cinematic panache, Mathieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patelliere offer up a lively take on love, friendship and baby-naming that should titillate Francophone audiences and upscale offshore distributors.

I thought it wasn’t bad. On the laugh-o-meter it’s not quite at the same level as ‘Le Dîner de cons‘ or ‘Didier‘, not to mention the marvelous ‘Potiche‘—now those were funny films—, but it does have its moments. Quite a few, in fact. It will be appreciated, in particular, by those with a higher degree in the liberal arts (entre autres, the pic makes sport of left-leaning French academics and their milieu). It’s very much like Roman Polanski’s ‘Carnage‘, in that it is set almost entirely in a living room, with highly educated, middle-aged adults farcically going at one another. It will eventually make it to the US, where it will be a sure-fire hit among the foreign film-seeing crowd.

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The brilliant Front National militants of Hénin-Beaumont. Jean-Luc Mélenchon referred to them as “four alcoholics and ten degenerates” a couple of weeks ago, and which I posted on, wondering if JLM hadn’t committed a faute politique in dissing his opponents in the upcoming election in such terms. Now I wonder if he wasn’t too mild in his denigrations. Marianne reports that frontistes in Hénin-Beaumont have been distributing the above faux tract to voters in the Pas-de-Calais’ 11th constituency over the past three days, to frighten them away from Mélenchon and into the arms of Marine Le Pen (for those who don’t know French, JLM is quoted as having said at his big Marseille rally last month that “There is no future for France without the Arabs and Berbers of the Maghreb”).

Now here’s the thing. Anyone who has studied Arabic for even part of a semester will be doubled over in laughter at the rendering of the language at the bottom of the FN’s fake tract. As Marianne notes, it is written here from left to right, when Arabic is naturally written the other way; but one further notes that the letters all stand alone—which I doubt has ever occurred in the history of the Arabic language—, making it doubly hilarious. I can’t even imagine how the frontistes managed to pull off this double feat—unless it was a piège—as in writing Arabic on a keyboard one has to make a special effort to type the letters so they stand singly, not to mention the wrong way. Mélenchon written in Arabic should normally appear as ميلينشون and not as ن و ش ن ي ل ي م … Seriously, it takes some doing to come up with this one.

So it looks like JLM is not dealing here with quatre alcooliques et dix dégénérés but simply quatorze cons

ADDENDUM: Or maybe they’re quatorze rigolos, who had just seen the hit comedy ‘Le Prénom’ (see following post) and were inspired by the Patrick Bruel character’s refrain in the film: “C’était une blague !:-D

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I linked to a commentary by Bernard Guetta on Monday, on Islamists in power, and now I am again, this one arguing strongly against military intervention in Syria and despite the massacres committed by the regime, as this would only make the situation far worse. He’s right. I think he understates his case, in fact, as a Western-led intervention would not only cause the region—and with Lebanon in the front line—to go up in flames but would be as catastrophic for Syria as the American invasion was for Iraq. Syria is not Libya, as Guetta says. It is Iraq (as I say). Support the Syrian opposition politically and diplomatically—and isolate the regime—but stay out of it otherwise.

L’ampleur du crime est encore plus grande que ce que l’on avait cru. Vendredi, ce n’est pas seulement que l’armée syrienne a bombardé la ville de Houla. C’est aussi que seule une vingtaine de 108 victimes de ce massacre ont été tuées par les tirs d’obus et que les autres, toutes les autre y compris une quarantaine d’enfants, ont été ensuite assassinées de sang froid, par familles entières, après avoir été regroupées dans leur maison.

Cela ressort des témoignages de survivants diffusés hier par la BBC. Le Haut commissariat de l’Onu aux droits de l’homme a confirmé la chose en parlant « d’exécutions sommaires » et l’on comprend maintenant pourquoi tant des victimes portaient des traces de balles ou de blessures à l’arme blanche.

Ce sont ces informations qui expliquent que beaucoup de pays, dont la France, aient décidé hier d’expulser les ambassadeurs de ce régime d’assassins et que François Hollande ait déclaré au 20h de France 2 qu’une « intervention armée n’était pas exclue à condition qu’elle se fasse dans le respect du droit international », c’est-à-dire sur décision du Conseil de sécurité. C’était un message à Bachar al-Assad. Jamais une grande puissance n’avait même envisagé cette éventualité que les Etats-Unis n’ont repoussée que  « pour l’instant »,  ont-ils dit. Le ton monte contre le pouvoir syrien que même la Chine et la Russie ont condamné pour le massacre de Houla mais est-ce à dire, pour autant, que ce qui avait été fait en Libye pourrait l’être en Syrie ?

« Pour l’instant » au moins, non, ce n’est pas le cas car une telle décision ne peut pas être fondée sur la seule indignation, aussi légitime qu’elle soit. Il faut aussi examiner ses implications, penser au coup d’après, soupeser les rapports de force et, à aucun de ces égards, la Syrie n’est la Libye.

Muamar Kadhafi n’avait pas d’alliés, nulle part. Sa chute ne pouvait  guère susciter de déstabilisation régionale mais seulement mener à une partition de la Libye qui n’aurait pas été un drame en soi et aggraver la crise du Sahel qui était, de toute manière, partie pour se développer. Au regard du bain de sang qui menaçait ce pays et de la possibilité que soit donné un coup d’arrêt aux révolutions arabes, ces deux dangers étaient secondaires alors qu’il n’en va pas du tout de même en Syrie.

Le régime syrien est soutenu par l’Iran dont il est le grand allié. Il l’est aussi par l’Irak qui est majoritairement chiite comme le sont l’Iran et la minorité alaouite dont est issu le clan Assad. Le pouvoir syrien n’a qu’un bouton à presser pour mettre le Liban à feu et à sang en s’appuyant sur ses alliés chiites du Hezbollah. La partie serait, en un mot, extrêmement aléatoire et dangereuse puisque tout le Proche-Orient pourrait en être bouleversé et que des forces d’intervention, même aériennes, pourraient vite se retrouver au cœur d’une guerre, d’ores et déjà rampante, entre les deux religions de l’islam, chiisme et sunnisme.

Même si la Chine et la Russie n’y faisaient plus obstacle, une intervention militaire serait loin d’être la panacée et ce régime – les faits sont là – ne pourra être vaincu qu’à l’usure qui d’ailleurs l’atteint déjà. Il sera vaincu mais seulement au bout d’autres longs mois d’horreur et de sang.

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Le Monde had an interesting full-page enquête the other day on the complaints of Greek private sector employers. As the piece is difficult to find on LM’s website even for subscribers, here’s the whole thing

La complainte des patrons grecs
Article paru dans l’édition du 26.05.12

Un secteur public tentaculaire, des syndicats tout-puissants, une politique clientéliste : en Grèce, les entrepreneurs ont une interminable liste de griefs. Eux-mêmes ont délocalisé, négligé la recherche et le développement, pratiqué à outrance l’évasion fiscale

Larissa (Grèce)
Envoyée spéciale

Assez vite, Andreas Liontos a senti le vent tourner. D’abord, il y eut quelques retards de paiement, des explications douteuses, puis plus de paiement du tout. Inéluctablement, sa compagnie d’assurances, créée en 1990 à Larissa, ville agricole du centre de la Grèce, en Thessalie, a basculé dans le rouge. Etranglés par les mesures d’austérité, les Grecs se fichaient bien de souscrire un nouveau contrat d’assurance-vie ou de protéger un véhicule – que le plus souvent ils n’avaient plus. Pour Andreas, l’ardoise a été salée : 5 millions d’euros.

A 45 ans, l’homme, ambitieux et taiseux, n’a pas sombré. Il a compris que son avenir se jouait désormais hors des frontières et qu’il ne devait compter que sur lui-même. « Tout ce que j’ai fait, je l’ai toujours fait seul, sans aide, sans (more…)

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Jean Quatremer, Libération’s Brussels correspondent, has a must read essay on his Libé blog ‘Coulisses de Bruxelles’, “Grèce : le grand malentendu.” He is not too tender toward the Greeks and their apparent lack of will to carry out necessary reforms, and despite the massive, unprecedented transfers they have received from the rest of Europe, not just during the current crisis but since the country was admitted to the EC three decades ago. Read it. The whole thing.

[European Union: who pays, who receives]

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Greek immobilism

Greek writer and philosopher Nikos Dimou had an op-ed in Le Monde last week on how “immobilism in Greece has gone on for way too long.” The piece was translated from English but as I couldn’t find the original version here it is en français

LE MONDE | 24.05.2012 à 13h35

Par Nikos Dimou, écrivain et philosophe grec.

En 2009, quand Georges Papandréou est arrivé au pouvoir, la situation était critique, mais pas désespérée. La Grèce pouvait encore obtenir des prêts sur le marché des titres. Mais le gouvernement s’y est pris tout de travers. Au lieu d’élaguer les dépenses et de miser sur la productivité, il a dilapidé les fonds publics. En mars 2010, au bord de la faillite, la Grèce a dû faire appel à la communauté internationale.

La troïka formée par le Fonds monétaire international, l’Union Européenne et la Banque centrale est venue renflouer la Grèce et l’a exhortée à restructurer son économie. En vain. Certains membres du Pasok (dont des ministres) et les syndicats tout-puissants se sont montrés hostiles à toute réforme. Il s’agissait d’éponger le déficit budgétaire en réduisant la voilure, en allégeant le secteur public, en liquidant les entreprises publiques déficitaires. Et de lutter contre ces fléaux nationaux que sont la corruption et la fraude fiscale.

Au lieu de cela, le gouvernement a procédé à des coupes horizontales de 20 % à 30 % sur les salaires, a augmenté l’impôt sur le revenu et la taxe foncière (acquittés par les rares contribuables honnêtes) et majoré les impôts indirects (la TVA a augmenté de 23 %).

Si les fonctionnaires ont sauvé leur poste, un million de salariés du secteur privé se sont retrouvés au chômage. Sur l’essentiel, rien n’a changé. Les professions “fermées” le sont restées : taxis, notaires, pharmaciens, avocats, transporteurs et une centaine d’autres catégories réglementées sont à l’abri de la concurrence. Nous vivons encore sous le régime des guildes médiévales !

Pourquoi un tel immobilisme ? Le philosophe Stelios Ramfos dénonce une société statique, en proie à l’insécurité, au ressentiment, à la méfiance et à la peur du changement. Cet état d’esprit ne date pas d’hier ; il repose sur des fondements culturels et religieux (de même, la défiance des Grecs envers l’Occident a alimenté plusieurs théories du complot). La seule réforme votée à une écrasante majorité par le Parlement concernait le système universitaire. Même cette loi n’a jamais été appliquée : les universités refusent d’évoluer.

Les lourdeurs et la corruption qui plombent l’administration empêchent l’application des lois et des réformes. Et que dire de son obsolescence ? La plupart des fonctionnaires ne savent pas se servir d’un ordinateur. Des procédures qui pourraient se régler en un clic prennent des semaines. Au cours des dix dernières années, l’Etat a investi 8 milliards d’euros dans des équipements informatiques qui n’ont jamais été utilisés.

Dans un premier temps (le 17 juin, si tout se passe comme prévu), les Grecs auront à élire un gouvernement. Celui-ci devra négocier un nouveau mémorandum. La déflation et la récession sont aujourd’hui les principaux problèmes et, si le pays ne reprend pas la voie de la croissance et de la productivité, il ne pourra pas survivre (encore moins rembourser sa dette !).

Ce qu’il nous faut, c’est une nouvelle génération d’hommes politiques, un nouveau secteur public (plus dense et plus efficace), un nouveau plan économique. Plus important encore, il nous faut adopter une nouvelle mentalité. Le temps est venu de nous secouer de notre torpeur et de nous ouvrir à la modernité. Telle était l’ambition partagée par tous les grands dirigeants politiques grecs au cours de ces deux siècles de liberté. Qui sait ? Peut-être la crise aura-t-elle un effet bénéfique ?

The bit about how most Greek functionaries don’t know how to use a computer struck a personal note with me. From the early 1980s on I had a dear friend in Athens, whom I visited a few times there and carried on a regular correspondence with. When I first wrote her a letter printed from a computer, circa 1986, she took it negatively. She thought the computer-generated printed word was cold, impersonal, unspontaneous, devoid of emotion… I hadn’t heard that one before (and haven’t since). Several years ago—not having heard from her in some time—I called her in Athens and, among other things, asked if she had e-mail. Response: oh no, not at all, don’t know about that. I said that was really too bad, as it’s hard to stay in touch otherwise (does anyone still write letters and send them via the post office?). I imagine she still doesn’t have it (otherwise I think I would have heard about it by now). And my friend was not some time-serving functionary but a lawyer, whose office was in central Athens and home in an upscale suburb (Kifisia). Now I know there are plenty of Greeks who are computer savvy, use the Internet, are on Facebook, etc, etc, but if my friend is at all representative of educated Greeks of her generation (she’s in her late 40s), then, as we say here, la Grèce n’est pas sortie de l’auberge…


[The person on the left (labeled "European inspector") is saying "I have come to impose some order." The person on the right (Greek civil servant sitting at the desk with the message "state apparatus"; there is a pun, see below) responds "Not even Chuck Norris can achieve this, my friend." The pun consists of the use of the word "mihani" (as in ex machina, mechanics, etc) for apparatus; adding an "a" at the beginning has the same effect as adding an "un" in English and the word means something like "unfunctionability". — Thanks to Yannis M. for the translation.]

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Voilà le titre d’un commentaire intéressant sur ce film—toujours en salle en France—par Gérard Horny, journaliste spécialiste de la finance (voir ici). Le film n’est pas un chef d’œuvre—la deuxième moitié est moins forte que la première—mais je l’ai trouvé pas trop mal. Les critiques françaises sont excellentes (ici). Il est mieux que ‘Wall Street : l’argent ne dort jamais’ d’Oliver Stone, ça c’est sûr. Mais le meilleur traitement cinématographique de la crise financière est l’excellentissime documentaire ‘Inside Job‘ de 2010. Si on ne l’a pas vu, il faut le faire.

MISE À JOUR: La nouvelle revue Contreligne a une critique positive de ‘Margin Call’ dans son numéro de juin 2012.

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Bernard Guetta, journaliste et spécialiste de la géopolitique—je l’aime bien—, a eu une chronique pertinente sur France Inter ce matin. Le voici

Depuis Tunis.

C’est à la lumière de la Tunisie qu’on comprend le mieux l’Egypte. Mercredi et jeudi derniers, les Egyptiens étaient appelés aux urnes pour le premier tour de la première présidentielle depuis la chute d’Hosni Moubarak et les résultats partiels connus à ce jour donnent les Frères musulmans, les islamistes, en tête de ce scrutin mais… Mais en spectaculaire recul.

Par rapport aux législatives qui s’étaient achevées en janvier dernier, il y a quatre mois seulement, les Frères ont perdu quelques 20 points en passant de 47% des voix à environ 25%. Leur candidat pourrait néanmoins sortir vainqueur du second tour s’il se confirme qu’il les opposera à Ahmed Chafik, le dernier Premier ministre d’Hosni Moubarak. Une majorité de l’électorat pourrait alors préférer un islamiste à un homme de l’ancien régime soutenu par l’armée. Les islamistes sont tout sauf évincés de la scène politique mais leur dégringolade n’en est pas moins patente.

Elle est même le fait majeur de ce scrutin car elle vient infirmer l’idée selon laquelle les succès électoraux que les islamistes ont remportés depuis le printemps arabe annonceraient inéluctablement l’instauration de régimes théocratiques à l’iranienne. Il n’en est rien et ce qui se passe en Tunisie en explique les raisons.

En Tunisie également les islamises d’Ennahda avaient remporté haut la main les législatives de l’automne dernier en devenant le premier parti du pays qui gouverne aujourd’hui. A l’époque, les laïcs tunisiens voyaient déjà une dictature succéder à l’autre pour de longues décennies. Il n’y aura pas de nouvelles élections, disaient-ils sombrement, mais huit mois plus tard l’atmosphère a radicalement changé. Après avoir terrorisé par leur succès, les islamistes tunisiens inquiètent beaucoup moins et feraient presque pitié tant ils sont à la peine. L’économie est en berne. Le chômage progresse. Les mouvements de grève se multiplient et Ennahda déçoit toujours plus les attentes de ceux qui avaient cru que ce parti pourrait résoudre tous les problèmes du pays parce que ses militants se présentaient en bons musulmans.

A l’épreuve du pouvoir, les islamistes perdent un peu plus pied chaque jour et cela d’autant plus qu’ils sont concurrencés par plus intégristes qu’eux, les salafistes qui sont en guerre contre l’alcool et les télévisons qu’ils jugent licencieuses. Les coups de main des salafistes se multiplient et tétanisent le gouvernement islamiste qui n’ose par sévir contre eux de crainte d’en faire des martyrs mais heurte ainsi beaucoup de ses électeurs, des conservateurs qui n’aiment pas le désordre et s’inquiètent de ses conséquences économiques.

Les responsabilités politiques ne réussissent pas plus en Egypte qu’en Tunisie aux islamistes et cela vient vérifier que l’islamisme est, petit à petit, soluble dans la démocratie.

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Eric Trager, a Fellow at WINEP, has an analysis in TNR of the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in last week’s first round. If I come across other good election analyses in the coming days by Egypt specialists, I’ll link to them here.

UPDATE: Marina Ottaway of the CEIP writes that the election result is a “setback for the transition” in Egypt. (May 30)

2nd UPDATE: Hussein Ibish says that “Egypt’s choice [is] the lesser of two evils.” (May 30)

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I saw two excellent, touching films last week about children. One was ‘L’Enfant d’en haut’ (English title: ‘Sister’), by Swiss director Ursula Meier, who’s done a couple of other well-regarded films that I haven’t seen. It focuses on a 12-year-old boy named Simon, played by the remarkable actor Kacey Mottet Klein—he’s in almost every scene—, who lives with his older sister, Louise—of undetermined age (she looks to be late teens-early 20s)—, played by Léa Seydoux, in an HLM-like high rise in the valley between Martigny and Sion. They have no parents—he tells an adult early on that they were killed a car crash—and seem to receive no public assistance. That’s how their situation is presented, in any case. She goes from boyfriend to boyfriend and is mostly unemployed. As they have no steady source of income—they literally live hand-to-mouth—, he steals skis, ski equipment, and anything of value from the ski stations up the mountains—plus food to eat—, which he resells to employees in the station, kids in his building, and on the roadside in the valley. The Swiss underclass. Never knew there was such a thing. He’s a wily, crafty little thief—there’s no indication he goes to school—, cute and innocent-looking enough that he can ingratiate himself with the rich holidaymakers, but not a bad boy, as he explains to one adult who catches him stealing that he does so to survive, which is true. He ends up pulling in more money than Louise, rendering her dependent on him financially. As she already has complicated feelings toward him—she’s fond of him but he exasperates her—, this makes it even more so. When the film is not showing Simon working the ski stations it focuses on the dynamics between him and Louise. It’s a thoroughly engrossing film, brilliantly acted, and simply very good in every respect. And there’s a major revelation, or turn in the plot, in the final part of the film that recasts the entire situation. The film won the Silver Bear Special Award at the last Berlin Film Festival. Reviews by Hollywood trade press critics were stellar (here, here, here, and here), as they were in France (here). A must see.

The other film was the Japanese ‘I Wish’ (in France: ‘Nos vœux secrets’), by Hirokazu Koreeda (first pic I’ve seen by him), which is set in Kagoshima and Fukuoka in Kyushu. The story is about two brothers, age 12 and 10, who are separated when their parents divorce, each living with one in the aforementioned cities, which are some 300 km apart. They concoct a plan to meet halfway and which involves skipping school and bringing along several of their friends. It’s an absolutely charming film, one of the best I’ve ever seen on children and their world, which, as one critic put it, “thoroughly ingratiates [but] without reaching for cuteness or sentimentality.” It also gives a bird’s-eye view of urban life in Japan, of the relationships of adults with children—and among themselves—, of family dynamics, and the inside of Japanese schools. For me, it was worth seeing for this reason alone (I have an ongoing interest in contemporary Japan but have never been there). Though the film was wonderful in just about every respect it had a minor issue that one critic picked up on, which is that, at almost 2 hours 10 minutes length, it is just a little long, particularly in the middle section, which could have been shortened. But no big deal. US critics loved it, which is not surprising (e.g. here, here, here, and here), as did French (here).

In the category of touching films, I’ve seen two others in recent months that may be mentioned. One was the Chinese ‘Apart Together’, directed by Wang Quan’an (whose three previous films are on my ‘to see’ list), which is set in Shanghai early in the last decade, about an elderly man who arrives there from Taiwan to meet the woman who had been the love of his life—and vice-versa—in the late 1940s and with whom he had had a child, but had lost all contact with when he fled Shanghai for Taiwan in 1949 as a soldier with the Nationalist army. He went on to found his own family there and so did she, but now that he was a widower he wanted her back. So the movie is about what happens when he is reunited with her, meets her children—including his biological son—, and her husband, who is rather laid-back about the whole thing. Like I said, it’s a touching film. Reviews here, here, and here. Trailer here.

The other touching film is the Argentinian ‘Las Acacias’, about a taciturn, world-weary, middle-aged truck driver transporting lumber from Paraguay who agrees to give a ride to a young, unmarried woman with a baby who is going to Buenos Aires to visit her sister. The movie is of their ride together, much of which passes in silence. But the force of her and her baby’s presence breaches his defense mechanisms and brings out his bottled up tenderness. A small film but which is, as one critic put it, “a little masterpiece of understated resonance and humility.” Thumbs up! Critics agreed, e.g. here, here, here, and here.

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Rust and Bone

This is the English title of Jacques Audiard’s latest film, which premiered at Cannes last week and hit the salles in France the same day. French critics fell over themselves in praise of the pic (here) and reviews by US critics at the fest were no less dithyrambic (e.g. here, here, here, and here). Seeing the stellar French reviews and Audiard’s last film having been the chef d’œuvreUn prophète‘, I decided I had to see it illico. The story, in a nutshell (for details, see the reviews), is about a lowlife, intellectually challenged lout from northern France, played by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who, with his five-year old son in tow, moves in on his struggling sister and her companion in Antibes (between Cannes and Nice), gets petits boulots as a bouncer and security guard, and strikes up an unlikely friendship—and which eventually carries benefits—with a woman higher on the social class ladder, played by Marion Cotillard, whom he meets while on one of his jobs, and who loses both her legs below the knee in a workplace accident (involving an orca whale) in the course of the film. As the reviews put it, the film is about two polar opposite personalities who have been damaged by life—one emotionally, the other physically—and are drawn to one another partly as a consequence. The acting is first-rate—particularly Marion Cotillard—, as are the visual effects used on her amputated legs; they were so good that I began to wonder if she weren’t an amputee in real life, that I had missed this detail about her over the years (answer: no). But I was just a little disappointed by the film, as I was expecting to be blown away by it and wasn’t. It’s objectively not bad, just not a chef d’œuvre in my book. In this vein, I was not entirely convinced by the Schoenaerts-Cotillard relationship—of what she saw in him, and despite her own personal despair at the time she reached out—, nor by her lack of revulsion at his back alley bare-knuckle boxing—where the men beat each other into a bloody pulp—and willingness to associate herself with the lumpen milieu involved in this. Parts of the film were quite violent. It will open in the US before too long, so each can make his/her own judgment.

This was the second movie I’d seen in the past three months with Matthias Schoenaerts in the lead. The first was the Belgian film ‘Bullhead’, by Flemish director Michaël Roskan, a thriller set along the linguistic frontier in the rural eastern part of the country, with the plot revolving around the criminal trafficking of illegally hormone-injected livestock—and alternating between the present and two decades earlier, when the Schoenaerts character was 12 years old. The pic was one of the five nominees this year for the best foreign film Oscar and has already opened in the US, where the reviews have been mostly tops (e.g. here, here, here, and here). An absolutely horrible, nightmarish thing happens to the Schoenaerts character when he’s a boy, shown midway through the film and which puts his adult character in context. From this point on I found watching the film painful, almost unbearable, as the knowledge of what had happened to him twenty years earlier was so unspeakable. And a mounting undercurrent of violence builds throughout. It’s not a film for the squeamish—of which I am—, that’s for sure.

For the record, another film seen in the past three months was the Norwegian ‘Oslo, August 31st’, directed by Joachim Trier (related to Lars von). For some reason I imagined early on that the main character might be inspired by Anders Breivik—last summer’s mass murderer—and therefore expected an outburst of mass violence at any moment, though this made no sense at all, as the movie in fact came out before the massacre. It was merely about a day in the life of a mid-30s recovering drug addict in Oslo who attempts, not too successfully, to reconnect with his erstwhile friends and social milieu (educated, upscale). The pic is loosely based on a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, of which I knew nothing (and still don’t). US reviews ranged from the tops (here) to the respectful (here and here) to the bof (here). French reviews tended toward the stellar (here). As I found the film tedious and gave it almost no thought after leaving the theater, I go with the bof (i.e. meh).

Finally, on the theme of arty films with violent undercurrents, I want to mention ‘Snowtown’, an Australian pic I saw last December and that opened in the US in March to mostly good reviews (reviews in France were even better). It’s a reenactment of a series of horrific murders in the 1990s in the Adelaide area, committed by a particularly psychotic serial killer who, unlike others of the serial killer species, enlisted accomplices in the commission of his sadistic crimes. I suppose the film was well-done and acted but it was so gruesomely, sickeningly violent that I averted my eyes during whole stretches of it. I counted some ten people in the relatively small theater who walked out well before the end. In my list of ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2011′ I labeled this one the “most reprehensible movie from Australia about psychopathic white trash murderers from Adelaide.” Whatever qualities one wants to see in it in terms of cinema—acting, mise en scène, whatever—it had no redeeming value whatever as a film. Unless one does not have a problem watching extended scenes of people being tortured to death and then tensely waiting for the next such episode to roll along, one does not need to be subjected to such gratuitous violence. And one hardly needs to be reminded that there are sadistic psychopaths in the human race. In view of this, ‘Snowtown’ was truly a reprehensible film. It should not have been made.

UPDATE: Stateside reviews of ‘Oslo, August 31’—which opened to wide release in the US after I wrote this post—have been tops, particularly by Roger Ebert and Kenneth Turan, two critics I follow. Perhaps I should see it again. (September 1)

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Lagarde to Athens: Drop Dead

Like Ford to NY City in Oct. ’75. Christine Lagarde at the IMF is talking tough to the Greeks, telling them that they need to pay their taxes and STFU. If she’s saying it, don’t expect softer talk from Merkel or Barroso. (h/t Stathis Kalyvas)

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Egypt’s “21 avril”

[update below]

A real shocker in the first round of the Egyptian presidential election, with Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood coming in first with 24.9% of the vote (based on so far unofficial results; see here) and Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and symbol of the ancien régime, in a close second with 24.5%. Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi was third with 21.1%, liberal ex-Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh fourth at 17.8%, and former Arab League Secy-General Amr Moussa a distant fifth at 11.3%.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, at least as presented by the Western media, which had Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa—who faced off in that remarkable televised debate on May 10th—as the front-runners. The final polls were all over the place but all had at least one of these two moving on to the second round (scheduled for June 16-17), and one late poll in particular—conducted by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland (here)—had both well ahead of the pack. Such an outcome was certainly considered the most desirable by those of a liberal democratic sensibility, and with Aboul Fotouh the clear preference (he was my guy, having been endorsed by a prominent US-based MENA specialist—and personal friend—, whose lead I follow on Egypt-related matters).

The actual outcome is a disaster—or certainly looks to be—, as both candidates represent truly awful choices (again, for those of a liberal democratic sensibility). Egypt has had its “21 avril“—pronounce that “vingt-et-un avril”—, referring to the catastrophic first round of the 2002 French presidential election (on April 21st), which saw the extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen overtake Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in a stunner (by 0.7% of the vote), to square off against incumbent president Jacques Chirac in the second round. But this was a freak accident; it shouldn’t have happened (see my analysis of the event here). And while Le Pen was clearly unacceptable to the great majority of French voters—left, center, and mainstream right—, left voters could stomach voting for Chirac (and which they did, enabling him to win with 82% of the vote). But Egypt looks to have had a double 21 avril, as both candidates are anathema to a significant portion of the Egyptian electorate—and in the case of Morsi, to Egypt’s geopolitical partners as well.

It all goes to show that French-style two ballot electoral systems—presidential and legislative—are inappropriate for polities in transition to democracy, and particularly when the relative strength of the political actors is not well understood at the beginning of the process. Algeria’s calamitous experience with the French two ballot system in its first multiparty legislative elections in 1991 was such that this mode de scrutin was abandoned in subsequent votes there and adopted nowhere else (for my 20th anniversary retrospective of that fateful Algerian election, see here). Now Egypt has experienced the major downsides of the French system in its presidential election. The French electoral system is fine for France, which has a long history of it—though it does have its perverse effects even there, but then all electoral systems have problems and introduce varying distortions in outcomes—, but it is not for polities like Algeria and Egypt. It is so important for emerging democracies to get their electoral systems right. Tunisia more or less did so for its constituent assembly election last October, adopting highest remainder PR (though there was an exceptionally large number of wasted votes). (As it happened, I advocated precisely this electoral system for Tunisia in a talk there in April of last year, though I doubt my recommendation had anything to do with the decision to adopt it…). For presidential elections, some kind of preferential voting system (involving rank ordering candidates) should be adopted, despite the confusion this may introduce for voters. But this is neither here nor there for Egypt, which is now stuck with the consequences of this week’s outcome. Pauvre Egypte.

UPDATE: “The idiot’s guide to Egypt’s election,” from last Friday, here. (May 28)

(photo: in order, Ahmed Shafiq, Hamdeen Sabahi, Amr Moussa, Mohamed Morsi, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh).

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Gérard Chaliand, le grand géopolitiste et aventurier, et naguère tiersmondiste—et qui était l’une de mes références dans les années 70—, a publié un article dans Le Monde l’autre jour sur Israël-Palestine. Le voici (passages en gras par moi; photo ci-dessus: le mur de séparation à Bethléem, prise par moi en 2009).

 Israël : la tentation du statu quo
LE MONDE | 21.05.2012
Par Gérard Chaliand, géopolitologue

Il n’est pas sans risque de dresser un état des lieux dans le conflit qui oppose, depuis les lendemains de la guerre de 1967, Israël et les Palestiniens, chargé par l’hostilité constitutive de pays arabes ne reconnaissant pas l’Etat juif et celle de l’Iran des mollahs qui prétend vouloir sa (more…)

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Thomas Legrand had a good editorial on France Inter this morning on the Battle Royale that’s shaping up in the UMP between Jean-François Copé and François Fillon. If Copé—a Sarkozy without the charm or common touch—becomes the UMP standard-bearer for 2017 I cannot imagine for a nanosecond that he would have any chance of winning. L’avenir le dira.

Ce matin, vous allez essayer de nous intéresser à la guerre des chefs à l’UMP !

 Je crains que ce soit au-dessus de mes moyens en réalité, je m’étais dit « n’entrons pas dans les querelles de personnes, derrière la concurrence Copé/Fillon il doit bien y avoir des débats d’idées à souligner »… Après tout, les deux hommes ont une histoire, des opinions : François Fillon vient du gaullisme social, c’est un ancien séguiniste, un modéré de l’ouest rural qui a changé. Il est devenu sarkozyste, puis apôtre incompris de la rigueur, parisien, futur élu du quartier le plus riche de France. Pendant la campagne de 2012, il avait l’air de goûter modérément les débats sécuritaires et identitaires suscités par le Président. Jean-François Copé, élu d’une banlieue populaire, a fait un vrai travail idéologique avec son association Génération France, il a notamment des idées sur l’école, la laïcité. Il est plutôt libéral en matière économique… Pendant la campagne on l’a découvert combatif, parfois acrimonieux, assez droitier. La question est donc de savoir sur quelles bases les militants de l’UMP auront-ils à choisir quand viendra l’heure du vote pour le prochain président de leur mouvement ? Un vote qui doit intervenir à l’automne. Pour l’instant on ne voit pas bien les contours du débat à venir tant le sarkozysme a laissé la droite essoufflée, hébétée par son dynamisme imprévisible…qui se disait invincible et qui disparu d’un coup !

Il y a pourtant des débats idéologiques qui traversent l’UMP ?

Ils n’apparaissent pas, ils ne sont pas clairs, et pourtant, je me suis donné du mal ! J’ai passé des coups de fils à mes contacts habituels à l’UMP, anciens ministres, conseillers politiques, j’ai discuté avec des adhérents sur un marché, la routine quoi. Eh bien c’est raté ! Mes interlocuteurs m’ont tous répondu avec un ton désolé que non, ce qui se profilait à l’UMP pour le remplacement de Nicolas Sarkozy n’avait rien à voir avec l’idéologie. « Les militants veulent un chef, avec comme idée principale, plus de sécurité et moins d’impôts. Point barre. Ça sera une bataille de personnes ! Faudra s’y faire » m’expliquait un cadre du parti ! Un ancien ministre, plutôt jeune, me confiait que dans ses réunions d’appartements, pour les législatives, ses électeurs potentiels l’écoutent poliment expliquer que ce serait une folie de sortir de l’Euro, que l’immigration zéro n’est pas une solution. A la fin de la conversation, les sympathisants lui répondent invariablement : « vous avez peut-être raison mais quand est-ce qu’on s’allie avec le Front National ? » La base de l’UMP n’a pas les préventions du sommet contre le parti de Marine Le Pen. Si l’UMP voulait débattre honnêtement de ce qui préoccupe vraiment son électorat et ses militants, il faudrait qu’elle débatte de ses relations avec le FN. Deux lignes s’affronteraient alors, l’une pour, l’autre contre. Ce débat est impensable parce qu’il se terminerait par l’éclatement du mouvement. Pour l’éviter et donc sauver l’UMP il faut un chef, un vrai qui s’impose, lui et ses idées, en bloc ! On a tord de chercher des débats et des clivages intellectuels… Ce sera bien une guerre des chefs, et de style. Copé en chef de guerre UMP, canonnier inlassable contre la gauche et les médias. Fillon en homme d’Etat rassembleur, non pas de l’UMP mais de toute la droite et du centre. Deux stratégies, deux représentations de l’autorité en compétition pour obtenir un brevet de leader naturel. L’atavisme bonapartiste de la droite française est toujours une réalité.

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Don’t fear the Grexit

So say Thomas Oatley and Kindred Winecoff, of the political science dept at UNC-Chapel Hill, on the Foreign Policy website. Based on their research on global financial networks, they argue that the global economy will weather the storm of a Greek exit from the euro with relatively little damage. Inshallah.

For his part, Nouriel Roubini, the so-called Dr. Doom, says that Greece must exit the euro and the sooner the better. Better pain now than greater pain later. Roubini carries considerable cred given his predictions of the 2008 financial meltdown but I’d like to know how his analyses since then—which I read episodically but not systematically—have held up. Is he a one-prediction wonder like French intello flake extraordinaire, Emmanuel Todd, who predicted in 1976 that the Soviet Union would eventually disappear but was à côté de la plaque on most things since then? My question is if Greece quits the euro what will the price of gas at the pump be there? Will Greeks be able to afford to drive their cars and heat their homes in winter?

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Je viens d’apprendre l’existence d’un blog universitaire (Histoire-sociologie-sciences politiques-etc), “Fragments sur les temps présents,” qui a l’air excellent.

Pour ceux qui ne le connaissent pas, il y a aussi l’excellent blog/site, Telos.

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Amartya Sen has a good op-ed—is Sen ever not good?—in today’s NYT on “the crisis of European democracy.” Among other things, he quotes Adam Smith

there is an old tradition in economics of combining efficient markets with the provision of public services that the market may not be able to deliver. As Adam Smith (often seen simplistically as the first guru of free-market economics) wrote in “The Wealth of Nations,” there are “two distinct objects” of an economy: “first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or, more properly, to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Tea Party GOPers and other libertarians: nota bene.

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

Jonathan Schanzer has a piece on the Foreign Policy website on language Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) is trying to insert into the 2013 foreign appropriations bill that would require the US government to determine the exact number of Palestinians receiving services from UNRWA who are actual refugees—persons who were themselves displaced in 1948—, as opposed to descendants of refugees (successor generations of refugees not being defined as refugees in any international convention or instrument of international law). I can already hear the cris d’orfraie from the usual quarters, that this will undermine the sacrosanct Palestinian demand on the “right of return.” If this is the case, then so be it. In fact, this will be a very good thing. If Kirk’s effort only involves this—and not actually trying to have UNRWA cut benefits—then I’m all for it. I will come back to this general subject—on the dysfunctional Palestinian narrative on the right of return—at a later date (after the French election season is past). I have much to say about it, believe me.

In the meantime, here are my pics of two UNRWA camps on the West Bank.

UPDATE: The FP website reports on the opening debate in the Senate Appropriations Committee and with the actual text of Kirk’s amendment. (May 24)

2nd UPDATE: Josh Rogin at FP continues his reporting on the Kirk amendment, which unanimously passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 24th, and the State Department’s reaction. (May 25)

3rd UPDATE: As it turns out, the Kirk amendment was in part based on work carried out by Steven J. Rosen—ex-AIPAC honcho—and Daniel Pipes. Not my cup of tea either one—and definitely not the latter—but I don’t care. I still think it’s a good amendment. (May 29)

4th UPDATE: Victor Kattan, program director at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, says that the “‘UNRWA reform’ effort will harm Middle East peace effort.” (May 31)

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My blogging consœur, Victoria Ferauge—a longtime American resident in France—, has a useful post comparing the French and American health care systems. Drawing on a report by the GIS-IReSP, “Regards croisés sur les systèmes de santé américain et français” (voir ici), she observes that the French system resembles the American far more than it does other European health care systems, such as those in Sweden and the UK. Not the standard impression one has in the US (or in France for that matter). Victoria, in her own experience, has found the French system to be “pretty good,” no worse or better than the American and each with its strengths and problems. There’s no ideological bias in her views, BTW, as she’s a lifelong Republican in the US and self-identifies as a conservative. As a lifelong Democrat and self-identified liberal-moderate lefty, I agree with her.

UPDATE: Victoria, who was diagnosed with cancer recently, discusses the treatment she’s been receiving in France and the way the health care system has been working for her. Verdict: very positive. (June 7)

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