I’ve had a Bastille Day post every July 14th since launching this blog (here, here, and here) so voilà this year’s. As I’ve been saying for decades, the Bastille Day parade down the Champs-Elysées is the greatest parade in the world. Period. This year’s was particularly noteworthy, as it’s the centenary of the beginning of World War I, so all the belligerent powers of that war—including the successor states of empires, making a total of eighty states—were invited to participate (only China and Vietnam declined), with three soldiers each from their respective armies, and led by French soldiers dressed in World War I uniforms preserved from the era. Not bad. The presence of Algerian soldiers got the extreme right all bent out of shape but that’s their problem. Vive la France!
Archive for the ‘France’ Category
Hélas… I was optimistic for Les Bleus’s chances against the Mannschaft, had visions of them moving on to beat Brazil or Colombia in the semifinal, and then maybe winning the big one on July 13th. But it is not to be. The French outplayed the Germans in the second half but just couldn’t get the ball past goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Everyone here was so disappointed. But for the first time in my soccer memory—i.e. since the mid ’90s, when I started to follow international competition and the French national team—the reaction in the press and by the public to the French team’s elimination has not been to beat up on or savage them, as was (deservedly) the case in 2002 and 2010 (as for 2006, I will personally never forgive Zineddine Zidane for his unforgivable headbutt of Marco Materazzi at the 110th minute in the final, though public opinion remains divided on this). Just about everyone—or so it appears the day after—is speaking highly of the team in defeat, a team few thought before last November 19th would get this far in the tournament. The French public was trashing the team nine months ago, now they adore it once again. The team members are young and sympathique, and with the 23 selected for the tournament not including prima donnas or manifest jerks in their ranks. And they’re very good soccer players. Didier Deschamps has done a great job of putting the team together, transforming it from “chumps to potential champs” and earning respect from the world in the process. Les Bleus are back in the world soccer elite. As France is the host country of the 2016 European championship—and with Les Bleus consequently automatically qualified for the tournament—, they won’t be playing any games that matter from now until June ’16. Just friendlies, which I almost never watch. So I probably won’t see them play for the next two years :-(
BTW, the Brazil-Colombia game that followed France-Germany was great, or at least high octane and very intense. Was one of the few all-South American games I’ve watched from beginning to end, confirming that South American soccer is more offensive, physical, and overall exciting to watch than European (and aided by the exuberance of the spectators in the packed stadium). Too bad about Neymar. Now I guess I have to be for the home team Brazil to win the thing.
I was absolutely thrilled by Algeria’s qualification for the knockout phase on Thursday night. For the anecdote, I watched the second half of the game in a bar in Bayeux, managing to persuade the barman and sympathique table of Belgian fans—wearing goofy caps with horns and Belgian flags painted on their cheeks—that the Algeria-Russia match was more interesting and with greater stakes than Belgium-South Korea—being played simultaneously—, as Belgium was going to round 16 anyway, so they agreed to flip the channel. I also informed the French in the bar that they should be for Algeria, as the majority of Algerian players are, in fact, Franco-Algerian dual nationals from France, so the Algerian national team may also be seen as the French B team… At the end of the Algeria-Russia game the Belgians all applauded the Algerian qualification and a couple of the French gave me the high five. Sympa….
The Algeria qualification was a lead story in the French media yesterday morning, with the explosion of joy by Franco-Algerians across the country after the game (pics here), acting like Les Verts had won the World Cup final. But not everyone in France is happy about it, or at least for the same reasons. There was the expected bad humor from the extreme right (FN etc), who predictably focused on incidents of vandalism and torching of cars in various cities during the celebrations (which has been going on in this country for over three decades; it’s a permanent phenomenon; it always happens when there’s a pretext for lumpen youths to do so; so what point is one trying to make in fixating on it?). And then there were reactions from non-extreme right commentators, e.g. Le Figaro’s nitwit editorialist Ivan Rioufol, who asserted that “le patriotisme algérien en France révèle l’échec de l’assimilation.” Quel con. Monsieur Rioufol—as with so many others on the right (and some on the left as well) who opine on the subject—has zero understanding of the immigrant experience—in all immigrant populations in France and everywhere in the world, present and past—and the multiple or hybrid identities that ensue from this. And when it comes to Algerians and other post-colonial immigrant-origin populations in France, there is also a considerable mauvaise foi in Rioufol & Co.’s attitude.
To illustrate this, I will recount an exchange I had with a student (French) on precisely November 20th last fall, in one of the Master’s level courses I teach at the Catholic University here. It was the day after the French national team’s stunning victory against Ukraine, that (unexpectedly) qualified Les Bleus for the World Cup tournament in Brazil, and with the game happening at the same moment as the Algeria-Burkina Faso playoff—which Algeria won, thereby earning the ticket to Brazil as well. And, as it happened, Portugal also qualified for Brazil that evening, winning its playoff against Sweden. So there were celebrations on the Champs-Elysées that night after the games, of fans of all three winning teams waving flags of the three countries. My very right-wing student—who was not FN but not far from it; and, as I learned, had been an activist in the anti-gay marriage movement several months earlier—brought up the incidents of vandalism and arson (hugely exaggerated by hard right websites) and expressed indignation at the waving of Algerian flags by youths who were certainly born and raised in France. I responded to this by asking him about all the Portuguese-French fans who waved Portuguese flags during the celebration, adding that in my banlieue—where there is a significant Portuguese community—Portuguese flags hang from windows when the Portuguese national team plays a game, and that when it’s Portugal vs. France—as happened in the semifinal in both the Euro 2000 and 2006 World Cup—, these fans root for Portugal against France, and that this includes members of the second generation, who are full French citizens, so what does he have to say about that? The student’s response: “Ah, but that’s not the same thing…” Me: “Oh, really? So it’s okay for a French citizen of Portuguese parentage to wave a Portuguese flag but not okay for a French citizen of Algerian origin to wave an Algerian flag? Please explain.” The student: “Behind the Algerian flag are revendications…” Me (surprised): “Revendications? What revendications?” The student would not or could not say. And he clearly did not want to continue the exchange. I invited him to elaborate on what he said in a future class, to do a short presentation on it, which we would then discuss as a class, but he manifestly wasn’t interested in my proposition.
Total French right-wing mauvaise foi. And on this, I don’t imagine I would have received a more elaborate or sophisticated response from Ivan Rioufol. The French right has a problem with the presence of Muslims in France and doesn’t know how to think about Algeria, Algerians, or the Algerian war—or about France’s colonial past more generally. And this mentality is clearly being transmitted down the generations, at least in the more politicized portion of the hard right.
As it happens, the CRIF saw fit to publish Rioufol’s commentary on its website. This is lamentable. What point does the CRIF wish to make here? Rhetorical question: If Israel had qualified for the World Cup, finished in the top two in its group, and thereby proceeded to the knockout phase, would not there not be celebrations by French Jews and who would proudly wave the Israeli flag? Poser la question c’est y répondre…
What on earth is wrong with individuals having multiple or hybrid national identities? What’s the big deal? E.g. the big pro-Israel march in Paris on April 7, 2002 (along Bd Voltaire, from République to Nation)—which I attended as a spectator—, was a sea of French and Israeli flags (and in equal proportion). Absolutely no one in the French political or media mainstream expressed disapproval of this display of multiple national identities on the part of the marchers—and whose ranks included high-profile politicians from the right, center, and left, who came to express solidarity with the Jewish community and Israel at the height of second Intifada (those I remember seeing: Alain Madelin, Claude Goasguen, Pierre Lellouche, François Bayrou, Corinne Lepage, Jean-Marie Le Guen, Julian Dray). Rhetorical question: So if it’s okay for Jews, why not for Muslims too?
Nouvel Obs columnist Bruno Roger-Petit has a fine commentary (June 27th) on the celebrations following the Algeria-Russia game, which he says were “un formidable pied de nez aux réacs.” And Laurent Dubois had an equally fine essay in January (which I just read, h/t Muriam HD) on the Roads & Kingdoms blog, “Afro-Europe in the World Cup.”
Though I’m pleased that Algeria has qualified for round 16, I will not be rooting for Les Verts to beat Germany on Monday, as this will—assuming that France defeats Nigeria in that day’s earlier match-up—set up an Algeria-France quarterfinal, which is to be avoided at all costs, not because of what will happen on the field but off it—in the cities and banlieues of France. The hybrid/multiple identities will brutally clash and with a certain deleterious political fallout. An Algeria-France World Cup match is not in the higher interests of the French polity or French society. So Algeria needs to lose to Germany with honor, allowing for a (logical) France-Germany face-off in the quarterfinal.
I was also pleased with the outcome of the Germany-USA game on Thursday—which I watched at the aforementioned Bayeux bar earlier in the evening, packed with Americans—plus that of Ghana-Portugal, thereby allowing Team USA to proceed to the knockout phase and in second place. Had the Americans defeated Germany to finish first in the group, this would have set up an eventual France-USA quarterfinal—and with me being for France against the USA, a position I would rather not find myself in. So now Team USA will face off against the Belgian Red Devils on Tuesday. I will be favoring the former.
After the game I saw a “commentary” by the wacky right-wing bloviator-entertainer Ann Coulter, in which she says that “growing interest in soccer a sign of nation’s moral decay.” It reads like a parody of an Ann Coulter column. Numerous Facebook friends posted it and with indignant comments but I thought it was hilarious, as it’s so wildly over-the-top that it can’t be serious. Ms. Coulter cannot possibly believe what she’s saying. It has to be tongue-in-cheek: click bait written with the expressed purpose of getting liberals all worked up and talking about her. But there is, of course, the possibility that the unhinged Coulter is 100% serious and is seriously throwing red meat to her numerous right-wing fans. If so, the intellectual depravity of the American right is even worse than I thought.
France-Switzerland: What an amazing game! Five f—ing goals scored by Les Bleus—and by five different players—and against a good team to boot! Haven’t seen that kind of performance by Les Bleus in a long time (okay, there was that little victory against Ukraine last November…). The French national team is definitely back—and will definitely have regained the esteem of the French public—, even after/if it is eliminated in the knockout phase of the tournament.
On the subject of l’équipe de France, historian Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, who works in the US Department of State’s Office of the Historian, had a post on June 17th on TNR’s Goal Posts blog, “French revival? Five story lines to watch during Les Bleus’ next matches.” As it happens, Dr. Krasnoff published a book in 2012 on the formation of players for the French national teams in soccer and basketball, The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. I haven’t seen it yet but am sure it’s a good, informative read.
Another recent, English-language scholarly type book on Les Bleus is Duke University history and French prof Laurent Dubois’s Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, published in 2011 by the University of California Press. I haven’t seen this one either but in view of Dr. Dubois’s fine Soccer Politics/The Politics of Football blog, am sure it’s tops.
On the Swiss team and its multiethnic character—which I mentioned in my previous World Cup post—, journalist Jérôme Houard has an interesting piece in Slate.fr, “La «Nati» suisse, une équipe unie par sa diversité” (June 20th).
Some Tweet-length comments on games of the past few days that I’ve seen in part or whole:
Brazil-Mexico: What an intense, tension-filled game! Whoever said scoreless ties couldn’t be exciting?!
Colombia-Ivory Coast: Too bad for Les Éléphants. Hope they whack the Greeks to advance.
England-Uruguay: Tough for the English, what to say? I would have liked to see them advance. Hélas.
Costa Rica-Italy: Wow, Costa Rica is for real! Whoda thunk it?
I unfortunately missed Chile-Spain and Australia-Netherlands. On Spain’s crashing out, I know how the Spaniards feel. We in France were there in 2002 and 2010 (though Les Bleus were eliminated in the third group games in those, not the second…).
Today is May 8th—the end of WWII in Europe (69th anniversary)—and a public holiday in France. France is the only country in the world that marks VE Day with a public holiday (on the 8th at least; Russia does it on the 9th). It’s ridiculous that France should have this holiday, as the country had already been entirely liberated by VE Day. Also, with May Day—la Fête du travail—this means that there are two public holidays on the same day two weeks running, which creates problems for people like me, who have to reschedule classes. President Giscard d’Estaing abolished the May 8th holiday but his successor, François Mitterrand, restored it illico when he took office. Hopefully some day it will be abolished again, replaced with some other, more significant date marking WWII, like De Gaulle’s Appeal of June 18th, or the liberation of Paris on August 25th.
À propos, this very good film by German director Volker Schlöndorff, which takes place entirely in Paris on August 24-25, 1944, came out a couple of months ago. It’s adapted from a 2011 play of the same title, set almost entirely in the Hotel Meurice on the Rue de Rivoli—the HQ of the German high command in the city—, of Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul general in Paris, striving through the night to persuade the German military governor, General Dietrich von Choltitz, to disobey Hitler’s orders to destroy the city the next day (and everything was in place to do so, which would have indeed accomplished Hitler’s evil goal and killed at least 100,000 Parisians in the process). The performances of André Dussollier (Nordling) and Niels Arestrup (von Cholitz)—who were also the actors in the play—are tops. A tour de force. As it happens, the film distorts in some important respects the history of that dramatic night in the Hotel Meurice, mais peu importe. It’s fictionalized history, making for an engaging film. So thumbs up. Hollywood press reviews (tops) are here and here, French reviews (also tops) here, trailer is here.
One WWII-themed film seen of late that does not get the thumbs up is George Clooney’s ‘The Monuments Men’. I would normally run out to see a film on a subject such as this one’s but hesitated for weeks after it opened, as I had read that it played fast and loose with the historical record of a not insignificant episode in the final year of the war—the Allied effort to recover the vast trove of artwork stolen by the Nazis—, playing up the role of the Americans, but not compensating for distorting the historical record—no doubt for base commercial reasons, to appeal to American audiences—by making a riveting and/or engaging film. I have a friend—US based—who happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on the film’s subject, so I invited him to write a guest review for AWAV. He replied to my offer saying that he hadn’t yet seen it, as he feared the worst. He wasn’t way off base in his premonitions. The cast may be all-star but the performances are uninspired and by-the-numbers. The film drags in stretches, indeed throughout. It’s a clunky, forgettable Hollywood grand spectacle, et avec toutes les ficelles. It doesn’t work at all. George Clooney’s heart is in the right place but he has yet to prove himself as a director. Reviews were not too good on either side of the Atlantic. So unless one really, truly wants to see this one, skip it.
J’ai vu ce film hier. Vu qu’un autre film sur Ilan Halimi et le “gang des barbares” est actuellement en production—’Tout, tout de suite’, réalisé par Richard Berry—, je vais attendre la sortie de celui-là avant de faire un billet de blog sur le film d’Alexandre Arcady (c-à-d, je vais écrire sur les deux ensemble). Entre-temps, voici une critique de spectateur (3-étoiles: pas mal) que j’ai publié aujourd’hui sur Allociné:
J’hésite normalement à voir les films d’Alexandre Arcady, réalisateur très “moyen de gamme” et qui, jusqu’à preuve du contraire, n’a jamais fait un chef d’œuvre, mais vu le sujet de celui-ci, je ne pouvais pas ne pas le voir. Le film est dur à regarder, voire insoutenable, mais nécessaire. Le crime antisémite le plus atroce en France depuis la 2ème guerre mondiale — qui a eu lieu au 21ème siècle et en bande organisée composée de membres de la jeune génération – justifie bien un traitement cinématographique et de ne pas tomber dans l’oubli du grand public. Hormis quelques scènes mélos, Arcady s’en sort assez bien. Ce qu’il montre sur l’enquête policière provient du livre de Ruth Halimi (la mère de la victime) – qui a collaboré avec lui dans le développement du film – donc le point de vue d’un acteur dans le drame. Mais quant à la manière dont Arcady dépeint les conditions de la séquestration d’Ilan Halimi et le comportement du psychopathe Youssouf Fofana et la bande de tarés sous son emprise, celle-ci est 100% juste. Les faits de l’affaire sont avérés. Il n’y a pas de quoi discuter là-dessus. Pour tout ce qui concerne le “gang des barbares” il n’y a pas une seule scène dans le film qui est exagérée.
À ce titre, je suis ulcéré par les commentaires de demi-étoile (‘nul’) des spectateurs Allociné (27% à ce jour), qui s’en prennent, dans leur grande majorité, au côtés prétendument “communautariste” et “clivant” du film, c-à-d, ils sont contrariés par un film dont les protagonistes sont juifs et qui traite d’un crime antisémite commis par une bande de racailles de toutes les couleurs mais menée par des blacks et des beurs. Mais vu que le film montre exactement ce qui s’est passé, où est le problème? Comment Arcady aurait-il pu le faire autrement? Peut-étre ces brillants spectateurs auraient préféré que le film ne soit pas fait du tout, qu’on n’en parle plus de cette histoire d’Ilan Halimi et le “gang de barbares”? Et pourquoi? Parce que l’histoire d’un feuj torturé à mort par des blacks et beurs – et parce que feuj – ça les emmerde. Parce que ces sympathiques spectateurs ont un problème avec les juifs. En effet, je suis sûr et certain qu’un certain nombre – sinon la majorité – de ces détracteurs du film ne l’ont pas vu, que leurs commentaires sont basés sur la bande-annonce, ou d’un commentaire sur le film par Dieudonné (dont ces détracteurs sont très certainement des affidés dans leur quasi-totalité). Voilà, la judéophobie est bel et bien vivante dans une frange de la société française.
MISE AU POINT: Il se peut que je sois allé un peu vite en besogne en laissant entendre que les détracteurs du film étaient dérangé par le côté feuj-beur-black. D’autant que je sache, un grand nombre de ces spectateurs d’Allociné – peut-être même l’écrasante majorité – sont des petits blancs: des Français BBR bien-de-chez-nous. On sait bien que Dieudonné a beaucoup de fans chez les “souchiens”, qui n’aiment pas trop les juifs – c’est une litote – mais qui fustigent tout “communautarisme”. Sauf le leur, évidemment, le communautarisme des Français…
That’s what political scientists Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson call him in a TAP forum, “Piketty’s Triumph,” on the publication this month of his Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), which has been taking the US by storm. It’s really something the gushing attention that’s being showered by the American chattering class on a 700-page book by a left-wing French economist—who could write his own ticket in American academia but prefers life in Paris—and the English version of which is a translation from French. I’ve been familiar with Thomas Piketty’s work and perspectives for a while, as he has been writing for and speaking to the larger public on economic issues since early in the last decade—he had a regular economics column in Libération for several years, entre autres—, and was an economic adviser to successive Socialist party presidential candidates. I haven’t yet read his latest book; I’d normally get a copy here in V.O.—it was published last September by Editions du Seuil—but as the English one was translated by my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer—and who no doubt improved on the original French version—, that’s what I’ll read.
Even if I had read the book, though, I wouldn’t offer a review of it, as there are countless others more competent to do that than I. Here are links to good stuff I’ve read (or watched) of late on Piketty’s magnum opus:
One of the best is Emily Eakin’s April 17th article in The Chronicle Review, “Capital Man.” The lede: Thomas Piketty is economics’ biggest sensation. He’s also the field’s fiercest critic.
Bill Moyers, on his TV show Moyers & Company, had a great 20-minute interview last night with Krugman on Piketty’s book, “What the 1% Don’t Want You to Know.” Make sure to watch this one.
On Tuesday the Tax Policy Center—of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution—had an hour-and-a-half forum, at the Urban Institute in Washington, on Piketty’s book, with Piketty presenting his argument and then commentary by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (liberal-left) and Kevin Hassett (co-author of the 1999 best-seller Dow 36,000) of the American Enterprise Institute (conservative). A good, highbrow debate. Watch it here.
On Wednesday the CUNY Graduate Center hosted an event on the book, with Piketty, Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Steven Durlauf, and moderated by Janet Gornick and Branko Milanović. I wish I could have attended that one. It may be seen on the Graduate Center’s YouTube channel.
For those who can follow French, here’s Piketty debating Emmanuel Todd last September 6th on France 2’s Ce soir ou jamais, on the occasion of the book’s V.O. publication.
The New Republic’s Marc Tracy has a piece (April 17th), “The Economist Was a Rock Star.” The lede: Thomas Piketty isn’t just a brilliant economist; he’s a fantastic storyteller.
À propos, see the dispatch in yesterday’s NYT, “Economist Receives Rock Star Treatment.”
In The Observer (April 13th) is a commentary by Andrew Hussey entitled “Occupy was right: capitalism has failed the world.” The lede: One of the slogans of the 2011 Occupy protests was ‘capitalism isn’t working’. Now, in an epic, groundbreaking new book, French economist Thomas Piketty explains why they’re right.
For a critique of Piketty’s book from the left, see economist James K. Galbraith’s “Kapital for the Twenty-First Century?” in the Spring issue of Dissent. Entre autres, Galbraith sniffs that Piketty’s policy views “reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal.”
See also Dean Baker’s critique, “Capital in the 21 Century: Still Mired in the 19th,” on the Huff Post Business blog (March 9th).
For a slew of other reviews of Piketty’s book (by e.g. Brad DeLong, Doug Henwood, John Cassidy…), go to this post on the CEPR website.
I had a blog post three years ago in which I made reference to a book Piketty co-authored (with Camille Landais and Emmanuel Saez) that detailed a progressive proposal on how to reform the (impossibly complex and perverse) French tax code. Among the intended recipients of the plan were PS presidential candidates, who would be in a position to take it up in the event one of them were elected in 2012. So has François Hollande adopted the Piketty et al plan as his own? Yeah, sure.
UPDATE: Columbia University Ph.D. student Timothy Shenk has a lengthy essay in The Nation (May 5th issue), “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality.” The lede: Capitalism’s new critics take on an economics run amok.
2nd UPDATE: Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (conservative)—who asked the final question in the Tax Policy Center forum linked to above—has a critique of Piketty in Forbes (April 17th), “Whither The Bottom 90 Percent, Thomas Piketty?” He thus begins: “While not quite inducing Beatlemania, French economist Thomas Piketty’s visit this week to America has inspired the Washington analog of teenage frenzy.” This looks to be the first in a series of pieces Winship will be publishing in Forbes on Piketty’s book.
3rd UPDATE: Robert Solow, 1987 Nobel Prize in economics laureate, has a review essay on the book in TNR (April 22nd), in which he says that “Thomas Piketty Is Right.”
4th UPDATE: Piketty’s book is presently Amazon.com’s nº1 best-seller. Amazing. À propos, Rana Foroohar, a Time magazine editor of economics and business, explains why “this best-selling book is freaking out the super-wealthy.” (April 23rd)
5th UPDATE: Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, who teaches at George Mason University—a well-known repaire of public choice theorists—, has a review of Piketty’s book in Foreign Affairs (May-June issue), “Capital Punishment: Why a Global Tax on Wealth Won’t End Inequality.”
6th UPDATE: TNR’s Marc Tracy has a piece (April 24th) on “Piketty’s ‘Capital': A Hit That Was, Wasn’t, Then Was Again.” The lede: How the French tome has rocked the tiny Harvard University Press.
7th UPDATE: U.Va. political scientist Deborah Boucoyannis has a post on The Monkey Cage blog (April 22nd) arguing that “Adam Smith is not the antidote to Thomas Piketty.”
8th UPDATE: UC-Berkeley’s Brad DeLong, writing on The Equitablog (April 23rd), offers his take on Piketty’s book. His conclusion: “To sum up: a very good book, a very, as Solow says, serious book. It has certainly moved me from thinking that the odds that two generations hence we will have a much more unequal and plutocratic society were 2-1 against to thinking that they are 3-1 for…”
9th UPDATE: Here’s Martin Wolf’s review of the book in the FT (April 15th), which I missed. Voilà Wolf’s conclusion: “For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realisation, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it. In a society dominated by wealth, money will buy power. Inequality cannot be eliminated. It is inevitable and to a degree even desirable. But, as the Greeks argued, there needs to be moderation in all things. We are not seeing moderate rises in inequality. We should take notice.” Amen.
10th UPDATE: Duke University law and political theory prof Jedediah Purdy has a review essay of Piketty’s book in the Los Angeles Review of Books (April 24th), “To Have and Have Not.”
11th UPDATE: Paul Krugman’s column in the April 25th NYT focuses on “The Piketty Panic” on the American right.
12th UPDATE: Ross Douthat, a columnist I normally don’t bother reading, has a post (April 25th) on his NYT blog that attracted my attention on account of the title, “Piketty and the petits rentiers,” and in which he makes some valid points.
13th UPDATE: Tim Fernholz, who writes on politics and economics for Quartz—”a digitally native news outlet, born in 2012, for business people in the new global economy”—, has a piece (March 30th) on “Everything wrong with capitalism, as explained by Balzac, ‘House’ and ‘The Aristocats’,” in which he meditates on the dilemma of Rastignac as spelled out in Piketty’s book.
14th UPDATE: Martin Wolf’s latest FT column (April 25th), taking up “the rising tide of anxiety” in reaction to Piketty’s book, argues that “A more equal society will not hinder growth.” The lede: Inequality damages the economy and efforts to remedy it are, on the whole, not harmful. Wolf informs the reader that, two months ago, “the staff of the International Monetary Fund…in a note entitled Redistribution, Inequality and Growth…came to clear conclusions: societies that start off more unequal tend to redistribute more; lower net inequality (post-interventions) drives faster and more durable growth; and redistribution is generally benign in its impact on growth, with negative effects only when taken to extremes.” Further down Wolf writes that “It is not only possible, but valuable, to marry open and dynamic market economies to the sense of shared purpose and achievement brought by tolerable degrees of inequality. Moreover, less inequality is likely to make economies work better by increasing the ability of the entire population to participate, on more equal terms. An important condition for this, in turn, is that politics not be unduly beholden to wealth.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
15th UPDATE: Financial journalist and blogger Felix Salmon has a post on the Reuters blog (April 25th), “The Piketty pessimist,” in which, entre autres, he links to Chrystia Freeland’s April 20th review in Politico, “The book every plutocrat should read: Thomas Piketty’s new tome just might save the super-rich from themselves,” and former World Bank economist Branko Milanović’s 20-page “The return of ‘patrimonial capitalism': review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century,” from last October.
16th UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer, writing in The Daily Beast (April 26th), incisively explains how right-wing columnist James Poulos “gets Piketty–and Tocqueville–wrong.”
17th UPDATE: Garett Jones, who teaches econ at George Mason U., has a critique of Piketty (April 26th), “Living with Inequality,” on the Über-libertarian website Reason.com. The lede: Has Thomas Piketty really found “the central contradiction of capitalism”?
18th UPDATE: Here’s yet another argument for Piketty’s global wealth tax.
19th UPDATE: The NYT’s David Leonhardt writes in the NYT Magazine (May 2nd) that “Inequality has been going on forever…but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.” He says that “For all of the clarity of Piketty’s historical analysis, I emerged from the book not quite grasping the mechanics of rising inequality. What is it about market economies that typically cause the assets and incomes of the rich to rise more rapidly than those of everyone else? So I called Piketty at his office in Paris, and he agreed to walk me through it.” And Piketty does.
20th UPDATE: TNR’s Isaac Chotiner has an “Interview with the left’s rock star economist” (May 5th), in which the economist in question, Thomas Piketty, says “I don’t care for Marx.” Dis donc. At the end of the interview is a 42-minute video discussion with Piketty in Huffington Post Politics, led by Ryan Grim and former Wall Street banker Alexis Goldstein.
21st UPDATE: TNR’s John B. Judis follows up from Chotiner’s Piketty interview with a piece (May 6th) informing the reader that “Thomas Piketty Is Pulling Your Leg.” The lede: He clearly read Karl Marx. But don’t call him a Marxist.
23rd UPDATE: Writing in the NYT’s The Upshot blog (May 9th), Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities examines a conservative/libertarian critique of Piketty, concluding that “Piketty’s Arguments Still Hold Up, After Taxes.”
24th UPDATE: Salon.com columnist Thomas Frank—of What’s the Matter with Kansas? fame—has a piece (May 11th) explaining “The problem with Thomas Piketty: ‘Capital’ destroys right-wing lies, but there’s one solution it forgets.” The lede: After “Capital,” we’ll never talk income inequality or meritocratic myths the same way. But we must talk unions.
25th UPDATE: Economists Odran Bonnet, Pierre-Henri Bono, Guillaume Chapelle and Etienne Wasmer—affiliated with Sciences Po-Paris’s Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’évaluation des politiques publiques (LIEPP)—published a working paper on April 17th (in French and with English translation), “Does housing capital contribute to inequality? A comment on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,” in which they contradict Piketty’s thesis. The paper was mentioned in a post (April 29th) on the NYT’s The Upshot blog by libertarian economists Tyler Cowen and Veronique de Rugy, “Why Piketty’s Book Is a Bigger Deal in America Than in France.”
26th UPDATE: Thomas B. Edsall has a column (May 14th) in the NYT on “Thomas Piketty and His Critics.” Among the critics he mentions—and whose reviews he links to—are Kenneth Rogoff and Clive Crook.
27th UPDATE: The Spring 2014 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas has a review of Piketty’s book by Lawrence Summers, “The Inequality Puzzle.” The lede: Thomas Piketty’s tour de force analysis doesn’t get everything right, but it’s certainly gotten us pondering the right questions.
28th UPDATE: Dani Rodrik, writing in Social Europe Journal (May 16th), weighs in on “Piketty and the Zeitgeist.” Money quote: “Perhaps more than the argument itself, what makes Capital in the Twenty-First Century a great read is the sense of witnessing a superb mind grapple with the big questions of our time. Piketty’s emphasis on the political nature of the distribution of income; his subtle back-and-forth between the general laws of capitalism and the role played by contingency; and his willingness to offer bold (if, to many, impractical) remedies to save capitalism from itself are as refreshing as they are rare for an economist.”
29th UPDATE: Jeff Madrick, writing on the Triple Crisis blog (May 20th), asks “Is the Piketty enthusiasm bubble subsiding?“
30th UPDATE: Uh oh, the FT reports (May 23rd) that the “Piketty findings [are] undercut by errors.”
31st UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a post (May 24th) on his NYT blog on the “[g]reat buzz in the blogosphere over Chris Giles’s [FT] attack on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,” in which he asks “Is Piketty all wrong?” The short answer: a little bit but not really. In the post, Krugman links to two posts on the NYT’s The Upshot blog that also take on Chris Giles’s attack, one by University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, who says that the “new critique of Piketty has its own shortcomings,” the other by Neil Irwin, who asks “Did Thomas Piketty get his math wrong?“
32nd UPDATE: The Economist’s Free Exchange blog has a post (May 24th) on the Piketty data error brouhaha, asking is there “A Piketty problem?” The short answer: Insofar as there is one it does not “support many of the allegations made by the FT, or the conclusion that the book’s argument is wrong.” The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim informs us that “The economists FT relied on for its Thomas Piketty takedown don’t buy it” (May 27th). And Channel 4 News economics editor Paul Mason writes in The Guardian that “Thomas Piketty’s real challenge was to the FT’s Rolex types.” The lede: If the FT’s attack on the radical economist’s ‘rising inequality’ thesis is right, then all the gross designer bling in its How To Spend It section can be morally justified.
33rd UPDATE: More pushback against the Chris Giles FT attack. Mike Konczal at Rortybomb says “The FT Gets Piketty’s Capital Argument Wrong” (May 24th).
The linguist John McWhorter thinks it’s a waste of time, so he informed the readers of TNR the other day in a piece entitled “Let’s stop pretending that French is an important language.” Now I’ve read numerous articles by McWhorter over the years—on language, race, ethnicity, and other topics he writes about—and have generally found them interesting, thoughtful, and well-considered. He’s a rare conservative intellectual (which is becoming an oxymoron outre-Atlantique). But this piece is not thoughtful or well-considered. It is stupid and inane. Rubbish tout court.
McWhorter was prompted to write it after reading the report in the NYT last week on the popularity of French/English dual-language programs in New York City public schools (and which was, BTW, the NYT’s most emailed article over two days). He found this “surprising,” as French, so he informed the reader, has ceased to be a “useful” language. And if a language is not “useful”—and one does not issue from an immigrant community that speaks it, so no identity issues are involved—what’s the point in learning it?
A few points and observations here. First, on usefulness. What makes a foreign language “useful”? Two things: If learning to speak a particular language will (a) help one get ahead in life, and (b) enable one to communicate with people with whom one may want or need to communicate on an ongoing basis. On getting ahead in life, this, of course, mainly means the job market, i.e. if one’s employment prospects will be considerably enhanced if one has a functional knowledge of a foreign language, and, conversely, hindered if one does not have this. One can know if this is the case simply by looking at job announcements and descriptions (one doesn’t need to go this far, in fact: if knowledge of a particular language is a major asset in the job market, this will be well-known to all, including youngsters in school). On communicating with people, this mainly involves those who live in multinational states—where there is more than one recognized linguistic group of native-born citizens—or who spend a lot of time in a foreign country where another language is spoken.
In France, where I live, only one foreign language—English, obviously—is objectively “useful.” If a Frenchman or woman wants any kind of job or career that will take him/her outside of France and/or that involves regular interaction with non-French people who don’t actually live in France (business associates/clients, fellow professionals, tourists, and the like), then s/he needs to have a functional command of English. Period. Most jobs don’t require this—e.g. the clerks at the post office, the cashiers at Monoprix, the men who pruned the trees in my résidence this week, even doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, don’t need to speak a word of English—but enough do, and particularly in the globalized sector of the economy. Even in the 1980s almost all the job announcements in the then-weekly economics/business supplement of Le Monde stipulated fluency in English. Back then—don’t even talk about now—I observed that a significant percentage of the books being checked out of the library at Sciences Po Paris—a major establishment of higher education for the future ruling elite—were in English.
One hardly needs to be reminded about the status of English; everyone in France knows it, it’s a fact and with the educational system having adapted to the reality three or four decades ago. In the first year of middle school (6th grade) all students must choose their first foreign language (langue vivante 1, LV1) and which they take until finishing high school. Some 93% opt for English, with almost all the rest German. A few linguists (e.g. Claude Hagège) and other francophonie ideologues may rail on against the dominance of English as LV1 but they’re shouting at the moon. No one is paying attention. And in the 8th grade, when choosing the obligatory second foreign language (LV2), all the LV1 German students have to go for English. When making the pitch for LV1 German to entering 6th graders—i.e. to their parents—, German teachers assure that learning German will in no way set the children back when they start English two years later (I first read this and then heard it with my own ears, at a parents-students-teachers meeting when my daughter started collège). So by the end of high school, almost all French students have taken English for at least five years, and most for seven (whether or not they have actually mastered it is another matter). In France, English is objectively useful. It’s the globalized economy, stupid.
In the US, where students take only one foreign language in high school—and usually as an elective—, it is entirely normal, given America’s geographic location, that the most popular one by far will be Spanish. But, objectively speaking, Spanish is not “useful” for the majority of those who take it. Apart from those who live in Miami, south Texas, and Mexican border towns, Americans do not need to know Spanish. Jobs in major American cities—not to mention the heartland—do not require it (except for those involving contact with recent Latino migrants; when McWhorter says that he has “seen medical professionals just miss getting plum jobs in New York because a competitor happened to speak Spanish,” he’s recounting an anecdote; the great majority of medical professionals in New York City do not need to speak Spanish—and most likely do not). A quick perusal of job announcements in any American city—Miami, El Paso, and a few others excepted—will demonstrate this. As for communicating with the sizable number of Latinos/Hispanics in America, any member of this population that a non-Latino/Hispanic American would ever possibly meet and want to strike up a conversation with already speaks English. The upper class in southern California may find Spanish useful to communicate with their gardeners and cleaning women but the huge majority of Americans just don’t need to speak it in their daily or working lives. Ever. Spanish, for the vast majority of Americans, is, objectively speaking, no more “useful” than any other language.
As for Chinese, a language that has McWhorter’s favors, the utilitarian arguments for learning it do not hold water. If people want to learn Chinese, all power to them, but they should not do so on account of its purported usefulness. The fact is, Chinese is only useful if one is going to live in China or do a lot of business there (a future eventuality that American schoolchildren cannot possibly anticipate). Outside of China and for those who don’t regularly deal with Chinese businessmen or tourists, the Chinese language will get one nowhere. It is of no utility whatever. And the rise of China will not change this. In 2050 Chinese will still be pretty much useless in the rest of the world (if anyone would like me to defend this assertion in detail, I will happily do so). A fact: with the exception of English, languages are only useful in the countries in which they are spoken or are widespread as a secondary language. Spanish is spoken only in Latin America (minus Brazil) and Spain. Apart from Mexico and maybe the Dominican Republic, the number of Americans who travel to Latin America is rather less than those who visit France and other Francophone countries. In Europe outside Spain, Africa (except Equatorial Guinea, if one ends up there), and all of Asia, Spanish has little to no utility.
French, by contrast, is incontestably more useful on this level. In addition to France, French-speaking Belgium and Switzerland, and Quebec (which borders the US and where the French language can be most useful), there are all the former French colonies: in the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) and Francophone Africa, where French is even more useful than in France itself, as English is far more understood in the latter than the former. French has pretty much disappeared in Indochina but is widely spoken in Lebanon and Israel (though admittedly less than English) and persists as a second (or third) language among portions of the elites in a number of countries in the Middle East and Latin America (e.g. earlier this week I attended a talk on Turkey by two academics from Istanbul, who spoke in fluent French). So when it comes to utility, French is, outside the Western hemisphere, far more “useful” than Spanish. And it is a hundred times more useful than Chinese.
So—and this is the second point—for an American middle/high school student (outside the aforementioned parts of the country) who is deciding what language to take—or a French 8th grader choosing an LV2—, considerations of utility should absolutely not enter into the equation. Whether or not a language is “useful” should not be a consideration. Any language is as good as the other. For many students, their parents will be implicated in the decision on this, or the decision will be driven by family history or predilection. Young people with immigrant origins or sub-cultural identities will often want to learn their heritage language, which is entirely legitimate. If the language in question is not offered by the school and there is sufficient demand for it (and with qualified teachers available), then that demand should be satisfied. E.g. in my suburban Chicago high school four decades back, one of the most popular foreign languages was Hebrew. A third of the student body was Jewish and enough of them clearly wanted to learn Hebrew (and as they were presumably motivated, they likely mastered the language more than did those who took Spanish or French by default). In American cities with a critical mass of immigrants from China, Chinese is presumably offered as a foreign language in public schools, and with the Chinese-American kids presumably taking it in large numbers. That’s excellent for them and their families. And also for America, as the more Chinese speakers America has, the better.
When it comes to French, McWhorter sniffs that “in educated America [it] is now a class marker, originating from that distant day when French was Europe’s international language.” Insofar as this may be the case, so what? If people want to learn French—or have their children learn it—because it has a certain cachet or snob value for them, that’s their business, and neither John McWhorter nor anyone else has anything to say about it (as for McWhorter’s facetious throwaway line on how “[i]t’s swell that knowing French allows you to ignore subtitles in the occasional art house film”: what a hackneyed cliché from another era; McWhorter clearly does not frequent “art houses,” where most foreign-language films these days do not come from France). A personal anecdote: when my daughter entered the 8th grade in our Paris banlieue and had to choose an LV2, both my wife and I encouraged her to take Italian, which was offered in her collège. Why? Because Italian is a beautiful language, Italy is a country we love (does anyone not?), has a great civilization, a great cuisine, and all the rest (she was game but finally didn’t do it, as Italian was not offered in the lycée she wanted to go to two years later; I pushed her to take German instead but she didn’t want to, opting for Spanish for her LV2, as do the vast majority of French middle school students nowadays, who think that the langue de Cervantes is easier and cooler than the langue de Goethe; dommage…).
Which leads to the third point, which is that if one is going to master a foreign language, there has to be some pleasure in the process and interest in the cultures where the language is spoken. And France and French culture remains the nec plus ultra for many Americans. The aura of Paris for millions of American tourists is intact. In learning French, Americans gain access to one of the richest cultural heritages in the history of the world (and yes, France continues to make movies worth seeing and not all of which make it to the US, so don’t have English subtitles), not to mention the satisfaction in being able to communicate with people in the most beautiful country in Europe and that millions love. If McWhorter has little interest in France, that’s his business. And if he considers French culture to be has been, that’s his personal opinion. But it’s not that of many others. As for China, this is incontestably a great civilization—and with a cuisine that I will personally rank above French—but it is inaccessible to most Americans and of less overall interest to them than France. And China is a harder country to visit, get around, and spend time in. America is a Western culture and an extension of European civilization—and which France was long its highest expression—, so Americans in their majority are necessarily going to feel a greater affinity with Europe than with Asia. And will always visit it in far greater numbers. This is not a value judgment, it’s a fact.
Fourth point. French is an easy language to learn for native English speakers. A piece of cake. It is considerably easier than any other non-Romance language (with the possible exception of Dutch). A few years of serious study in middle and high school followed by several months of immersion in France and voilà, one will be fluent or nearly so. One can, in fact, achieve fluency in French without ever living in a Francophone country. If a native English speaker who has learned French doesn’t use it for a lengthy stretch of time, it will get rusty but s/he’ll recover it quickly if need be. Not so with Chinese or other objectively difficult languages (Arabic, Japanese…). These take many more years of study (as McWhorter acknowledges) and one really does need to live for a time in the country where they’re spoken. And they have to be maintained. If the difficult language falls into disuse, recovering it will take longer (and trying to recollect all those forgotten Chinese characters would be a tall order indeed). So from the mere standpoint of investment of one’s time and then payoff, if one has to choose between French and Chinese, opting for French goes without saying. It’s a no brainer.
A note on learning Arabic, a language McWhorter correctly says is “achingly needed on the geopolitical scene.” It would be nice if more American schoolchildren studied this. If Arabic had been offered as an LV2 in my daughter’s middle school, we would have pushed her to take it—for reasons having to do with my and my wife’s personal histories—and she would have readily agreed (but few schools in France offer Arabic, which is both incomprehensible and, given France’s national interests and sizable population of Maghreb origin, a bit of a scandal). There are, however, some particular challenges in learning Arabic and which make it unlikely that it will ever take off as a foreign language in American schools. First, one needs to study Arabic for many more years than a Romance or Germanic language to achieve a functional command of it. Second, the language exists on two levels: modern standard (the written language, spoken on formal occasions but never in daily life) and dialects (which vary considerably across the Arab world). To say that one knows Arabic, one has to know both the standard language (fusha) and a dialect (darija), the latter of which is quite different from the former. But to learn a dialect one has to live in the country where it’s spoken (as well as to really master fusha). It is not possible otherwise. The most popular and logical country for American students to do this has always been Egypt. But if my 20-year-old daughter were to propose spending a year in Cairo nowadays, we would veto it. Period. Damascus was a great city in which to spend a year or two studying Arabic—and was popular with French students—but it would not be advisable to go there today. So that leaves precisely three countries where an American or any other Western student can go for a séjour linguistique: Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco (Lebanon, for a variety of reasons, is not a good place for this). If one wants to go to Jordan, fine, but it’s boring (personal opinion). Tunisia (which means Tunis) and Morocco are great places but French is widespread in both and their dialects—and particularly Moroccan—are incomprehensible in the rest of the Arab world.
So voilà my advice to an American middle/high school student who’s not interested in taking Spanish: go for French. You won’t regret it.
On the subject of learning foreign languages, writer Mary Hawthorne had a fine piece on the The New Yorker website, dated August 13 2012, “Language is music,” and with contributions by David Bellos, Arthur Goldhammer, and Lydia Davis. It’s well worth the read.
Jean Quatremer, l’excellent correspondent de Libération à Bruxelles, a posté, sur sa page Facebook, cet extrait d’une tribune de Philippe Sollers, publiée dans Le Monde le 28 janvier 1999, et qui a été très remarquée à l’époque—et qui a mécontenté plus d’un, à gauche comme à droite. Elle garde sa pertinence.
Elle était là, elle est toujours là ; on la sent, peu à peu, remonter en surface : la France moisie est de retour. Elle vient de loin, elle n’a rien compris ni rien appris, son obstination résiste à toutes les leçons de l’Histoire, elle est assise une fois pour toutes dans ses préjugés viscéraux. Elle a son corps, ses mots de passe, ses habitudes, ses réflexes. Elle parle bas dans les salons, les ministères, les commissariats, les usines, à la campagne comme dans les bureaux. Elle a son catalogue de clichés qui finissent par sortir en plein jour, sa voix caractéristique. Des petites phrases arrivent, bien rancies, bien médiocres, des formules de rentier peureux se tenant au chaud d’un ressentiment borné. Il y a une bêtise française sans équivalent, laquelle, on le sait, fascinait Flaubert. L’intelligence, en France, est d’autant plus forte qu’elle est exceptionnelle.
La France moisie a toujours détesté, pêle-mêle, les Allemands, les Anglais, les Juifs, les Arabes, les étrangers en général, l’art moderne, les intellectuels coupeurs de cheveux en quatre, les femmes trop indépendantes ou qui pensent, les ouvriers non encadrés, et, finalement, la liberté sous toutes.
La France moisie, rappelez-vous, c’est la force tranquille des villages, la torpeur des provinces, la terre qui, elle, ne ment pas, le mariage conflictuel, mais nécessaire, du clocher et de l’école républicaine. C’est le national social ou le social national. Il y a eu la version familiale Vichy, la cellule Moscou-sur-Seine. On ne s’aime pas, mais on est ensemble. On est avare, soupçonneux, grincheux, mais, de temps en temps, La Marseillaise prend à la gorge, on agite le drapeau tricolore. On déteste son voisin comme soi-même, mais on le retrouve volontiers en masse pour des explosions unanimes sans lendemain. L’Etat ? Chacun est contre, tout en attendant qu’il vous assiste. L’argent ? Evidemment, pourvu que les choses se passent en silence, en coulisse. Un référendum sur l’Europe ? Vous n’y pensez pas : ce serait non, alors que le désir est oui. Faites vos affaires sans nous, parlons d’autre chose. Laissez-nous à notre bonne vieille routine endormie.
La France moisie a bien aimé le XIXe siècle, sauf 1848 et la Commune de Paris. Cela fait longtemps que le XXe lui fait horreur, boucherie de 14 et humiliation de 40. Elle a eu un bref espoir pendant quatre ans, mais supporte très difficilement qu’on lui rappelle l’abjection de la Collaboration.
Pendant quatre-vingts ans, d’autre part, une de ses composantes importante et très influente a systématiquement menti sur l’est de l’Europe, ce qui a eu comme résultat de renforcer le sommeil hexagonal. New York ? Connais pas. Moscou ? Il paraît que c’est globalement positif, malgré quelques vipères lubriques.
Oui, finalement, ce XXe siècle a été très décevant, on a envie de l’oublier, d’en faire table rase. Pourquoi ne pas repartir des cathédrales, de Jeanne d’Arc, ou, à défaut, d’avant 1914, de Péguy? A quoi bon les penseurs et les artistes qui ont tout compliqué comme à plaisir, Heidegger, Sartre, Joyce, Picasso, Stravinski, Genet, Giacometti, Céline ? La plupart se sont d’ailleurs honteusement trompés ou ont fait des oeuvres incompréhensibles, tandis que nous, les moisis, sans bruit, nous avons toujours eu raison sur le fond, c’est-à-dire la nature humaine. Il y a eu trop de bizarreries, de désordres intimes, de singularités. Revenons au bon sens, à la morale élémentaire, à la société policée, à la charité bien ordonnée commençant par soi-même. Serrons les rangs, le pays est en danger.
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The BBC World Service has a good 23 minute report, “Dieudonné: France’s most dangerous comedian?,” broadcast yesterday and that is well worth the listen (h/t Art Goldhammer). Reporter Helen Grady highlights Dieudonné’s fans, and particularly those from post-colonial and DOM-TOM minorities, who manifestly have far fewer problems with Marine Le Pen and the Front National than they do with their fellow Jewish citizens (as if Jews, collectively speaking, ever did anything to any member of these minorities; or to anyone in France for that matter). This is disturbing, to say the least. One may hypothesize that Dieudonné’s rapprochement with the extreme right—initiated a decade ago—has given the green light to his numerous fans from the aforementioned minorities to do likewise, and that his in-your-face antisemitism has likewise libéré la parole for his fans on this. Insofar as this is the case, maybe there is a Dieudonné affaire after all…
If anti-Semites are publicly rearing their heads in France—thanks to the Internet—they are in the US as well, of course. In looking for stuff on Internet I came across this mini-screed from 2012 by the conspiracy theorist, onetime University of Wisconsin-Madison lecturer, and Richard Falk pal Kevin Barrett, “NY Times blasts French ‘truth terrorist’ Dieudonné.” No comment.
On a higher intellectual note, Jean Baubérot, the well-known sociologist-historian of religion in France—and whose perspectives on laïcité à la française I entirely share—, has a post on “Antisémitisme et racisme” on his Mediapart blog.
UPDATE: To get an idea of Dieudonné’s humor—and what makes his fans laugh—take a look at this skit on “the deported Jew” (subtitles in English). Ça se passe de commentaire. It is being reported in the French media today (March 11th) that the lawsuit of the owners of the Théâtre de la Main d’Or to have Dieudonné’s lease cancelled will be adjudicated on April 29th. One can only hope the owners will win. The sooner the S.O.B. is put out of business, the better.
2nd UPDATE: Voilà an article in Le Point (July 1st), “Dieudonné, un pas de plus dans l’abjection.” The lede: Le Point.fr est allé voir ‘La Bête immonde’, son nouveau spectacle. Devant un public conquis, le comédien a déversé sa haine sur les Juifs. Affligeant.
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He was the headline on the national news Thursday night, a major story again last night, and was on the front pages of almost all the national newspapers in France yesterday. It is quite amazing that the latest Dieudonné non-Affair—and, objectively speaking, there is no affair, as he hasn’t done anything at the present time to provoke one—has been going on for over two weeks now, that it continues to be a big news story. Which is not to say that it is devoid of interest. The Dieudonné brouhaha has indeed raised some issues—and disquieting ones, notably in regard to his enthusiastic fan base—and provoked what looks to be a real debate over free speech in France and the limits to this (of which more on below). A few points.
First, Dieudonné is not just a comedian. He is a quasi political actor and has been since the 1990s. Pour mémoire, he was an independent candidate in the 1997 legislative elections, in the Dreux constituency—a Front National terre de prédilection since the early ’80s and where Dieudo has his main residence—, obtaining a not insignificant 8% of the vote. His campaign—this before he became an anti-Semite (an open one, at least)—was aimed at the FN’s Marie-France Stirbois—who was Dreux’s National Assembly deputy in the 1989-93 period (she took 61% of the vote in the 1989 by-election there)—and attracted sympathy from the left (all sorts of lefties—e.g. Jack Lang, Marie-George Buffet, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, SOS-Racisme—came to Dreux in the late ’90s to support Dieudo in his ongoing bagarre with Mme Stirbois and the local FN; this several years before he became best buddies with Jean-Marie Le Pen and other frontistes). Dieudonné announced his candidacy in the 2002 and 2007 presidential elections—which went nowhere, of course, as he had no ability to round up the necessary 500 signatures—, was in the second position on the “Euro-Palestine” list in the Île-de-France in the 2004 European elections—when his antisemitism had begun to rear its head—, and headed the “Liste Antisioniste” (i.e. anti-Zionist) in the ÎdF in the 2009 European elections (poster below)—his antisemitism now in full throttle—, and with the list including the well-known Jew haters Yahia Gouasmi, Alain Soral—Dieudo’s main sidekick these days—, and Ginette Hess-Skandrani.
Some numbers: In the 2004 election, the “Euro-Palestine” list won 4% of the vote in the Seine-Saint-Denis (the neuf-trois), spiking at 6 to 8% in La Courneuve, Bobigny, Villepinte, and Clichy-sous-Bois (and obtaining 11% in Garges-lès-Gonesse in the Val d’Oise). The 2009 “Antisioniste” list took a modest 3% in its (relative) stronghold of the Seine-Saint-Denis, winning 4 to 5% in a dozen, heavily immigrant-origin populated communes across the ÎdF. The point here: Dieudonné has a political audience—and notably among the younger generation of visible minorities—that is independent of his specific stand-up comic acts. So when the French state views him as more than a simple entertainer, it is not without reason. Which is not to say that the state’s current actions against him are justified.
Which leads to the second point. The latest Dieudonné (non-)affair is purely the doing of Manuel Valls. If it weren’t for Valls and his grandstanding acharnement against Dieudonné—to have the latter’s shows banned—, I wouldn’t be writing this post. The latest thing blew three weeks ago, when it was reported that Dieudo, in his current stand-up act, was making bad taste Judeophobic jokes about France Inter’s morning news host Patrick Cohen (whom I listen to daily, pour l’info). And this was followed by Nicolas Anelka’s “quenelle” on December 28th, after scoring a goal for his current West Bromwich club—the 11th he’s played for in his turbulent career—against West Ham. No particular reason to be shocked, as Anelka—a trash-talking Muslim convert hailing from an ill-reputed cité in a particularly tough Paris banlieue—said that he’s a friend of Dieudonné’s and did it for his friend (N.B. the “quenelle” is not an inverted Nazi salute; Dieudonné came up with it in the late ’90s; it’s simply a bras d’honneur—an “up yours”—at “the system,” and a gesture of solidarity with Dieudonné and his spiel: which, in view of Dieudo’s obsessive, in-your-face antisemitism, signifies that the quenelle may be rightly interpreted as adhesion to his world-view and pet hatreds). Valls’s gratuitous campaign to silence Dieudonné is of a piece with the most intolerant, liberticide reflexes of the French left. “Pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la liberté”… How many times have I heard that over the years and decades from French lefties (and coming from a man—Saint-Just—who went to the guillotine…)….
Even those who support hate speech laws such as the Loi Gayssot—which, being a First Amendment purist, I do not—and think these alone should suffice in this matter, have been critical of Valls’s liberty-undermining demarche and regret that he’s playing into Dieudonné’s hands, e.g. the prominent political scientist and former PS MEP Olivier Duhamel, Albert Herszkowicz of Memorial 98, Maître Eolas (animateur of the excellent blog Journal d’un avocat), Charb of Charlie Hebdo—who points out the differences between Dieudonné’s legal challenges and the lawsuits that have been filed against CH over the years—, Pascal Riché of Rue89, the Franco-Algerian journalist Akram Belkaïd, the venerable Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, and others. Mediapart’s Edwy Plenel has gone so far as to compare Valls to Nicolas Sarkozy (the similarities between the two have been remarked upon by more than one)
Imposant son duel avec Dieudonné comme le feuilleton médiatique du moment, Manuel Valls fait tout bêtement, et sinistrement, du Nicolas Sarkozy. Il exacerbe, hystérise, divise, dramatise, pour mieux s’imposer en protagoniste solitaire d’une République réduite à l’ordre établi, immobilisée dans une politique de la peur, obsédée par la désignation d’ennemis à combattre, tournant le dos à toute espérance transformatrice, authentiquement démocratique et sociale. Avec cette politique avilie, réduite aux émotions sans pensées, aux réflexes sans débats, aux urgences sans discussions, nous voulions en finir en 2012, et hélas nous y sommes toujours.
The alacrity with which the Conseil d’Etat—the supreme court of the administrative legal system—issued its rulings over the past two days is also disquieting, as if there were some kind of consigne issued on the matter. And now it appears that Valls is trying to have Dieudonné censored on the Internet. This is crazy. Dieudonné’s lawyers will most certainly take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and which will most certainly rule against the French state and in Dieudonné’s favor. And Manuel Valls—and the French Socialists—will have definitively succeeded in turning a lowlife anti-Semite into a martyr for free speech. Great! On this, I have to part company with Thomas Legrand, France Inter’s normally sharp political editorialist—and with whom I invariably find myself in agreement—, who, yesterday morning, disagreed with those critiquing Valls and the Conseil d’Etat. He asserted, entre autres, that
La parole raciste est performative, c’est un acte. Tenir des propos racistes c’est être violent. A partir du moment où l’on sait que Dieudonné sera antisémite dans son prochain meeting, peut-on encore invoquer la liberté d’expression pour le laisser faire ? C’est à peu prés comme permettre une ratonnade au nom de la liberté d’expression des ratonneurs. Entre l’époque des lois scélérates et aujourd’hui, il y a eu quelques événements : le génocide arménien, la Shoah, les guerres de décolonisation, le Rwanda (Goebbels et Radio 1000 collines) qui permettent de comprendre la différence fondamentale entre la violence des mots anarchistes –pour poursuivre avec cet exemple- et la violence des mots racistes. Face à ces considérations, se demander si les interdictions du meeting de Dieudonné ne vont pas lui faire de la publicité, ne pèse pas grand chose. Faire de la publicité, rendre public le plus largement possible l’idée que le racisme est interdit, c’est renforcer un tabou positif, qui, à court terme, peut créer des troubles, mais qui, au fond, renforce la cohésion. C’est l’Histoire qui nous l’a enseignée.
Specious analogies. “Ratonneurs” are thugs who carry out violent acts on people, Radio 1000 Collines openly called on people to murder their neighbors… What is going on in France right now is a wanker making sick jokes to other wankers. Il n’y a pas eu mort d’homme. There has not been a single documented instance of a Dieudonné show resulting in physical aggression against an individual, or even against property. If Dieudonné were to suggest that his fans do any of this, legal sanctions against him would be in order. But he has done no such thing.
My third point. Valls may be inflating Dieudonné’s significance and with the extensive media coverage—which is only normal in view of the story’s interest and the fact that major politicians are driving it—increasing Dieudo’s fan base, but the fact of the matter is: Dieudonné is irrelevant and will remain that way. In listening to him speak on politics one is struck by the nullity of his rhetoric. To call it intellectually impoverished would be an understatement. To get an idea of the level at which Dieudonné is operating, take a few minutes and listen to him here (English subtitles). This is the degré zéro of political discourse. Marine Le Pen is both Aristotle and Pericles by comparison. Moreover, Dieudonné has no sympathizers even at the extremes of the political spectrum (a few ageing or marginalized frontistes apart; Marine LP won’t have anything to do with him). Even pro-Palestinian/Israel-bashing associations on the far left have condemned him in no uncertain terms, e.g. the Association France Palestine Solidarité and the Campagne BDS France. To these one may add the self-styled Parti des Indigènes de la République—which 100% supports Hamas and Islamic Jihad in their struggle against the “Zionist entity”—, which issued a declaration 4½ years ago harshly denouncing Dieudonné and his rapprochement with the extreme right. Dieudonné is radioactive from one end of the political spectrum to the other. Only those regarded as crackpots and whack jobs even by other extremists will touch him with a ten-foot pole. So politically speaking, he represents exactly nothing.
As for his youthful fans—and this is my fourth point—, way too much is being made of them. Now I have been somewhat taken aback at images of the thousands who attend Dieudonné’s shows, who are intimately familiar with his shtick, and find his antisemitic “humor” hilarious (e.g. see the video of his Bordeaux performance last April embedded in this piece; see also this, this, this, and this). I don’t know where this Judeophobia—latent and overt—comes from or how to interpret it, particularly as anti-Semitism has declined precipitously in France over the past six decades; it is not significantly higher in France than in the US or anywhere else (and is no doubt lower than in a number of European countries; I’ll come back to this subject another time). It is true that a significant number of his fans are youthful Muslims—who are disproportionately given over to antisemitic stereotyping—and other post-colonial and DOM-TOM minorities, but they are by no means all; many fans are regular “gaulois” French, middle class, and educated beyond the bac.
Several commentators have said that we need to listen to Dieudonné’s youthful adepts, try to understand where they’re coming from, and absolutely not stigmatize them, e.g. Pascal Boniface, who offers this
Mais ce qui compte, au-delà de [Dieudonné], c’est l’influence qu’il peut avoir sur une partie non négligeable de la jeunesse française. C’est là le véritable enjeu. Son public est jeune et divers. Ce n’est pas en traitant tous ceux qui vont à ses spectacles de nazis ou d’imbéciles qu’on les fera se désolidariser de Dieudonné. Quelles sont les raisons de la popularité de Dieudonné ? Il est le fruit d’un rejet des élites politiques et médiatiques par une partie de la population. Ces dernières devraient davantage réfléchir aux motifs de ce rejet, plus compliqué que de désigner un coupable idéal.
In an FB exchange yesterday, a smart journalist with a Maghreb specialization took me to task for an off-the-cuff remark I made dissing Dieudonné’s fans, responding with this
On ne s’en sortira pas avec ce genre de noms d’oiseaux et le mépris… [Il faut] sortir de l’état de crispations délétères, de la crise de représentativité et des fractures sociales et mémorielles qui minent la société française.
Perhaps. In another vein, my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer, whose civil libertarian critique of the government I entirely share, worried about the impact the Conseil d’Etat’s interdiction of Dieudonné’s shows would have on his alienated fans
What this series of lamentable episodes–from Anelka to Dieudonné to the Conseil d’État–has revealed is that France is on the verge of another explosion of rage by people who feel they have no political voice. It’s a pity that there is no civil rights movement worthy of the name and that no leader of stature has emerged to channel this anger into more productive channels. I shudder to think of what lies ahead.
Art needn’t shudder, as nothing whatever lies ahead, at least not from Dieudonné’s fans indignant at Manuel Valls’s vendetta against their hero. In listening to Dieudonné’s fans on the TV news and reading in press articles what they have to say (see above links), one is struck—indeed stunned—by their political inculture, of their intellectual indigence. The nullity of Dieudonné’s political discourse—the zero degree of its content—has found its audience. Intellectually speaking, Dieudo’s fans are in his image. Jean-Yves Camus, the well-known specialist of the extreme right, nailed it in his column in the December 31, 2013, Charlie Hebdo
Puisque l’ancien comique [Dieudonné] et son acolyte [Alain Soral] qui fut écrivain sont dans une logique mercantile à outrance, c’est aux clients autant que vendeurs qu’il faut s’intéresser. Les clients sont des pigeons décervelés qui croient lutter contre le «système» par une attitude d’adolescent rebelle à deux balles, les yeux rivés sur le clavier de leur ordinateur à visionner en boucle les vidéos du gourou avant d’aller acheter les produits dérivés sur la dieudosphère ou sur le site d’Égalité et Réconciliation. Quand ils se décident à sortir du monde virtuel, ces «soldats politiques» de pacotille poussent le courage jusqu’à défier le capitalisme, les discriminations raciales et les méchanismes de domination par un geste fort: une «quenelle» photographiée en loucedé sur un smart-phone qui coûte un demi-smic. Ces gens ne sont que des tout petit-bourgeois en mal d’émotions fortes, des consommateurs passifs de la sous-culture de masse qui prolifère sur les réseaux sociaux. Leur pseudo-subversion est un leurre: ils n’iront pas voter, ils désertent les luttes sociales et l’engagement sur le terrain et ils n’aident en rien, concrètement, les immigrés ou les travailleurs licenciés.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. In listening to and reading the words of Dieudonné’s fans—not to mention those of the Man himself—the leitmotif is opposition to “the system.” And the “quenelle” is their expression of this, of cocking a snook at “the system.” But what precisely do they mean by “the system”? Is it the capitalist system? Liberal democracy? The republic? The European Union? What exactly? In a discussion on the Dieudonné phenomenon this past week in a Master 2 level class at one of the universities I teach at, I put the question to a student—bright, highly politicized, and manifestly on the extreme right—who was halfway defending Dieudonné by “explaining” the “quenelle” phenomenon as a gesture of opposition to “the system” by numerous persons—soldiers, policemen, firemen, etc—who are actually inside “the system” but oppose it and, for obvious reasons, cannot express this openly. Huh? Opposition to the system by those inside the system? So please tell: what is “the system”? My student could not—or would not—say. But when we listen to Dieudonné, we get a very clear idea of what he means by “the system”: it’s that—and which is everything (politics, the state, economy, finance, the media, culture, you name it)—which is controlled by the “Zionists,” the CRIF, Bernard-Henry Lévy, the Rothschilds, Patrick Cohen, Patrick Bruel, etc, etc. And, of course, Israel. In short, it’s the Jews. The antisemitism of Dieudonné—and which suffuses his shows—is the rawest that has been expressed publicly in France since the Second World War. Audiences that eat this up, that adhere to it, that do not react to it with instinctive indignation or revulsion, merit no sympathy or comprehension. They merit nothing but contempt.
Dieudonné’s lizard brained fans may be angry about something—and their anger will no doubt increase as their hero’s legal difficulties mount—but, like Dieudonné himself, they are, finally, irrelevant. As Jean-Yves Camus observed, they are outside the political system, are politically illiterate—I actually know a couple of fans of Dieudo’s shows personally, as I have learned, so can attest to this particular aspect—, probably do not vote in their majority, do not participate in organized social struggles, are not members of civic associations… They are passive consumers of trash popular culture. And they are ultimately anodyne. They won’t join terrorist organizations or engage in criminal or subversive activities. Not a chance. And they certainly won’t form a political movement or join the Front National en masse. They will continue to go to their jobs—and most of them presumably do work, what with the price of admission to Dieudonné’s shows (cheapest seats at €38), their smart phones, etc.—and then go home to their computers, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et j’en passe. If they feel alienated or angry, that’s their problem, not society’s. And it is not something politicians or intellectuals need to get overly worried about. Not so long as the branleurs remain outside the formal political system or civic life.
A final point. As a comedian, Dieudonné is not funny. I have watched his skits on YouTube, including those from the ’90s with Elie Semoun, and failed to find any humor in them. Okay, humor is subjective and there are many people out there who have turned away from Dieudonné but still swear that he is—or used to be—a great comedian. Perhaps. But I can assert that when it comes to ethnic stand-up comedians in France, he cannot hold a candle to Fellag or Gad Elmaleh, or even Jamel Debbouze or Elie Semoun solo. Now these ones are funny!
The Dieudonné story will likely disappear in the coming days, as we move on to the next earth-shattering story, of François Hollande and his new friend.
ADDENDUM: Alain Finkielkraut and Plantu debated the Dieudonné affiar on I>Télé two days ago (watch here). Politically speaking I agree with Plantu but on the analytical level, I am entirely with Finkielkraut (and I am otherwise not a fan of his, to put it mildly). A friend remarked on what a simpleton Plantu was in his argumentation, incisively observing that “maybe that’s what it takes to be a great political cartoonist (which he is): a willy-nilly simplification of complex issues.”
And for those who have time, France 24 had a good debate Thursday night on “Free Speech or Hate Speech? The Row over French Comic Dieudonné” (in two parts: one and two), with Philip Cordery (PS MP), Philippe Moreau Chevrolet (Nouvel Obs columnist), Justin E. H. Smith (American philo and history prof in Paris), and leftist journalist Diana Johnstone. All were articulate and presented their arguments well, including Johnstone, with whom I rarely agree—and who wrote an execrable article on the Dieudonné affair last week in the ultra-gauchiste Internet rag CounterPunch (which I will decline to link to; if one wants to read it, one will have to go and look for it).
UPDATE: Art Goldhammer has a post on his French Politics blog on my Dieudonné post. He says
…I think [Arun] underestimates the potential harm of what he concedes is a widespread and increasingly uninhibited antisemitism in certain segments of French society. For Arun, these people are not alarming because they operate at “the degree zero of politics” and are products of a degraded popular culture. One can agree on the last two points and still worry about the potential for disruption and contagion. I’ve also been struck over the past few days by the crowds gathered at sites where Dieudonné performances have now been banned. Quite a few of the people interviewed on the TV news did not appear to be young denizens of the Paris suburbs or excluded visible minorities. Most seemed closer to 30 than to 20 in age, were well-dressed, and evidently had no difficulty coming up with the minimum 38 euros necessary (as Arun notes) for a ticket. Yet they were eager to tell the national TV audience that they believed their hero was being suppressed by “the Zionist lobby” through its immense and occult influence on the government.
I entirely share Art’s disquiet at the complicity of Dieudonné’s fans with the latter’s antisemitism, and which I made clear. But to repeat, I don’t see this as having grave consequences for French society or the political system given the depoliticization of his fan base and the fact that they really aren’t all that numerous. Dieudonné can get several thousand people into an arena for his shows—but not sell them out (as one may see in the YouTube of his Bordeaux show last April that I linked to above; and his Théâtre de la Main d’Or in Paris’s 11th arrondissement seats all of 250)—and get up to two million hits on YouTubes—which are no doubt seen by people multiple times, by many who are not his fans (including those like myself), and by a likely not insignificant number outside France (notably in the Maghreb, where his views have a potentially large and receptive audience). In the larger scheme of things, there are just not that many people involved here.
Contrast this with a rough American equivalent of Dieudonné—a showman from a visible minority with a nasty antisemitic rhetoric—, which was Louis Farrakhan, who, if one remembers, was the focus of a lot of media attention in the US from the 1980s and, above all, in the mid ’90s. Farrakhan was/is far more intelligent and sophisticated than Dieudonné and a far superior orator—there is no comparison between the two—, led a religious movement which was more than a mere cult, could organize “Million Man Marches,” and sell out arenas seating tens of thousands. There was alarm in various quarters—particularly in the Jewish community—over Farrakhan and the effect his rhetoric could have on his (exclusively black) audience—which loved his demagoguery—, but, finally, nothing came of it. He was thoroughly isolated politically, including among black politicians, and his fans—who were far more numerous than Dieudonné’s—neither joined the Nation of Islam nor coalesced into a movement or cause. Farrakhan fizzled and the media forgot about him.
Today’s Journal du Dimanche (January 12th) has a short interview (not online) with André Déchot, co-author of the 2011 book La Galaxie Dieudonné: Pour en finir avec les impostures (which looks worth reading), in which he discusses Dieudonné’s fans. In response to a question as to who they are
D’abord un noyau dur minoritaire, entre 10 et 20%, que agrège des négationnistes, différents courants d’extême droite dont des dirigeants du FN, des conspirationnistes, des fondamentalistes musulmans, des sectaires…Sans oublier les jeunes de la droite radicalisée qui étaient mobilisés contre le mariage pour tous. Ils étaient là, jeudi pour acceuillir bruyamment Manuel Valls lors de son arrivée à Rennes.
As for the other fans
Beaucoup de jeunes qui viennent des quartiers populaires, pas seulement issus de l’immigraton, et dont la plupart sont hors syndicats, hors associations ou structures collectives. Leur point commun, c’est un manque de repères historiques ou politiques. Ils sont dans une confusion entretenue par Dieudonné et ses amis. Pour eux, la «quenelle» est avant tout un bras d’honneur à un pouvoir en place qui, pensent-ils, les ignore.
As to whether or not they are antisemitic
Le public de Dieudonné n’est pas dans son ensemble antisémite, mais il adore ses provocations. Pour les fans, Dieudonné mène un combat contre la pensée unique, pour la liberté d’expression. Au regard de la posture victimaire de l’«humoriste», on peut presque parler d’un antisémitisme jugé acceptable par le public. Mais le risque est insidieux: on rigole aux vannes antisémites par provocation et, petit à petit, l’imaginaire de chacun peut se reconfigurer sur des préjugés racistes.
The France 2 talk show host, Frédéric Taddeï, interviewed author Marc-Édouard Nabe on Friday night, who had some interesting insights into Dieudonné and his fans (watch here), emphasizing, in particular, their attraction to conspiracy theories. (Taddeï, BTW, has invited Dieudonné onto his show in the past year, which gives the lie to those who say that Dieudo has been “banned” from mainstream television.)
It seems that Dieudonné is trying to calmer le jeu, announcing that he’s scrapping his current act and writing another. He’s no doubt getting scared that the state is going to go after him financially—and which Jean-Marc Ayrault all but confirmed this past week—, hitting him for unpaid taxes and fines. Money-wise, he has a lot to lose. And likely will.
2nd UPDATE: Art Goldhammer favorably links to an FT column (register for access), dated January 10th, on the Dieudonné business by Christopher Caldwell. It’s good, though Caldwell exaggerates—and not for the first time—the degree to which antisemitism is a problem in France. I noted one passage in particular
Dieudonné…may be the most gifted French comedian of his generation. He has made his name writing, directing, singing and acting two-hour-long combinations of skits and stand-up at his own Théâtre de la Main d’Or in Paris. His histrionic and imitative gifts are extraordinary, permitting him to carry out, for instance, both sides of an absurdist dialogue between a television intellectual and a car-burning rioter in the banlieues.
I presume Caldwell has seen a full Dieudonné act but wonder whom he’s comparing him to, i.e. how familiar Caldwell is with the world of French stand-up comedy in general (and the comedians I mentioned above). I’ll keep an open mind on Dieudonné’s comic act—his early stuff at least—but have yet to be convinced.
3rd UPDATE: Jack Lang—whom I would normally not cite favorably—deplored the Conseil d’Etat’s ruling in an interview in Le Monde (January 13th). Lang, pour mémoire, was a professor of constitutional law before entering politics and knows two or three things about the world of culture, so his viewpoint on this matter is noteworthy. In the same vein, retired law professor Serge Sur—who’s a major figure in his domain—took the Conseil d’Etat to task on the “Liberté, libertés chéries” blog (January 10th), calling its ruling a “Jour de deuil pour la liberté.”
The France that wins. We haven’t heard that one in a while. For anyone who doesn’t live on this planet—or who lives outside France and doesn’t follow international soccer—the French national team played one of the greatest games in its history last night at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, beating the Ukraine 3-0 to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next June. Hardly anyone dared to imagine such a result. In round 1 of the qualifying phase, Les Bleus (logically) finished second to Spain in their group, so went to the two-game playoff (matched against the Ukraine, which finished second in its group; fortunately Les Bleus didn’t draw Portugal). Last Friday’s game in Kiev was a disaster. Les Bleus were mediocre, losing 2-0. The Ukrainians were better and just wanted it more. To win the ticket to Brazil—and avoid the bitter disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup (for the first time since 1994), not to mention humiliation of being the sole big European soccer nation to suffer elimination at this stage—Les Bleus had to win with at least a three goal spread. No team had ever come back from a two goal deficit in a European World Cup qualifier playoff. The statistical probability of Les Bleus surmounting it was exactly 19%, so it was said. It’s really hard to score three goals in a soccer game and shut out the opposing side while one’s at it, and particularly when up against teams of the Ukraine’s quality. But Les Bleus did it (highlights here; on Karim Benzema’s apparent offside goal: as he was robbed of a goal several minutes earlier on a manifestly bad offside call, it was legit he wasn’t called on this one). It was an amazing spectacle. One for the ages. The team rose to the occasion as we have not witnessed in a very long time. I’ve seen just about every game the French national team has played over the past fifteen years that counted for something—World Cup, European championship, and the qualifiers for these—and cannot recall such a performance apart from the 1998 victory against Brazil. And such an explosion of joy at the end of the game, on the field and in the stands.
So we likely won’t be hearing anymore about the French public’s famous désamour of the national team, with its collection of spoiled, overpaid, selfish, antipathetic jerks, or so it has been said of them. The ignominy of the 2010 South Africa fiasco—and the ugly, illegitimate playoff victory against Ireland the November before—will likewise be relegated to the memory hole. On this I differ with the Équipe reporter quoted at the end of Scott Sayare’s good NYT dispatch on last night’s game. E.g. see here.
It was also nice that Algeria qualified last night, beating Burkina Faso, to which it was a goal down coming into the game. La France et l’Algérie ensemble au Brésil. C’est beau. France, Algeria, and Portugal supporters were celebrating together on the Champs-Elysées last night. It’s going to be a great lineup for the tournament in Brazil. All the major European soccer powers will be there: Spain, Germany, Italy, England, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands (too bad we won’t be seeing Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimović). The qualified teams from Africa—Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast—are the best from that continent. The ones from Asia—Iran, Japan, South Korea, and Australia—are just right. And Mexico and Uruguay are sure to qualify in their playoffs today, so every logical country from the Western Hemisphere will be present. C’est bien.
Remark: the French hard right—so nationalistic and supposedly loving of France—is reacting with predictable bad humor to last night’s victory. Radio silence on Marine Le Pen’s Twitter feed, as on those of the FN and the reactionary Valeurs Actuelles (which has become the leading media mouthpiece of the hard right). And then there was this tweet from UMP hard rightist Lionnel Luca (and he had others of the genre). How low of him. The hard and extreme right just hates it when a French team loaded with African and Maghrebi-origin stars wins (and, adding insult to injury, with the star player of regular French stock—good ol’ boy Franck Ribéry from Boulogne-sur-Mer, who’s as working class as one can get—being a Muslim convert and with Algerian-origin wife). Well, they just need to get over it. Voilà, c’est la France d’aujourd’hui et de demain. Il faut s’y faire.
UPDATE: The FN did issue a communiqué on the game the day after. The Frontistes, who are clearly not exulting in the victory, continue to be obsessed with the “Black, Blanc, Beur” composition of the team, which no one outside the far right brings up anymore. Celebrating la France de toutes les couleurs is so 1998. It’s now banal. Except for the far right.
2nd UPDATE: Mamadou Sakho did indeed score the third goal (at the 72nd minute), as the video here makes clear. It wasn’t a Ukrainian own goal, as was initially reported (including in the NYT article linked to above).
3rd UPDATE: A poll taken over the two days following the game indicates that the désamour of the French public for the team has not dissipated and despite its exemplary performance on Tuesday night. Peut-être. I’ll need to see more evidence of this, though which we won’t have until after the tournament next June-July (as Les Bleus won’t be playing any games that count until then). If a continued désamour persists—and despite an honorable performance in Brazil—, then this will indicate that the problem is more on the side of the public than the team, that large numbers of Frenchmen and women do not relate to a national team heavily comprised of players of Maghrebi and African immigrant origin, and who issue mainly from the cités in the banlieues. On verra. (November 23)
[update below] [2nd update below]
I’ve been intending to comment on the Trappes riot of last weekend (if one is not au courant, see here and here), which almost a week later continues to défrayer la chronique. What happened in Trappes more or less followed the same dreary scenario as almost all banlieue riots, as I discussed in my posts on the one in Amiens last August (see here and here; also see my post here on the London riots of August 2011, where one noted similar dynamics to those in France). I was going to spell out once again the utterly predictable unfolding of events but, as it happens, the latest issue of Le Canard Enchaîné (July 24 2013) has a front page piece that does precisely this (and in LCE’s trademark style). LCE has no website to speak of and one normally cannot find its content online, but I managed to do so with this one, so voilà, here it is (N.B. for those whose colloquial French is less than impeccable, poulets—in this context—and poulaga are argot for ‘cops’).
Et hop ! à la Trappes !
Tiens, ça s’est passé dans quelle banlieue, cette fois? Où ça? A Trappes. Ah, oui, la ville de Lilian Thuram. Non, pardon, celle de Jamel Debbouze et d’Omar Sy. Comme d’habitude, le même scénario, suivi du meme cinéma…
Scène un: le contrôle. Ou comment une étincelle, même la plus petite, suffit à embraser illico tout un quartier. A Trappes, donc, des poulets contrôlent une femme en burka et ça se termine en émeute devant le commissariat.
Scène deux: les versions. Famille burka : les flics ont déboulé comme des cow-boys et ont traité tout le monde de «sale pute». Famille poulaga : des fous furieux se sont jetés sur la police, qui faisait tranquillement son travail.
Scène trois: l’arrivée du ministre. De l’Intérieur, bien sûr. Roulement de caisse et petits muscles bandés: «C’est inacceptable!», «L’Etat ne les laissera pas faire et ne l’acceptera pas! », «II n’y a qu’une loi dans notre pays!» Bravo, monsieur Valls! On dirait (presque) du Sarkozy. Et le ministre (PS) de la Ville, François Lamy, n’est pas venu? Déjà en vacances? «Mon rôle n’est pas de réagir à l’évènement, mais de m’inscrire sur le moyen et le long terme (…). C’est d’abord un problème d’ordre public, à lui (Valls) de gérer», balaie l’intéressé («Le Parisien», 23/7).
Scène quatre: l’interpellation du ministre par une mère. Il y en a toujours une (généralement proche des émeutiers), et il lui répond toujours. C’est le clou du spectacle, le numéro d’acrobate le plus périlleux, mais le passage obligé dans la forêt de cameras et de micros. Valls s’est-il dérobé ? A-t-il bien répondu ? Mieux que l’ami du «karcher contre la racaille» de 2005 ? «Acceptez les lois de la République! Vous les acceptez, chère madame », a balancé Valls. Verdict: bof, peut mieux faire.
Scène cinq: la justice et la République implacables. Attention, les sanctions vont pleuvoir, les comparutions sont immédiates. Résultat, lundi 22 au tribunal correctionnel: débats sans fin, manque de preuves … Cinq prévenus dans le box et un embastillé (10 mois). Famille burka: scandalisée! Famille poulaga : scandalisée!
Sixième scène: les commentateurs. Récupération politique oblige, bon vieux refrain du retour au laxisme, à droite toute! Le patron de l’UMP, Jean-François Copé : «La violence monte d’autant plus que les messages gouvernementaux de laxisme se multiplient depuis un an.» L’ami des Auvergnats, Brice Hortefeux : le gouvernement «doit avoir le courage de faire preuve de sévérité face à des voyous qui ne respectent rien et qui insultent les lois de la République». Et merci surtout pour celle sur la burka : une belle loi électoraliste sous de sympathiques dehors laïcards, qui concernait trois pelés et deux barbus et qui, comme prévu, de l’aveu même des poulets sur le terrain, se relève inapplicable. Elle crée des situations de crise à tout-va, attise tous les fantasmes pro-islam et anti-islam, excite les réacs et déchaîne les mollahs. Elle a même réveillé quelques militants de l’habillé intégral qui s’amusent à cumuler jusqu’à 30 amendes à elles seules … Mais, pendant ce temps, toujours pas de grand «plan Marshall pour les banlieues», promis sous la droite comme sous la gauche.
Enfin, septième scène: municipales de Trappes, mars 2014. Tiens, le Front national est au second tour. Famille burka : “la France est raciste”. Famille poulaga: “ça devait finir par arriver…”
Le Canard absolutely nails it (though the last bit, about next year’s municipal election, is tongue-in-cheek, as the FN’s presence in Trappes is minimal, as is its electoral clout). A few remarks about the Trappes riot. First, Trappes really is la zone: spatially isolated—one only ventures into the town if one lives there or has an excellent reason to go—and with some two-thirds of its 30K inhabitants (heavily Maghrebi and African-immigrant origin) living in public housing (the tours et barres of the cités). If riots are going to happen anywhere in the Paris area, they’ll happen in Trappes. As far as banlieue-ghettos go, Trappes is one of the worst (though I shouldn’t dump on the place too much, as one of France’s leading social science specialists of political Islam is a Trappiste and feels that her town is unfairly stigmatized).
Secondly, this is the first riot that was set off by an encounter between the police and a woman wearing the niqab. In an April 2011 post on France’s “burqa” ban (here), I wrote that the police were strongly opposed to the law, as they dreaded having to enforce it (and saw it as unenforceable in any case). Well, now we’ve seen one of the perverse effects of the law—a law enacted to make a symbolic point and that has ended up creating more problems than those it was intended to eradicate.
Thirdly, in the conflicting versions of the initial incident—of the police vs. the couple whose IDs were checked—, the truth is likely somewhere between the two—as it invariably is—but, in this case, I instinctively lean toward the couple’s side of the story. Knowing how the French police act in such circumstances, the couple’s description of the cops’ behavior rings true. As for the barbu husband and niqab-wearing wife, who are manifestly extreme in their practice of Islam (both are converts), I wouldn’t put it past them to behave aggressively toward the police in turn, at least verbally. But as for the police assertion that the husband, named Mickaël, physically aggressed them first, I don’t buy it. Not in the absence of eyewitnesses.
The police were not obliged to stop the couple, check their IDs, and give the wife a ticket. Wearing face veils may be illegal but this is Ramadan, the weather is hot, and it’s Trappes. The police could have just let this one go. That they decided to stop the couple suggests that they were looking for a confrontation, as they certainly knew that the risks of an incident were high.
Fourth remark. It is striking the extent to which the media is giving play to those whose version of events contradicts that of the police. Husband Mickaël has even been on TV to give his side (here; also here and here). And there are new websites that track and expose the police in their acts (and lies), such as Copwatch (don’t worry, the site’s safe). A positive development.
Fifthly, it all comes back to the contrôle au faciès—police ID checks—, which I wrote about in June ’12. The new Socialist government pledged to reform the practice but then backed down in the face of hostility from the police unions. So long as this pratique à la française is not drastically reformed, relations between the police and a part of the French population will remain execrable. And with the certainty of more riots.
Here are a couple of good commentaries by gauchiste politicians (EELV): Noël Mamère on “Trappes, les musulmans et le racisme d’Etat” and Esther Benbassa (who is also an academic historian and specialist of French Jewry), “Trappes brûle-t-il?” And Carine Fouteau in Mediapart has an analysis entitled “À Trappes, les violences font écho à la montée de l’islamophobie.”
UPDATE: Political scientist Jacques de Maillard, who teaches not too far from Trappes, has an op-ed in Le Monde on the Trappes events and in which he critiques the police, “Le voile révèle les failles du pacte républicain.” In the same issue of Le Monde (dated July 25th) is an op-ed by Jean-François Copé expressing his (rather predictable) point of view on the matter. No link to that. The interested reader may look for it him/herself.
2nd UPDATE: Journalist Jean-Laurent Cassely has an informative article in Slate.fr on urban renewal in Trappes over the past decade, “Les nouvelles déchirures de Trappes la «recousue»,” that is progressively reducing the percentage of public housing units in the town.
i.e. Happy Bastille Day, France! No one in France actually says this but I will, what the hell. As I wrote on AWAV last year and the year before, the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Elysées is the greatest parade in the world, no two ways about it. Today it was near perfect and with beautiful weather (I watched it on TV as always, and some of the planes—including the Rafales and AWACS—from my balcony). And the two verse rendition of La Marseillaise—greatest national anthem in the world, hands down—by the army choir was particularly good. The six military parachutists (one named Céline, another Mohammed) of the Ecole des Troupes Aéroportées de Pau, who landed with military precision one after the other at the Place de la Concorde, were also very impressive. Foreign guests of honor this year—and whose troops marched in the parade—were Mali, Chad, the Ivory Coast, and African troops with MINUSMA (for the Mali invention), Germany (commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Franco-German Friendship Treaty), and Croatia (which just entered the EU). A little reminder that Bastille Day is a patriotic day, not a nationalist one. Here are some photos borrowed from Le Nouvel Obs website (for detailed captions, go there).
Vive la France !
This is my first post on the French gay marriage controversy—which is settled, it’s done and finished الحمد لله—and likely my last. I stayed away from the issue and generally avoided discussing it, as I was somewhat conflicted and it’s admittedly not an issue at the center of my preoccupations. I’m all for civil unions and strongly supported the PACS when it was enacted back in ’99 but wasn’t sure about gays marrying au même titre as heteros or, above all, adopting children—though having read some of the well-considered arguments for and against the mariage pour tous law I finally came down for it. I also felt that President Hollande was wasting time on what was mainly a symbolic issue (as the number of people directly concerned by it is very small); on this I agreed with Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who regretted that Hollande was distracting himself with secondary issues such as the mariage pour tous when there were, objectively speaking, far more important matters at hand and of much greater concern to French people in their majority (i.e. the economy and unemployment).
I have found a couple of aspects of the controversy interesting. One was the opposition to the mariage pour tous of a not insignificant minority of people on the left—including in my personal entourage, and younger as well as older—, which I cannot imagine in the US (the virulence of my numerous lefty American friends—personal and FB—on the gay marriage issue is striking, plus students who are not necessarily on the left). It reminds me of the Islamic headscarf issue and the 2004 French law; American liberals and leftists almost unanimously disapprove of the law when it comes up in discussion and are surprised, even stunned, to hear French leftists strongly defend it (I’m recounting personal experience here).
À propos, David A. Bell of Princeton University has a good article on the Foreign Affairs website, “Liberté, Égalité, but Not Homosexualité: Why French Feminists Are Fighting Gay Marriage,” on the opposition in France to the law and how the arguments differ from those in America. It begins
The only thing clear right now about the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision on the Defense of Marriage Act — the law that bars the federal government’s recognition of same-sex marriages — is that Americans will read the verdict as the latest salvo in a long-running culture war. But it is worth remembering that this is a culture war that is increasingly being fought internationally — and often in terms that do not line up with the debate in the United States. Americans have become accustomed to thinking of the argument against gay marriage as being motivated by religious conservatism. But that is not necessarily true elsewhere.
France offers an instructive example. Although 60 percent of the public supports gay marriage, the country has been beset by vitriolic protests since the National Assembly narrowly passed a marriage equality law last spring. From a distance, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets may have seemed little different from the evangelical activists often seen at similar demonstrations in the United States. But Americans would be surprised to discover how different their motivations often are.
…opponents of marriage equality in France’s mainstream parties have mostly kept their distance from religious groups. Relatively few of the street protesters interviewed by reporters talk of God, wave the Bible, or have verses from Leviticus tattooed on their arms. (Which should come as no surprise, given that France is a largely secular place, where barely half the population even still identifies itself as Catholic and regular religious attendance does not even reach ten percent.) Indeed, the most prominent opposition has come from the ranks of professional groups such as law professors and psychoanalysts, whose U.S. counterparts generally favor marriage equality by large margins. A considerable number of public intellectuals have also expressed loud opposition to the law, including the essayist Alain Finkielkraut, the novelist Jean d’Ormesson, and the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski (the wife of former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin)…
…in truth, the extent of opposition to marriage equality has at least as much to do with the vexed and tortuous story of a quintessentially modern phenomenon: French feminism.
Americans often think of France as a country well disposed to feminism, thanks to the pioneering writings of Simone de Beauvoir and others. And the reputation is not without reason. Abortion has been legal in France since 1975, and French women enjoy paid maternity leave and subsidized child care. In June 2000, the French Parliament passed a law without parallel in the United States (although quickly watered it down) mandating that political parties designate women as half of all their candidates for elected office.
Feminist issues have also divided the French intellectual world, however, and the disputes have strongly influenced how the marriage equality issue has played out. An important current of French thought, which has no real American equivalent, has maintained that while women deserve equal rights, these rights must not entail the supposed erasure of sexual difference. Historians and philosophers such as Mona Ozouf and Philippe Raynaud have seen a particular threat in American-style protections against sexual harassment, which they have labeled “sexual Stalinism.” The sociologist Irène Théry has called for a féminisme à la française that acknowledges the “asymmetrical pleasures of seduction.” The philosopher Sylviane Agacinski goes so far as to call sexual difference the true basis for sexual equality in law. The “parity” in elections demanded by the 2000 law, in her view, reflected the natural division of the human race into complementary male and female halves. Other feminists countered that the law should pay no attention to gender beyond guaranteeing equal rights for all…
This strong emphasis on the complementary roles of men and women has had a remarkable effect on the French marriage debate. Unlike in the United States, most opponents of marriage equality have had relatively little to say about the morality of homosexual sex acts, or about threats to the “institution of marriage” in general. Instead, they speak above all about children, insisting that a psychologically healthy family life rests on the union of a man and woman. Back in 1999, when the French Parliament approved a form of civil union, much of the opposition centered on this issue.
This spring, precisely the same concerns have dominated the manifestos against “marriage for all” issued by groups of law professors and psychologists. And interviews with ordinary protesters have shown just how effectively the arguments of philosophers have filtered down to street level, with one figure after another explaining their opposition to the reform in the same way. To quote a popular protest banner: “Un père et une mère c’est élémentaire” (“A father and a mother is elementary”). And the 60 percent support for same-sex marriage has not changed the fact that a majority still favors banning child adoption by homosexual couples. In short, although religion and homophobia obviously fed into the recent protests, the rhetoric employed by the opposition has trickled down from the intellectuals (as one might, indeed, expect in France)…
A second aspect of the gay marriage controversy I found interesting was the significant number of young people who were involved in the social movement it spawned on the right and the massive street demonstrations that were organized (and demos not being a part of French right-wing culture). The April 18th Le Monde had an article on this, “Une génération de droite se construit contre le mariage gay.” The lede: “Pour beaucoup de jeunes manifestants, le mouvement est un acte fondateur.” Here are passages I underlined
Pour Carol [Ardent, candidat à l'agrégation de lettres, et responsable du blog Le Rouge et le Noir], si les jeunes sont si mobilisés, c’est d’abord parce que leur génération est touchée par les divorces des parents. «Beaucoup d’entre nous ont souffert de l’absence d’équilibre père-mère et nous sommes conscients des dégâts que cela peut causer.»
The (right-wing) demonstrators got a little taste of the French police and the way they go about their job
La violence ? Il faut la chercher du côté de la police : «J’ai vu des jeunes filles de 22 ans, tout au plus, menottées violemment alors qu’elles étaient inoffensives, raconte Louis-Joseph Gannat, devant l’Assemblée nationale. Il ne faudra pas s’étonner si le mouvement se radicalise après ça.»
Ha! So now right-wingers—some of them, at least—know what it’s like to be manhandled by the police and treated poorly, even when one hasn’t broken any law…
And then there’s this, from a 22-year old law student, who denounces
une atmosphère «cathophobe» et affirme avoir perdu beaucoup d’amis «qui ne sont pas ouverts au dialogue» depuis son engagement tardif, en janvier.
Un sentiment revient en boucle : les jeunes opposants au mariage pour tous n’acceptent pas de voir leur engagement «caricaturé», réduit à une démarche violente et homophobe par les politiques et les journalistes. «On nous dénigre, estime Clémence Grosjean, jeune professeure d’histoire-géographie. Il y a un ras-le-bol de ne pas être pris au sérieux. On nous a traités de fascistes mais je n’ai pas envie de mettre fin à la République ou à la démocratie !»
A “cathophobe”—i.e. anti-Catholic—atmosphere. Earlier this year a student (French, bright) in one of my Master’s courses spoke emphatically during a class discussion—on the culture of French laïcité—of what he considered to be a strong anti-Catholic sentiment in France, with practicing Catholics being stigmatized. He said that this was even true for students in private Catholic schools, with those who opt to take catechism—an elective class in schools sous contrat—being made fun of by their peers. He was seconded by a couple of other students, one an Italian, who recounted his own story of what he felt was a prevailing anti-Catholicism in France. Very interesting. As I tend not to frequent regular church-going people (or regular mosque or temple-going), I had no idea.
The Le Monde article concludes with a quote from a student about how the anti-mariage pour tous movement has forged a new generation of activists on the right, in much the same way as the anti-CPE movement did for young people on the left (and the anti-FN movement of the 1990s). One thing is for sure: the right in France is more mobilized these days than is the left. And will likely continue to be in the coming two or three years.
UPDATE: Richard Posner has a good essay in TNR on “How gay marriage became legitimate.” (July 24)
This was the hit light comedy in France this spring, seen last weekend at our neighborhood cinoche (held over by popular demand). It’s a comedy à la portugaise, about a Portuguese concièrge in an upscale building in Paris’s tony 16th arrondissement (quartier Passy)—where she has faithfully served the haut bourgeois propriétaires for thirty years—, her (skilled) construction worker husband, and their two children—high school and university age—, who, having grown up in France, are more French than Portuguese. The film begins with the couple learning that they have unexpectedly inherited property and a tidy sum of money in their home village in Portugal but that requires them moving there within three weeks, otherwise it will all be donated to the local parish. They naturally decide to take early retirement and do so but their haut bourgeois tenants pull out all the stops so that they stay—finding good concièrges these days is not easy—, plus the husband’s boss, who considers him irreplaceable. And the matter is further thickened by the romantic involvement—initially unbeknownst to the parents—of the bourgeois boss’s son with the immigrant worker’s daughter. Again, it’s a light comedy. Un bon divertissement. An inoffensive crowd pleaser. Some of the scenes are quite funny, e.g. when the immigrant couple invite the boss and wife—and future in-laws—over to dinner. It’s the first film I can think of that focuses on the Portuguese community in France—and makes light of clichés about Portuguese immigrants—, which has been the single largest immigrant community in the country since the 1950s (and which is sizable in Paris’s eastern banlieues, out where I live). Maghrebis and Africans, who are now well-covered in French cinema, aren’t the only significant immigrant population in this country. The immigrant characters are all played by Portuguese-origin actors—though they mainly speak French in the film, which they wouldn’t in real life in talking among themselves—and with director Ruben Alves dedicating the film to his family (so it’s his personal story too). My wife particularly liked that the film showed real working people, which she insisted French films rarely do (I’ll have to think about that one). The film also depicts a profession—building concièrges, such a fixture in France—that is fading, as condo owner associations are increasingly contracting with outside cleaning and maintenance companies once the concièrge retires (and as ours has done). Reviews of the film were good and with Allociné spectators giving it the thumbs way up. A crowd pleaser, like I said.
On the subject of crowd pleasing French films, one I saw recently—on DVD—was Guillaume Canet’s ‘Les petits mouchoirs’ (English title: ‘Little White Lies’), which was a big box office hit in France in 2010 but that I paid no attention to at the time. It’s a French version of ‘The Big Chill’—and that Canet said inspired the film—, about a group of mid 30ish friends from Paris, all bobos, and their annual summer vacation together in Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast, and with all their interpersonal dramas and histoires—and with the backdrop the terrible motorcycle accident of one of the members of the group who was to be with them. French reviews of the film ran the gamut and American were mixed (though Roger Ebert liked it), but Allociné spectators gave it the thumbs up. And as I always say, the Allociné spectators are invariably right. Trailer is here. The film is not flawless and, at 2 hours 20 minutes, is long for what it is—and the length was one of the reproaches of the critics—, but I didn’t think this was a problem. The cast is A-list, the acting good, and it’s an all-around engaging film (and, after all these years, I will finally assert that Marion Cotillard is beautiful; yes she is). I saw it with several people—American, French, and German—and we all liked it (and I liked it more than I did ‘The Big Chill’). So if one is looking for weekend evening entertainment, this is a safe choice.
Saw this fascinating 2 hour 20-odd minute documentary, which dates from 1962 and was re-released in a restored version four years ago—when it showed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, though only opened in Paris last month. Here’s MoMA’s synopsis
Directed by Chris Marker, Pierre Lhomme. Marker had recently made essay films about contemporary Israel and Cuba—films with a decidedly revolutionary bent—when in [May] 1962 he decided, for the first time, to take the pulse of his own country. With the French-Algerian War coming to a bitter and brutal end, Marker joined now-legendary cameraman Pierre Lhomme in conducting hours of interviews on the streets of Paris. The result is a fascinating political and social document, a snapshot of French citizens reflecting on the meaning of happiness, whether personal or collective, even as they confess anxiety about the future of their families and their nation. Restored by the Archives françaises du film du CNC, this original French release version features voiceover narration by Yves Montand, through which Marker offers his own wry and poignant commentary—as he does with some cleverly revealing interpolations of image and sound—and music by Michel Legrand.
And here’s Vincent Canby’s review in the NYT, dated June 10 1966
CHRIS MARKER is one of France’s more gifted filmmakers and a man whose work has been seen in the United States only on rare occasions—film festivals and the like. Therefore those interested in the motion-picture art will be grateful that his documentary “Le Joli Mai” opened yesterday at the New Yorker Theater.
Mr. Marker has a penetrating camera and a penetrating mind. Both are employed with a searching persistence in this film, dissecting Paris, dissecting the people who live in Paris.
It is not the tourist’s Paris or even the Parisian’s Paris, but rather the Paris of the social worker, the newspaperman, the policeman, the man whose work takes him down the forbidding alleyways, the menacing dead-end streets and who asks questions, endlessly asks questions, questions, questions.
Mr. Marker will approach a clothing salesman in front of his shop and, while a handheld camera explores every angle of the man’s face, every item of his clothing, the man will be asked blunt questions about life—what gives him pleasure, what are his difficulties, what are his ambitions, what is life all about?
The light of Paris is captured as well as it has ever been captured on film—a gloomy, oppressive, forbidding light that every now and again becomes a lovely light, in fact the loveliest light in the world.
There are some enthusiasts of France’s cinéma-vérité movement who would have us believe that theirs is a radically new force in the motion-picture art. That is not true. Many of the techniques employed, many of the subjects explored, stem from the documentaries of an earlier day, particularly those made in the United States in the nineteen thirties.
But what can be said is that Mr. Marker’s gifts as a filmmaker are formidable and that, in the opinion of this corner, he is the best of the French school practicing the documentary art at the present time.
“Le Joli Mai,” made in 1962, is a film with faults. It lacks the cohesiveness that a central theme would have provided. It has one ending and then another. Mr. Marker used both because he was not able to exercise the discipline to edit one of the endings out.
Similarly, some of his longer interviews should have been chopped, or perhaps omitted. Two hours and four minutes is long for any motion picture. The English subtitles are somewhat sketchy and the soundtrack of the English commentary provided by Simone Signoret is a bit cloudy.
Yet, more importantly, there is much in this film that a motion-picture enthusiast will want to see, and Mr. Marker’s artistry is well deserving of exposure on these shores. Besides, who is there who can resist Paris, Paris in May and a Paris that one has not seen before?
Pace Mr. Canby, I didn’t detect faults in it—none glaring, at least—, think it was overly long, or that interviews could have been omitted. The film gives a portrait of France—cinematically speaking one of the most complete that I’ve seen—at a key moment in its recent history: at the end of the Algerian war and the mid point of les Trente glorieuses. One comes away from the film with strong impressions, one being of the low standard of living—and particularly the poor housing conditions—of the lower classes. Quoting Variety’s 1962 review, the film “gives the oo-la-la capital a new look and brings it down out of the frou-frou to reality.” Large parts of Paris and the inner banlieue were slums. And the city was dirty (polluted, the ancient buildings and monuments caked black with centuries of soot and grime, and generally run down outside les beaux quartiers). For the proletariat, the tours et barres of the cités constructed on a mass scale during those years were a godsend. As a couple of the interviewees made clear, people couldn’t wait to move out of their quartiers populaires or bidonvilles and into an HLM. Vive le logement social! Some of the interviews are particularly interesting, e.g. the lower class women, the student from Dahomey (now Benin), the young Algerian ouvrier, the former priest turned CGT militant… Reviews in France have predictably been tops (both critics and Allociné spectators; trailer is here). For those who have the slightest interest in modern French history and society, it’s a must see.
This is the title of a great post by freelance journalist Siddhartha Mitter on a fine blog I just discovered the other day, “Africa Is a Country.” Mitter’s post is a demolition of an absurd piece last week on The Washington Post website, “A fascinating map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries,” by WaPo foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher, which uncritically reported on a paper by two Swedish economists, itself based on something called the World Values Survey. I took one look at the map and pronounced it bullshit—on FB and using that precise term—, asserting that any “study” that ranked France as less racially tolerant than Russia—however one wants to define “race,” a term devoid of scientific value—had serious methodological problems, and that France, despite well-known problems of discrimination, was one of the most tolerant societies in Europe. Then I saw Mitter’s post, which used precisely my language, though explained in detail—and with greater sophistication than I would be capable of—why Max Fisher’s piece was full of B.S. Read Fisher’s piece here and then Mitter’s takedown here.
BTW, I was somewhat dismayed at the number of FB friends who uncritically posted the WaPo piece, including some who should have known better. And it uncritically made the rounds in France as well. Even my 19 year-old daughter repeated it to me today. I told her not to believe everything she reads on the Internet.
Conservative commentator Rod Dreher explains (via The Dish) why so many American conservatives have a problem with France. In short: France has a great culture and which makes some Americans insecure. The French also know how to live the good life and Americans are suspicious of that. Watch here.
The Dish post also links to a piece Dreher wrote for NRO in 2003, “I like France: A defense of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” in which, while denouncing France’s Iraq policy, he defends the country’s culture. I will wager that Dreher would probably want to take back his criticism of the French on Iraq (which France was of course right about), as well as his line about them “find[ing] it difficult to stand up to Islamic terrorism,” a domain in which the French have won kudos even from American conservatives.
In 1973. Before I get to that, a few words about a story that has been all over Israeli and (mainly right-wing) Jewish websites the past three days, of an apparent physical aggression perpetrated against Israeli filmmaker Yariv Horowitz on Thursday in Aubagne—just outside Marseille—, where he was attending a film festival (and where his film ‘Rock the Casbah’ won an award). The apparent aggression occurred at an ATM and, so reported Israeli news sources—including Haaretz, Ynetnews, and The Times of Israel—, was committed by a group of “Arabs” and who knocked Horowitz unconscious. Ynetnews headlined its Facebook post of the dispatch with one word: Anti-Semitism.
Sounded bad except that I was immediately dubious about the story, not that something didn’t happen—I didn’t imagine that Horowitz would have made it up—but of the details as reported in the Israeli media. First, there was nothing at all on it in the French media, which would not have ignored the incident—au contraire—had it happened the way the Israelis were reporting it. It would have been a news story, and likely a big one. Secondly, I wondered how Horowitz—who did not report the alleged assault to the police or even seek medical care—and his friend knew that the assailants were Arabs (or of Arab origin, as they were most certainly French). Thirdly—and regarding the inevitable mention of anti-Semitism—I rhetorically asked (a) how the alleged assailants could have known that Horowitz was a Jew and (b) why the latter assumed he was attacked for this reason. In the news reports there was nothing to suggest that the incident had a Jew-hating character.
But now we have more information on the incident, via the Aubagne film festival organizers and as reported in the Marseille daily La Provence. Nothing happened the way the Israeli websites reported. Horowitz received exactly one punch, but which did not seriously hurt him. The perpetrator was a minor and whose ethnic identity—as if it matters—was undetermined. There was no indication that he was of Arab origin and the incident clearly had nothing to do with Horowitz being Jewish. This was not a hate crime. Horowitz quickly rejoined the festivities. The incident should have never been the subject of a news story, let alone one with such incendiary allegations. I was going to do a longer post on it but see that blogger Ali Abunimah—who knows the French language, or has a collaborator who does—has already done the spade work and rubbished the story (here and here) as it was reported in the Israeli media. So will the Israeli websites that spread the disinformation—and particularly Haaretz, from which one expects higher professional standards—retract and apologize to their readers?
As for the title of this post—which is not entirely irrelevant to what I’ve written above—, the website Oumma.com has a post with a 55 minute documentary that aired in 2006 on Canal+, “Marseille 1973: les ratonnades oubliées.” In English: ‘Marseille 1973: the forgotten ratonnades‘. There is only one way to translate ratonnade, which is “pogrom against Algerians.” The etymology of the word: raton means ‘little rat’,which was one of the racist terms for Algerian Muslims during the French colonial era, and during which time Europeans settlers and soldiers periodically carried out bloody ratonnades. In the summer and fall of 1973 there was a wave of racist attacks on the sizable Algerian immigrant community in Marseille—with eleven murdered at random during the month of August alone—, culminating in the December 14th terror bombing in front of the Algerian consulate (causing four deaths and dozens injured—many seriously—among the Algerian immigrants waiting in line outside). Only one of the murderers was arrested and tried—receiving a five-year suspended sentence… All the other murder cases were classé sans suite, i.e. closed with no further action. Marseille at the time—and it was hardly unique in that part of France—had a significant population of repatriated pieds-noirs—a certain number of whom had been in the terrorist OAS (the KKK of Algérie française in its dying days)—, as well as military personnel who had served in Algeria during the war. Revanchists of Algérie française—with their violent hatred of Algerian Muslims—were present in force in the city’s institutions, and notably the police, judicial system, and right-wing press organs (most of the racists were on the right—including the recently founded Front National—but some were in the local Socialist party). Marseille was akin to a Mississippi town during the Jim Crow era, and with Algerians and other Maghrebis as the Blacks. What happened in Marseille in 1973 was a pogrom, even if the murders were committed by small groups of men and not rampaging mobs. There is no other word to describe it. I knew the history of this well but hadn’t seen the documentary. It’s very good. Do watch it.
It is, among other things, a reminder that the greatest victims of racist hatred in France over the past six decades have been Maghrebis, not Jews. Anti-Semitism was, of course, a scourge in France through the mid 20th century—and culminating in the collaboration of the French state with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews to the death camps—but it must be mentioned for the record that, with the exception of the Nazi occupation, not a single Jew in metropolitan France, from the Dreyfus Affair to the present day, suffered violent death in a manifest hate crime (in fact, I am not aware of any Jews being killed even in the unoccupied zone in the 1940-42 period). Such has not been the case with Algerians, needless to say. During stretches of the 1960s Algerians were murdered in hate crimes somewhere in France at the rate of almost one a week. And it didn’t end with the Marseille ratonnades of 1973. Just a historical reminder. Again, if one’s French is up to it, do watch the documentary.