Archive for the ‘France’ Category


[updates below]

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.

Paul Krugman—who’s been singing Piketty’s praises on his NYT blog—has a review essay on the book in the NYRB (issue dated May 8th), “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age.”

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, 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.”

thomas piketty_capital in the twenty first century

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Learning French


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.


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La France moisie


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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Charlie Hebdo nº 1125, 08-01-2014

Charlie Hebdo nº 1125, 08-01-2014

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.

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Nº 662, 23-02-2005

Nº 662, 23-02-2005

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

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.”

4th 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.


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La France qui gagne

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard)

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard)

[updates below]

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)

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: AP/Thibault Camus)

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: AP/Thibault Camus)

Saint-Denis, November 19  2013 (photo: L'Equipe)

Saint-Denis, November 19 2013 (photo: L’Equipe)

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[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…”

C. N

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.

Interior minister Manuel Valls in Trappes, July 22 2013 (photo: François Guillot/AFP)

Interior minister Manuel Valls in Trappes, July 22 2013 (photo: François Guillot/AFP)

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July 14 2013 (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

July 14 2013 (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

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).

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Fred Dufour)

(AFP Photo/Fred Dufour)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard)

(AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Fred Dufour)

(AFP Photo/Fred Dufour)

Croatia (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

Croatia (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

Mali (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

Mali (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

Ivory Coast (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

Ivory Coast (AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

(AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure)

President Hollande watching the parachutists, with Ban Ki-moon  and Malian president Diancounda Traoré  (AFP Photo/Fred Dufour)

President Hollande watching the parachutists, with Ban Ki-moon
and Malian president Diancounda Traoré (AFP Photo/Fred Dufour)

(AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

(AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

Vive la France !

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Anti-gay marriage demonstration, Paris, March 24 2013 (photo: Thomas Samson/AFP)

Anti-gay marriage demonstration, Paris, March 24 2013 (photo: Thomas Samson/AFP)

[update below]

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.

Key passages

…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)

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La Cage Dorée


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.


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Le Joli Mai


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.

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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.

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Donetsk 15 juin 2012

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.

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Marseille 1973

Marseille 1973

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.

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Baghdad, March 21 2003 (Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images)

Baghdad, March 21 2003 (Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images)

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

There have been a number of good articles and retrospectives on the 10th anniversary of the invasion over the past few days. Here are a few.

John Judis has a good piece in TNR, on “What it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003.” This passage is noteworthy

I found fellow dissenters to the war in two curious places: the CIA and the military intelligentsia. That fall, I got an invitation to participate in a seminar at the Central Intelligence Agency on what the world would be like in fifteen or twenty years. I went out of curiosity—I don’t like this kind of speculation—but as it turned out, much of the discussion was about the pending invasion of Iraq. Except for me and the chairman, who was a thinktank person, the participants were professors of international relations. And almost all of them were opposed to invading Iraq.

In early 2003, I was invited to another CIA event: the annual conference on foreign policy in Wilmington. At that conference, one of the agency officials pulled me aside and explained that the purpose of the seminar was actually to try to convince the White House not to invade Iraq. They didn’t think they could do that directly, but hoped to convey their reservations by issuing a study based on our seminar. He said I had been invited because of my columns in The American Prospect, which was where, at the time, I made known my views opposing an invasion. When Spencer Ackerman and I later did an article on the CIA’s role in justifying the invasion, we discovered that there was a kind of pro-invasion “B Team” that CIA Director George Tenet encouraged, but what I discovered from my brief experience at the CIA was that most of the analysts were opposed to an invasion. (After Spencer’s and my article appeared, I received no more invitations for seminars or conferences.)

Judis’s last bit here reminds me of a well-known political science academic MENA/IR specialist, who had been frequently solicited in Washington over the years—and who happened to be a registered Republican—, telling me in the fall of 2002 that when his opposition to an invasion of Iraq became known, he stopped receiving phone calls from his contacts in official Washington. His explanation: “I wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear” (I remember his precise words).

I found this retrospective by David Frum—who was one of Bush’s speechwriters at the time (“Axis of Evil” etc) and not exactly an opponent of the war—to be interesting and worth reading. One important observation he makes—and which has been largely overlooked—is the central role played by Tony Blair and Ahmed Chalabi in winning over Democrats and liberals to the pro-war cause. This was before many of Blair’s early admirers had become cynical about him, so he had a lot of cred at the time in center-left circles. (Quant à moi, I remember listening live on the BBC World Service to Blair’s September 2002 House of Commons speech attacking Saddam Hussein and liking it, though he wasn’t overtly advocating war at the time).

Mother Jones’s David Corn has a good piece on “Iraq 10 Years Later: The Deadly Consequences of Spin.” And then there’s this MSNBC commentary from last night by the always excellent Rachel Maddow, on how the “Architects of [the] Iraq disaster [are] still running from history.” Please take 7 minutes and 56 seconds of your time to watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

Entre autres, Rachel M. examines the American Enterprise Institute’s current spin on the war. A bunch of pathetic SOBs they are. À propos, I note that The Weekly Standard and National Review Online have had nothing on the 10th anniversary. Nor has the prolific blogger and geopolitist Walter Russell Mead, who was a war cheerleader and Dick Cheney fan back then. Radio silence.

In thinking about that miserable time, I am reminded of the line attributed to Condoleezza Rice in the spring of 2003, “Forgive Russia, ignore Germany, punish France.” And of Bush displaying the New York Post’s infamous cover of the “Axis of weasels” (France and Germany) on his Oval Office desk. What a bunch of arrogant a-holes. Who do these people think they are? And to speak of a great nation and one far older than America—and that has always stood with America in its real hours of need—in this way? France was right to tell the Bush-Cheney administration to f— off.

University of Chicago historian Orit Bashkin has a good article in the lefty academic webzine Jadaliyya on “The Forgotten Protagonists: The Invasion and the Historian,” in which she discusses advances in the historiographical knowledge of Iraq over the past decade but also of what has been irretrievably lost with the looting and destruction of Iraq’s archives (National Library etc) and architectural patrimony (and which happened under the US’s watch).

On present-day Iraq the FT’s Roula Khalaf has a lengthy article on “Iraq: 10 years later.” And here’s a 23 minute report on Al Jazeera English on “The Green Train: A journey through the heart of modern Iraq – a country struggling to put itself back together.”

UPDATE: The Nation has two not bad articles: “The American Legacy in Iraq” by Patrick Cockburn, who was one of the best informed journalists reporting from Iraq over the past decade, and “The Iraq Invasion, Ten Years Later” by Jonathan Schell.

2nd UPDATE: Here’s a short, very good commentary by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker, on “How we forgot Iraq.”

3rd UPDATE: Mark Lynch has a good piece in FP on “What’s missing from the Iraq debate.” Answer: Iraqis.

4th UPDATE: The Boston Globe has a portrait of Kanan Makiya, who “has no regret about pressing the war in Iraq” (his views influenced those of certain liberal hawks). I was an admirer of Makiya’s books Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence, but wasn’t on board with him in his 2003 war cheerleading.

5th UPDATE: Kathleen Geier of The National Memo has a very good article dated March 22nd—and praised by Paul Krugman—, “The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq,” in which she skewers some people who richly deserve to be skewered.

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The tenth anniversary of the launching of the Iraq war is tomorrow and it seems that everybody and his uncle are weighing in on it, and with the inevitable question posed by mainstream commentators: “was it worth it?” (answer: for the US, a categorical NO; for Iraq, I would say categorically NO as well but only Iraqis themselves are qualified to answer that one). I have much to say on the subject—in short: the war was America’s biggest ever foreign policy disaster, caused the violent death of up to 200,000 Iraqis and suffering for millions, cost the American taxpayer over a trillion dollars and with upwards of 40,000 Americans killed or wounded—but will not get into a lengthy discourse. What I will do, though, is publish my analyses and views of the time, between August 2002 and September 2003 (more on this below). In the meantime, a few comments.

First, I was opposed to the war. Period. But I wasn’t opposed 100%. My tenacious hatred of Saddam Hussein and his regime—dating from the 1980s—was such that a part of me—say, one-third (33%)—was not opposed to the idea of a military intervention to free the Iraqi people from the yoke of the criminal Ba’athist tyranny. I 100% supported the 1990-91 intervention and war from Day One—from the moment I heard the news on August 2, 1990, that Iraq had invaded Kuwait (I was in France, the US, and Algeria during that period)—and somewhat regretted that the 101st Airborne didn’t go all the way to Baghdad at the end of that one (though knew it wasn’t realistic or in the cards; though I did condemn Bush 41 for allowing the Republican Guard to slip away and doing nothing while the latter crushed the Shia uprising). I likewise 100% supported the post 9/11 intervention in Afghanistan (but then, everyone in America and France outside the hard left did). These two interventions were no brainers IMO and I had little patience with those who opposed them (and who included numerous American leftist and Maghrebi friends, and with whom I had numerous arguments).

But the 2003 Iraq war—a war of choice and entirely fomented by the Bush-Cheney administration—was different. The notion that Iraq possessed actual weapons of mass destruction and ergo posed a threat to the US was bullcrap, as was its purported links to Al-Qaida and “international terrorism.”  In 2002-03 Iraq did not even pose a threat to its neighbors, let alone to the US and Europe. IMO the only halfway legitimate argument for intervening was regime change and for the benefit of the Iraqi people (I emphasize IMO, as no intervention could have ever been justified—either legally or with American public opinion—on this basis alone). I could have gone along with an intervention if I had been certain that such would have been swift and relatively painless—with minimal death and destruction inflicted on Iraq—, and followed by a quick US withdrawal and smooth transition to a pluralistic political order. But, as I explicated at the time, I knew that it wouldn’t happen this way, that the war and its aftermath would be a fiasco, that the US had no justification in launching an unprovoked war, and was too arrogant, ignorant, and incompetent for anything good to come of it (and as a Lebanese friend rhetorically asked me at the time, what right did the United States have to drop bombs on Iraq and sow death and destruction, when Iraq had done nothing to provoke it?). So while a third of me was for an intervention—and that would momentary spike when seeing televised images of the imperious Saddam and his psychotic sons around a conference table, with government ministers or army generals dutifully taking notes like schoolchildren and while quaking in their boots—two-thirds of me (67%) was hostile to it. And since 67 is greater than 33, I was against. Period.

Though opposed to the war I did, however—and for the record—, feel satisfaction at the fall of the regime on April 9th, cheered Saddam’s capture in December, and gave the thumbs up to the termination with extreme prejudice of his wretched sons the following July. Sorry but no apologies for this.

My opposition to the war was fueled in part by revulsion at the nationalist hysteria in the US at the time, stoked by the Bush-Cheney administration and its shock troops in the media. Or its lemmings. While visiting the US in late ’02-early ’03 I watched Fox News every evening (Bill O’Reilly etc), to study the phenomenon, as it were. And I regularly tracked various right-wing organs on the web, notably The Weekly Standard and NRO. To get the kind of jingoism and militarism in France that was standard fare on the American right, one would have to go into Front National territory. And even then. I will say nothing more here about the chicken hawk commentators on the American right except that in their beating the drums for war—and denigrating and slandering anyone who disagreed with them—they couldn’t have cared less for the Iraqi people. It was all about America and nothing but America—of the need for America to, in the words of the unspeakable Michael Ledeen, “pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” (any takers on the American right for throwing North Korea against the wall? hey, that’s a little country! and why doesn’t America pick on a country its own size, like China or Russia? yeah, sure). As I’ve said before, if Bill O’Reilly and others of his American right-wing ilk—and including the women (Ann Coulter et al)—had been Italian in the early 1920s, they would have worn black shirts and carried black truncheons.

This being said, I was convinced at the time—and remain so—that the Bush-Cheney administration was not lying about the WMDs, in that they really believed their rhetoric on this. They did not knowingly recount falsehoods. There were enough reports in the years following the invasion (by Seymour Hersh, among others) that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al were certain that Saddam had CBWs and was trying to develop a nuclear bomb, and that if there wasn’t any clear evidence on this, they were going to find it. And in the post-9/11 nationalist hysteria, they easily swept up most of Washington—Congress, think tanks, MSM—in their alternate reality, and where discordant or dissenting views were dismissed or simply not listened to. It was groupthink. The phenomenon was as much psychological as political.

It was likewise on the link between Saddam and 9/11. In January 2001, the American Enterprise Institute published a book entitled Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein’s War against America, by Laurie Mylroie, which argued that Saddam had been behind every terrorist attack against America and Americans since the Gulf War. On the back of the book were plugs by Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and the book’s post-9/11 second edition carried a forward by James Woolsey. If one bought Mylroie’s argument before 9/11, it stood to reason that one was going to continue buying it after. I read Mylroie’s book in the month following 9/11 and found it compelling, even though I had had a generally low opinion of her (despite her government/Middle East studies Harvard Ph.D. she was, intellectually and academically speaking, not Harvard material). And a lot of her evidence was speculation, some of which she could have in fact verified (had she been a better social scientist). But in the immediate post-9/11 period I was ready to believe her argument. Why? Because I wanted to. My hatred of Saddam Hussein was such that I wanted to believe that he was in cahoots with Bin Laden and the 9/11 operation. But after running my views by a couple of DC friends in the know and continuing to read a lot, I dropped the Mylroie thesis (as has just about everyone who initially bought it; she was always regarded as a nutcase by the foreign policy establishment and was finally repudiated even by erstwhile associates on the right).

It was likewise with Saddam and CBWs, which I believed for a stretch, having listened to the categorical assertions of Thérèse Delpech in 2002 that Iraq was seeking to build up its stocks of chemical weapons—and the brilliant and intimidating Delpech, who had been France’s representative on UNMOVIC, definitely knew of what she spoke, or so I assumed. But then I read stronger evidence to the contrary; and in any case, possessing chemical weapons, which are not WMDs, is hardly a casus belli. (Delpech was, BTW, one of the few members of the French state elite who wanted France to align itself with the US on Iraq and tried to persuade the government that Saddam was acquiring CBWs; but Bruno Le Maire—Dominique de Villepin’s top aide at the time—, who received her at the Quai d’Orsay and heard her out on the subject, found her unconvincing, in large part because the French had near ironclad intelligence that Iraq had nothing in the way of CBWs or WMDs—and which they shared with the Bush-Cheney administration, but who wouldn’t hear of it).

And then there was Khidhir Hamza’s 2001 book Saddam’s Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq’s Secret Weapon, which I read with great interest soon after it came out. I basically bought Hamza’s core contention—that Saddam was hellbent on acquiring a nuclear device—, though found some anachronisms in his account, not to mention a portrait he painted of Saddam’s regime as being so crazy, nepotistic, and pathetically incompetent that the mere notion that Iraq could ever achieve the technological and organizational sophistication to go nuclear was simply laughable. So with time I scratched that one (and it turned out that Hamza was a fabulator and whose book was riddled with gross exaggerations and downright falsehoods).

I recount all this simply to underscore the point that if one wants to believe something, one will find credible-sounding evidence to back it up. And dismiss evidence to the contrary. And such was the case with the Bush-Cheney administration and its supporters on Iraq. Again: groupthink.

A couple more points. Though I detested and loathed the Bush-Cheney administration’s right-wing cheerleaders, I was somewhat indulgent toward liberal hawks who were willing to acknowledge the validity of arguments against going to war, to seriously debate the issue (so this does not include Christopher Hitchens or the editors of TNR at the time) (and I found the small number of liberal hawks in France, e.g. Romain Goupil, to be downright refreshing). There were those out there—liberals but also a few neo-conservatives (e.g. Robert Kagan)—who genuinely supported military intervention in Iraq to free the Iraqi people from the yoke of Saddam’s tyranny. The Wilsonian strain in US foreign policy is real and I am personally not unsympathetic to it. There were also longtime activists on the Kurdish issue who were not opposed to an intervention. To these may be added the small group of bona fide academic specialists of Iraq, a few of whom—e.g. Eric Davis, Phebe Marr—favored regime change and offered advice to the USG (notably the DOS) (though it should be said that the larger cohort of academic Middle East and international relations specialists were almost universally hostile to the invasion; and this included political science MENA specialists, who, it should be said, largely supported the 1990-91 intervention, not to mention Afghanistan in 2001).

(A note on the so-called neocons. They were obviously gung-ho for the invasion and for a variety of reasons but Israel was not one of them. Neocons thought regime change in Iraq would be beneficial to Israel but as a fortuitous byproduct; this was not the principal factor for any of the neocons, who are America Firsters above all. On this, John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt are full of caca.)

And then there were the Iraqi people themselves. In December 2002 the International Crisis Group published a report, “Voices from the Iraqi Street,” whose author—who had been in Iraq—informed the reader that

Attitudes toward a U.S. strike are complex. There is some concern about the potential for violence, anarchy and score settling that might accompany forceful regime change. But the overwhelming sentiment among those interviewed was one of frustration and impatience with the status quo. Perhaps most widespread is a desire to return to “normalcy” and put an end to the abnormal domestic and international situation they have been living through. A significant number of those Iraqis interviewed, with surprising candour, expressed their view that, if such a change required an  American-led attack, they would support it.

ICG reports are not signed but I know the author of this was a well-known Paris-based specialist of Iraq—a French citizen of Saudi origin—, who had lived in Iraq in the preceding years, where she did field research for her doctoral dissertation. She knew her subject better than just about any non-Iraqi and was well-connected in Baghdad. And she was not an advocate of the US intervention (for the anecdote, she told me in 2003 that she had attended a closed conference on Iraq the previous year in Madrid, and was confronted in the hotel lobby by Ahmed Chalabi and Richard Perle, who, fingers pointed, accused her of being an Iraqi agent; a woman in her late 20s, she was sufficiently intimidated by these high-powered alpha males).

In this vein, France’s best-known academic specialist of Iraq, Pierre-Jean Luizard—who is on the left and was resolutely opposed to the invasion—, asserted during an interview-debate on France Inter in early June 2003—which I heard with my own ears—that the Iraqi people in their majority favored the American intervention and that, like it or not, one needed to understand this. It did, after all, make sense: the Kurds (20% of the Iraqi population) were for the invasion, which no one disputes; the Shi’ites (55-60%), who hated the Ba’athist regime in their great majority, were also not opposed; toss in a few Sunnis, do the arithmetic, and voilà, there you have it.

But despite the attitudes of Iraqis, the aforementioned 2002 ICG report did make this observation

It should not be assumed from this that such support as might exist for a U.S. operation is unconditional. It appears to be premised on the belief both that any such military action would be quick and clean and that it would be followed by a robust international reconstruction effort. Should either of these prove untrue – if the war proved to be bloody and protracted or if Iraq lacked sufficient assistance afterwards – the support in question may well not be very long sustained.

Nor does all this mean that another war is either advisable or inevitable. Even in the event some significant “further material breach” is established within the meaning of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, the costs of military intervention – in terms of loss of life, material and economic damage, regional spillover effects, hardening the attitudes of future generations of Arabs and distracting from and even complicating a war on terrorism that, as recent events demonstrate, remains unfinished – must be carefully balanced against potential benefits, with the impact of intervention or non-intervention on the credibility of the UN itself of course having to be part of the calculation.

Just because Iraqis may have wished for a foreign military intervention in no way justifies a said intervention, in view of both the costs of the intervention to the invading power—the United States—and the inevitable course the war would take. It is rather clear, IMO at least, that the Iraqi people would have been better off had the invasion not happened, Saddam remained in power, and with the sanctions regime ended (but with controls on CBW/nuclear technology maintained). As for what would have happened had the Ba’athists remained in power, who knows? Perhaps Iraq would have ended up like Syria today, but perhaps not. One cannot possibly know.

On Iraqis supporting the US intervention, this was very much akin to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which was—yes!—initially supported by a majority of Lebanese: clear majorities of Maronites and Shi’ites (and with the Druze neutral), who wanted the Israelis to eject the PLO from their country. They needed an outside power to do the dirty work for them, that they couldn’t do themselves. And also for the foreign invader to pave their own way to power—Bashir Gemayel in Lebanon, Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq—, after which the foreigners would pack their bags and leave—and maybe get a thank you but little more (if the foreigners were looking for gratitude, they were bound to be disappointed). If Lebanese supported the Israelis in June ’82 they were not supporting them in June ’83, needless to say, not to mention in subsequent years (and nowadays, of course, everyone in Lebanon hates Israel). Mutatis mutandis, it was likewise in Iraq. The Israelis got played by their (temporary) Maronite allies in Lebanon, just as the Americans got played by Ahmed Chalabi. The Middle Easterners were smarter than the Americans (and Israelis), or at least more wily.

A final point, or, rather, assertion. The principal actors in the Bush-Cheney administration and their Iraq war supporters in Congress, the MSM, and Washington think tank archipelago will unfortunately not be held to account. Leftists are using the anniversary to beat up on Democrats and the MSM for having supported the war (and the lefties are right, of course). And many are still demanding war crimes trials for Bush-Cheney or some indictment by the ICC but, for reasons that hardly need to be explicated, it’s not going to happen. What all those who uncritically supported the Iraq war—and who rubbished those who opposed it—should do to at least partially make amends with the likes of me is to prostrate themselves before and profusely apologize to two men who were dragged through the mud during those miserable months in late 2002-early 2003: Scott Ritter and Jacques Chirac. Scott Ritter because he emphatically insisted that Iraq had no CBW or nuclear weapons capacity and explained why to anyone who would listen. Ritter was, of course, speaking from rather extensive personal experience on the question and knew what he was talking about. That was he was not listened to—not to mention sullied and denigrated—in Washington was unconscionable.

As for Jacques Chirac, because his opposition to US policy was well-considered and based on principle, and for which he, along with the entire French nation, was subjected to slander and calumny in the US. Chirac did not exclude the possibility of joining the US in Iraq and told his military to prepare for it. But it became obvious to the French that the Bush-Cheney administration’s “evidence” of WMDs was bogus, that there was no casus belli. France needed the proof from Washington and never got it. After Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the UNSC—which the entire MSM pronounced a slam dunk, grand slam, blah blah—analysts in the French media pronounced Powell’s photos of mobile labs impossible to interpret (and that vial of white powder: was that really anthrax? did Powell actually carry a biological weapon on his person and bring into the UN? but if was just milk powder, then, as they say in these parts, les Américains se foutent de nos gueules, i.e. the Americans are taking us for fools). So the French could not but vote against a UNSC resolution authorizing war. If the Americans and Brits wanted to wage an unprovoked war in Iraq, they would have to do it without the green light from the United Nations. The French position was impeccable, ironclad, and irreproachable. The final demonstration of this: France suffered no lasting consequences for saying no to the Bush-Cheney administration, and which had, by 2005, let bygones be bygones and started to make nice with the French. On Iraq, France was right. She really was.

I was going to publish my Iraq War file from 2002-03 here but seeing how long this post has become, I will do so separately, in the next post.

scott ritter


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Ezra Klein has republished a post on his WaPo Wonkblog from a year ago on “Why an MRI costs $1,080 in America and $280 in France.” He thinks it’s worth rereading now and it is. Americans don’t pay more because they receive superior care, are sicker, or visit the doctor more often. They pay more because the predatory American health care system is rigged to cheat them. Americans get shafted at the hospital and they’re powerless as individuals to do anything about it. So much for the free market. Klein mentions and links to Time magazine’s mega 24,000 word investigative report “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” which is a must read if anyone hasn’t seen it by now.

Re my own out-of-pocket health care costs over the past two months—related to my recent mishap—, they so far add up to €470. This is the total amount I’ve had to write checks for. A good part of it will be reimbursed by the Sécurité Sociale and mutuelle (if it hasn’t already; I’ll have to check). The other day I received a bill for €44 from the ER for services rendered when I was taken in on Jan. 18th. I should be reimbursed for that.

À propos, I received an email yesterday from a friend in the US, age 87, who wrote about receiving her medical bills from France after  a sudden week-long hospitalization at the Hôpital Salpêtrière in Paris while visiting in 2011, during which time her condition was quite serious. The amount she owed was $32,000 (fortunately covered by her US insurance). She said the bill at her hospital in the US would have easily been half a million dollars.

How anyone can defend the present financing of the American health care system is beyond me. In fact, they shouldn’t even try, because they can’t.


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Mohamed Merah sur France 3

[mise à jour ci-dessous] [2ème mise à jour ci-dessous]

France 3 a eu un bon documentaire hier soir sur l’Affaire Mohamed Merah, et qui complémente celui de M6 du novembre dernier. Voici le synopsis

Le 22 mars 2012, la France est sous le choc, effarée par les tueries commises par un certain Mohamed Merah. En pleine campagne présidentielle, les Français découvrent avec stupeur que le monstre, tueur d’enfants, est un jeune de la banlieue toulousaine, à peine âgé de 23 ans.

Qui est-il vraiment et comment en est-il arrivé à tuer sept personnes de sang-froid?

Pendant plus de six mois, les auteurs de ce film ont rencontré des dizaines de témoins de l’affaire, proches de l’enquête. Ils ont eu accès à des documents exclusifs pour tenter de comprendre ce qui, dans l’histoire de ce petit délinquant de banlieue, a pu provoquer un tel passage à l’acte.

Pour la première fois, sa famille et ses amis ont accepté de participer, permettant de mieux cerner la personnalité de Mohamed Merah.

Ainsi, les auteurs ont pu reconstituer, année après année, les différentes étapes de sa vie : la cité, la prison, les voyages, qui ont pu le mener à commettre ces atrocités.

Ces crimes sont-ils l’oeuvre d’un fou ou bien celle d’un fanatique religieux? Quels étaient ses liens avec la mouvance islamiste ? Quel rôle a joué sa famille ? Etait-il un “indic” manipulé par les services de renseignement?

Autant de questions auxquelles ce documentaire tente de répondre à la suite d’une enquête minutieuse et d’une investigation sociale, dévoilant les failles d’un système judiciaire et les “loupés” de la police (DCRI + PJ) qui ont empêché de neutraliser Mohamed Merah plus tôt. Les révélations contenues dans ce film vont souvent à contre-courant des versions officielles.

De Toulouse au Pakistan, en passant par le Moyen-Orient, ce documentaire retrace tout l’itinéraire de Mohamed Merah, depuis la petite enfance jusqu’aux meurtres de 2012.

On peut regarder le documentaire ici.

MISE À JOUR: Oumma.com, site un tantinet orienté, a publié un “décryptage” du documentaire.

2ème MISE À JOUR: Voilà la une du Monde aujourd’hui (10 mars) : “Mohamed Merah a été repéré par les renseignements dès 2006.”

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Inside the FLN

inside the fln neil macmaster

Full title: Inside the FLN: The Paris Massacre and the French Intelligence Service. This is a new, unpublished monograph by historian Neil MacMaster on the events of October 17, 1961 (which I’ve posted on here and here), and that may be downloaded here. Haven’t read it yet but it looks most interesting. MacMaster is the leading historian in the English-speaking world of this dark episode in modern French history, and one of the top ones of France and colonial Algeria more generally. Among his books are Colonial Migrants and Racism: Algerians in France, 1900-62; Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (co-authored with Jim House); and Burning the Veil: The Algerian War and the ‘Emancipation’ of Muslim Women, 1954–62 (disclosure: I have a long overdue review of this to write). All excellent and must reads for anyone interested in the subject.

macmaster colonial migrants and racism

paris 1961 house macmaster

neil macmaster burning the veil

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I didn’t know a thing about Beppe Grillo until last month, when I started to follow the Italian election (and I normally don’t follow Italian politics too closely except during election time there, or when Silvio Berlusconi, not infrequently, says or does something outrageous). In France Grillo is being compared to Coluche, though he reminds me a lot more of Pierre Poujade of the mid 1950s. The revindications of the Poujadists and Grillo’s M5S may not be precisely the same but there are striking similarities between the two: the populist rejection of the establishment and its parties, the movements being comprised exclusively of non-politicians and difficult to classify on the left-right spectrum (the Poujadists were essentially centrists à la Third Republic Rad-Socs, before lurching way to the right when the movement started to disintegrate). And the buffoonish personal style of Grillo resembles that of Poujade (as does his attitude toward Jews, so it seems; see here and here). And the M5S’s newly elected parliamentary deputies are, like the 52 Poujadists who were elected to the National Assembly in January 1956—in a political shocker, overshadowing the victory of the center-left—, rank political novices, though no doubt more educated than the épiciers and boulangers who Poujade recruited onto his candidate lists. Within a few months the Poujadist deputies stopped coming to the Assembly or were co-opted by other parliamentary groups. If a new Italian government is formed and new elections are not called, I wonder if the same won’t happen with Grillo’s M5S deputies and senators.

In any case, here are a couple of articles I just read on the Grillo movement: “Five Stars and a Cricket: Beppe Grillo Shakes Italian Politics,” by Fabio Bordignon and Luigi Ceccarini, in the latest Southern European Politics and Society (free download); and Charles Grant and Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform, “Two cheers for Beppe Grillo.” The latter is quite good (as is just about everything from the CER, BTW). This passage toward the end puts the Italian situation in perspective

If Italy can find a serious government to negotiate with its eurozone partners, it does have cards to play. It is in a stronger position than the other peripheral eurozone economies. First, the Italian government runs a primary budget surplus (that is, a surplus before the payment of interest on outstanding debt). This makes it much less dependent than the others on support from the rest of the eurozone: if Italy were to default, the Italian government could still pay its bills. Second, Italy’s banking sector is essentially sound; the country does not face the need to raise large sums of money to recapitalise its banks. Third, despite having such a high level of public sector debt, Italy’s overall debt burden (that is, its stock of both public and private debt) is not only lower than the other peripheral economies, but also below that of France and the Netherlands. Fourth, Italy’s external asset position (Italians’ foreign assets minus foreigners’ investments in Italy) is broadly balanced; by contrast, Spain, Portugal and Greece owe large amounts of money to the rest of the world.

In summary, Italy is not quite the basket-case it is often portrayed as abroad. It cannot be so easily bullied as the other peripheral countries. Leaving the eurozone would pose fewer risks to Italy than to the others. This puts the Italian government in a stronger position to play hard-ball in negotiating its fiscal policy.

I am reminded of an excellent CER report from 2006, on Italy and the euro, and which I linked to in 2011. Is well worth (re)reading.

Pierre Poujade, circa 1955

Pierre Poujade, circa 1955

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