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The Venezuelan implosion

[update below] [2nd update below]

I am not an expert on Venezuela, loin s’en faut. I have written but one post on the country in the life of AWAV, when Hugo Chávez died some 4½ years back. That’s it. I have, however, been reading daily about the dramatic present situation there, as have lots of people who otherwise don’t pay a lot of attention to what happens down that way. My social media news feeds have been full of commentary and links to articles and analyses of the Venezuelan implosion, and with people trying to figure out what’s going on. E.g. the other day a friend—with left-wing political views—said that he was trying to understand what was happening in Venezuela, that his reflex was to sympathize more with the government than the opposition, but that he wasn’t sure, as Nicolás Maduro is not an inherently sympathetic person and that the situation all seems very complicated. So I offered my borderline café de commerce explanation, striving to synthesize some of what I’ve read of late.

As for what I’ve read—and as a service to AWAV readers—here are some of the more interesting pieces. Beginning with academic specialists, which is where I look first, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner had the excellent idea to interview Stanford University emeritus professor Terry Lynn Karl, who is a leading political science specialist of petro-states—and Venezuela in particular—and whose work I have profited from over the years. The interview (August 2nd), “Venezuela is collapsing: could a civil war be next?,” is definitely worth the read.

Political scientists Dorothy Kronick (University of Pennsylvania) and Jennifer McCoy (Georgia State), both Venezuela specialists, have a podcast discussion (August 3rd), “How Venezuela could find a way out of chaos,” on Penn’s Wharton school website and that is worth 25 minutes of one’s time.

If one has 25 more minutes to spare, the podcast discussion (May 11th) with Kronick and Penn law professor William Burke-White, “Has Venezuela’s crisis reached a tipping point?,” may also be profitably listened to.

Francisco Toro, who runs the excellent Caracas Chronicles website, has a must-read op-ed (July 29th) in The Washington Post, “Translating Venezuela’s political crisis into American terms.”

Also see Toro’s piece in the New Republic (August 1st), “The last hope for Venezuela is also a frightening one.” The lede: “As the country descends into dictatorship, who will stop Nicolás Maduro?”

En français, CNRS directrice de recherche Frédérique Langue has a tribune in Le Monde (July 27th), “Les raisons de l’impasse au Venezuela.”

Également en français, see the analysis (May 11th) by Le Monde’s excellent Latin America reporter, Paulo A. Paranagua, “Imposture populiste au Venezuela.”

See as well the analysis (August 2nd) by Tamara Taraciuk Broner—a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch—in The Washington Post, “Venezuela is imploding: these citizens were desperate to escape.” The lede: “A new diaspora is spreading around South America, propelled by hunger and persecution.”

The très gauchiste Mike Gonzalez—formerly a professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow—has an interesting outside-the-box analysis in the cent pour cent gauchiste Jacobin magazine, “Being honest about Venezuela.” The lede: “As Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly antidemocratic government battles violent right-wing forces, ordinary Venezuelans are watching the gains of Chavismo slip away.”

Nice that Jacobin published this piece, as it has largely been defending the Venezuelan pouvoir. On the matter of leftist/tiersmondiste reaction to the Venezuela crisis, the very smart University of Washington political science professor Jamie Mayerfeld—with whom I am in political agreement 99% of the time—let loose on his Facebook page last week:

This will be one of those posts in which I feel like I am shouting into the wind. Among my politically engaged Facebook friends, there is virtually no discussion of President Maduro’s consolidation of dictatorship in Venezuela over the weekend. The larger problem is that a significant portion of the left is lodged in a disinformation bubble carefully tended by TeleSur, Venezuela Analysis, The Nation, Jacobin, CounterPunch, RT en Español, and writers such as Greg Grandin and George Ciccariello-Maher. These sources have gone to great lengths to obscure the truth, namely that Maduro has worked systematically and tirelessly to destroy his country’s democratic institutions. To review: He has thrown political opponents in jail, stacked the supreme court, blocked opposition figures from taking seats in the national assembly, stripped the national assembly of legislative powers, blocked a presidential recall vote, postponed gubernatorial elections, and now in the coup de grace created a rubber-stamp constituent assembly with unlimited lawmaking powers. All this because his regime, responsible for an economic collapse causing widespread hunger and the collapse of health care, is opposed by the overwhelming majority of Venezuelan citizens. The left-wing disinformation machine uses various distortions, omissions, and Marxist dogmas to cover up what is happening. I am particularly upset by political theorist George Ciccariello-Maher’s piece in the Jacobin last Friday – a veritable torrent of lies that brings shame on my field of political science and subfield of political theory.

Tell it like it is, Jamie!

In this general vein, Asa Cusack—managing editor of the LSE Latin America and Caribbean blog—has a salutary opinion piece (August 2nd) in The Guardian, “What the left must learn from Maduro’s failures in Venezuela.” The lede: “I, like other progressives, was so inspired by the Bolivarian revolution that I overlooked Chavismo’s abuses. But willful blindness is no longer an option.”

Also in this vein, journalist James Kirchick, who is definitely not a gauchiste, has a fun op-ed (August 2nd) in the L.A. Times, “Remember all those left-wing pundits who drooled over Venezuela?” Hello, Naomi Klein…

Eric Emptaz has a really fun page one commentary in the current issue of Le Canard Enchaîné, “Caracas de conscience,” dans lequel il se fout de la gueule du PCF et d’autres gauchistes français (pour le lire, ouvrez l’image dans un nouvel onglet et l’agrandir).

And last but not least, don’t miss the must-read column (August 2nd) by Slate.fr’s Eric Le Boucher, “Le Venezuela, la vitrine de l’échec du mélenchonisme.” The lede: “Après les élections, la vérité sur le Venezuela éclate aujourd’hui. Elle est révélatrice…des failles de Jean-Luc Mélenchon.” Aïe!

Voilà, c’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

UPDATE: Jamie Mayerfeld has another commentary on his Facebook page (August 9th) taking to task the reaction of a part of the left to Venezuela

In The Nation, Gabriel Hetland asks how the international left can help Venezuela. Here’s a suggestion: start telling the truth. I had thought the left agreed with the general consensus that free and fair elections are necessary for the peaceful channeling of political conflict. Like several of his left-wing colleagues, Hetland does double back-flips to avoid mentioning that the Maduro government has blocked free and fair elections and that it is this fact more than any other that has motivated the street protests.

Hetland arrogantly writes, “It is far from clear that Venezuela’s popular sectors would fare any better under an opposition-led government.” I say “arrogantly,” because it is not the role of the international left to choose Venezuela’s government; that presumably is a task for the Venezuelan people themselves. Hetland closes the paragraph by saying that the danger represented by the opposition “is why millions continue to support the Maduro government, despite significant misgivings.” He chooses not to mention that popular support for Maduro reaches no higher than 22%. As The Economist writes, Venezuela “is a textbook example of why democracy matters: people with bad governments should be able to throw the bums out.” It’s not clear that the international left agrees with this principle.

I’m glad that in his final paragraph Hetland writes that the solution to the Venezuelan crisis must include “a credible electoral calendar that provides the opposition with a peaceful path to office.” It would have helped if Hetland acknowledged that the government’s assault on the democratic electoral process is the cause of the current crisis.

I give Hetland credit for acknowledging evidence of fraud in the constituent assembly election held on July 30. But he fails to mention that the constituent assembly is itself a strategy for bypassing the will of the Venezuelan people. It was designed to over-represent Maduro supporters, and polls show that 85% of the public opposed it. As it turned out, Maduro supporters were the only candidates voters could choose from. The constituent assembly is empowered to overrule the national assembly, whose members were chosen in a free election, although the opposition was prevented from obtaining a two-thirds super-majority when the supreme court (stacked with Maduro supporters) prevented three opposition legislators from taking their seats. (And then the supreme court proceeded, on clearly partisan grounds, to block several laws passed by the national assembly.)

One leftist who has been issuing mealy-mouthed statements on Venezuela is Jeremy Corbyn. As Lib Dem member Chris Key put it in politics.co.uk (August 8th), “Corbyn is too cowardly to condemn Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship.”

2nd UPDATE: Frédérique Langue of the CNRS has another analysis (August 8th), this in the French HuffPost, “Voici pourquoi on ne peut pas encore parler de guerre civile au Venezuela.” The lede: “Les mésusages du concept de ‘guerre civile’ ne reposent que sur une instrumentalisation idéologique de l’histoire et un discours anti-impérialiste.”

Thomas Posado, a research scholar at the Centre de Recherches Sociologiques et Politiques de Paris – Cultures et sociétés urbaines, at the Université Paris 8, has a piece (August 8th) in Contretemps: Revue de Critique Communiste, “Les classes populaires vénézuéliennes prises au piège.” The lede: “Depuis plus de quatre mois, une crise politique aigüe agite le Venezuela. Celle-ci s’inscrit dans le contexte d’un effondrement économique qui frappe le pays depuis 2014 et dont les classes populaires vénézuéliennes paient un lourd tribut, sans compter les violences qu’elles subissent sous toutes les formes.”

See also the analysis in Mediapart (August 8th) by Pablo Stefanoni, former director of the Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, “La tentation du ‘national-stalinisme’ au Venezuela.” The lede: “La gauche latino-américaine et européenne devrait préférer le débat sur le sens de la démocratie plutôt que de se barricader dans une défense aveugle du chavisme qui ouvre la porte à la droite.”

Saw it last week. The verdict: it is the most overhyped, overrated movie of the year. Period. It’s not that I didn’t like it. On account of the hype and gushing reviews, I was, however, expecting a chef d’œuvre, to be blown away. But I wasn’t. It’s a perfectly acceptable war movie and with some positive facets, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. I will rank any number of WWII movies— those in which combat scenes are central—above it: e.g. Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Letters from Iwo Jima, Fury, Hacksaw Ridge, Come and See (the greatest WWII movie of all time). I was not on the edge of my seat or personally moved at any point (except maybe by the 17-year-old on the private boat). I didn’t find it a “white-knuckle thriller.” And I didn’t have the feeling that what it’s been praised for—the technical feats (aerial dogfights, etc) or depictions of heroism and cowardice—I hadn’t seen before in other such films.

As one surely knows, the film has been praised to the heavens by critics outre-Atlantique et Manche—and considered by more than one to possibly be the greatest war film ever—not to mention in the Hexagon itself, so I will simply offer a few contradictory comments. First, on the technical side. One reads about the 70 mm hand-held IMAX cameras and is informed by critics that the film should optimally be seen on IMAX. Well, there are only three IMAX theaters in the Paris area, none of which are convenient for me and all showing only films in their dubbed version (and I’ll be damned if I’m going to see a Hollywood movie—indeed any non-French movie—in V.F.). If a particular format is recommended for a movie but which is not accessible to most people, that’s a shortcoming of the movie IMO.

One little thing that bugged me—that I have seen no mention of in any review—is that one sees the sprawl of modern Dunkerque in the background. The buildings and infrastructure are post-WWII (and by a few decades). It’s flagrant. This is a flaw in the film IMO. And while the city looks intact in the film, it was, in fact, heavily bombed by the Germans during the evacuation. Most of the city was indeed destroyed during those two weeks in May-June. But in the movie one sees but several Luftwaffe Stukas dive-bombing British ships but nary a plume of smoke over the city.

The discordant breaches of continuity: this is an interesting feature of the film but I was a little confused by it and did not pick up on this being the film’s structure —The Mole: 1 week/The Sea: 1 day/The Air: 1 hour—nor did the sharp cinephile friend with whom I saw it. And if normally sophisticated, highbrow folks like us didn’t get this—and how was one supposed to know what “The Mole” was? (I only learned in reading reviews afterward)—then I wonder how many in the great unwashed masses did…

And then there’s the depiction—or relative lack of—of the French role. They’re seen fighting in the opening scene—which is good, as they did indeed fight there and to protect the British while they evacuated—but the only French soldier in the movie afterward is a cheese-eating surrender monkey. Christopher Nolan could have profited by studying a little more history before making the film. Nolan’s perspective is decidedly Anglo-centric, giving comfort to, as French air force lieutenant-colonel and military historian Jérôme de Lespinois put it in a Le Monde tribune, the nombriliste attitude outre-Manche that the English are better off when they go it alone.

London-based writer Salil Tripathi seconds this view, asserting that “‘Dunkirk’ reinforces Britain’s self-image, that it was fighting for freedom all alone in World War II.” Oxford history professor Yasmin Khan thirds it, writing in the NYT about “Dunkirk, the war and the amnesia of the Empire” and how “two and a half million Indians [who] fought alongside the British in World War…are left out of accounts like Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Dunkirk’.” In this vein, New Republic film critic Christian Lorentzen informs us that

The Dunkirk episode was trotted out by the Leave campaign in the runup to last year’s EU referendum, and it’s easy to mistake Dunkirk for a piece of pro-Brexit propaganda. Plucky nationalist myths and box office populism have a way of aligning, and Nolan has a track record of flirting with reactionary politics.

For the record, I am not a fan of Nolan’s films, at least those I’ve seen. I wasn’t taken with ‘Memento’ and turned off the DVD of ‘Inception’ after fifteen minutes. I had no interest in seeing his other blockbusters.

The review in the wonderfully-named “War is Boring” blog makes the spot-on observation that the soldiers in the movie are too “squeaky clean with no dirt and no grit… [that t]his is one of the most sanitary war films…ever [made].”

Salon critic Matthew Rozsa writes that ‘Dunkirk’ is “a good film, but a far better history lesson,” that “its ability to place viewers in history is what truly impresses.” I wish to differ. The fact of the matter is, the film provides no historical context whatever. This is no big deal for historically-knowledgeable persons, e.g. AWAV’s readers, but I will promise that 98%—probably 99.5% in fact—of Americans who see the movie know nothing whatever of the historical episode in question. They know zero about the Fall of France—except for mendacious clichés of cheese eaters and surrender monkeys—or when it happened. And the movie won’t enlighten them. (The historical ignorance of Operation Dynamo is widespread in France too, BTW, but at least people here can plug it into a history they do know). And then there’s the rest of the world, where ignorance of France in May-June 1940 is on the order of 99.9%.

But please don’t get me wrong. ‘Dunkirk’ is serviceable war movie that I won’t discourage anyone from seeing. And if people disagree with my assessment, I respect that.

I mentioned Hacksaw Ridge (French title: Tu ne tueras point) as a WWII film that is superior to ‘Dunkirk’ IMHO. I initially overlooked the pic when it opened in Paris last November but noting the stellar Allociné spectateur rating (4.5: excellent), decided to check it out. It was still playing to packed salles seven weeks after its release, and for good reason, as it’s a first-rate film. It’s a great, true story and sure-fire crowd-pleaser, of Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector Desmond Doss (actor Andrew Garfield) who was determined to serve as a medic in combat. And it is one of the most powerful Hollywood movies ever made depicting the horrors of war. The reënactment of the Battle of Okinawa was a directorial feat on Mel Gibson’s part. He may be a reactionary catho intégriste but is one fine film director.

Another WWII movie seen late last year was Robert Zemeckis’ Allied (French title: Alliés). I found it generally engaging and love Marion Cotillard but had mixed feelings about it overall, mainly as the premise of the story was so wildly implausible. I also had issues as to the historical accuracy of two sequences. The first was on the presence of uniformed Nazis in French Morocco, which was under the authority of the Vichy regime (until November 1942). But under the terms of the armistice—which the Germans respected until Operation Torch—the Germans did not enter the unoccupied zone. In the movie, the target of the Brad Pitt-Cotillard operation is the German ambassador (who would have, in fact, been the consul-general, and in Rabat, not Casablanca, but we’ll pass on that detail) and who heads a sizable German presence, and which is armed and carries out police-style operations, e.g. the hot pursuit of Pitt-Cotillard after their operation. From the standpoint of historical accuracy, this struck me as way off base.

The second sequence concerned the German bombing raid on London, which, in the movie, would have been in 1943. But I was quite sure that no such raids happened at that stage of the war (after spring 1941). And, as it happens, my qualm on this was addressed in the first comment here.

These two particular criticisms were not the main reasons as why I had mixed feelings about the movie (e.g. the whole Pitt-Cotillard relationship was ridiculous). Many such films have anachronisms, e.g. Bridge of Spies had a few, though I thought that one was quite good. And the friend with whom I saw ‘Allied’—who is an academic and with highbrow tastes—liked it a lot, particularly how it treated the themes of spying and intelligence gathering. Likewise the chairman of the history department at a flagship US state university, with whom I exchanged views on the film via social media, who also appreciated it for the spying and treason themes. Voilà, I can respect that.

Sam Shepard, R.I.P.

He was a cinematic reference for me when I was in my 20s (mid ’70s to mid ’80s). Or, I should say, to us: to me and my cinephile friends of the time. And I would occasionally hear about him personally from his younger sister, Roxanne, who was a friend in college (and remains one today).

Patti Smith has a beautiful remembrance in The New Yorker, “My Buddy.” Great photo, too.

[update below] [2nd update below]

Emmanuel Macron gave a powerful speech last Sunday, on the 75th anniversary of the Rafle du Vél’ d’Hiv, in which—following François Hollande’s equally powerful speech of 2012—he reaffirmed the responsibility of the French state in one of the greatest crimes committed on French soil on a single day in the modern era. Macron’s words were, among other things, a pointed jab at Marine Le Pen, who, in the final phase of the presidential campaign, mouthed the now thoroughly discredited notion that the French state bore no responsibility for the roundup of Jews in France during the German occupation—and which was astonishingly repeated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon—and to his discredit—in an anti-Macron broadside after the event.

Macron’s otherwise excellent speech did, however, contain one sentence—a single word, in fact—that has caused a storm of indignation and polemics on social media—and biting critiques by gauchistes and other tiersmondistes—which was the equating of anti-Zionism with antisemitism: “Alors oui, nous ne céderons rien aux messages de haine, nous ne céderons rien à l’antisionisme car il est la forme réinventée de l’antisémitisme” [emphasis on the definite article “la”]. (N.B. The official English translation of Macron’s speech does not accurately translate the phrase in question.)

Now it is incontestable that “Zionist” has become a code word for “Jew” on the far right and the gauche rouge-brune, not to mention among Arabs, Muslims, and all sorts of other people, and that those who use it as such are indeed antisemites. Ça va de soi. À propos, the Irish Marxist writer-militant Richard Seymour had a well-informed essay in the très gauchiste Jacobin webzine, dated August 8th 2014, on “The anti-Zionism of fools,” in which he wrote that “[h]owever distorted and exaggerated, antisemitism [cloaked as anti-Zionism] is a real current in France that needs to be confronted.” But to assert—as Macron appeared to do—that everyone who calls him/herself an anti-Zionist is ipso facto a Jew-hater is not only empirically false but dangerous. It is also bullshit.

Zionism needs to be defined, of course, and what it means to be opposed to it. The fact is, many, if not most, people out there who casually say they’re anti-Zionist don’t actually know what Zionism is. If the question is put to them—and I have done so on numerous occasions over the years, particularly to Maghrebi friends—the response is usually framed as opposition to the occupation and all the bad things Israel does. The understanding of the term is, to put it mildly, not informed.

As for what Zionism does in fact mean, the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua offered, in a 2013 tribune in Haaretz, a succinct definition

A Zionist is a person who [prior to 1948] desires or supports the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, which in the future will become the state of the Jewish people. This is based on what Herzl said: “In Basel I founded the Jewish state.”

The key word in this definition is “state,” and its natural location is the Land of Israel because of the Jewish people’s historical link to it. (…)

A Zionist, therefore, is a Jew who supported the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, and not necessarily one who actually settled in the land. Herzl himself and many Zionist leaders never settled in the land, yet you wouldn’t hesitate to call them Zionists.

Yehoshua specifies

Zionism is not an ideology. If the definition of ideology, according to the Hebrew Encyclopedia, is as follows − “A cohesive, systematic combination of ideas, insights, principles and imperatives that finds expression in the particular worldview of a sect, a party or a social class” − then Zionism cannot be considered an ideology, but merely a very broad platform for various ideologies that may even contradict one another.

Ever since the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the definition of “Zionist” has been revised, since we don’t need to establish another state. Therefore, its definition is as follows: A Zionist is a person who accepts the principle that the State of Israel doesn’t belong solely to its citizens, but to the entire Jewish people. The practical expression of this commitment is the Law of Return. (…)

According to Yehoshua’s definition of what it means to be a “Zionist” today—to which I have no particular objection—a certain number of Jews themselves—American, French, etc, who are, for the most part, on the left—would have to call themselves anti-Zionists, as they do not consider that Israel belongs to them—at least any more than it should to a diaspora Palestinian—that Israel should indeed belong only to its citizens, but which includes the 20% of the Israeli population that is not Jewish. The suggestion that a Jew—or, say, a Palestinian citizen of Israel—who feels strongly that Israel should be a state only for its actual citizens—with all enjoying exactly the same rights and duties, regardless of confession—is, ipso facto, an antisemite is not only preposterous but also libelous. This kind of demagogic accusation only discredits the person making it.

The journalist Sylvain Cypel—formerly of Le Monde and who lived in Israel for most of his formative years, including university—has a pointed response to Macron in the Orient XXI webzine, “Non, l’antisionisme n’est pas un antisémitisme réinventé.” The key passage:

Quant au fond, l’assimilation de l’antisionisme à une nouvelle mouture de l’antisémitisme est une erreur funeste. Cette assertion est l’une des clefs de voûte depuis des décennies de la hasbara, la communication israélienne. Et plus Israël s’enfonce dans la domination coloniale d’un autre peuple, les Palestiniens, plus l’assertion «antisionisme égal antisémitisme» est répétée pour stigmatiser quiconque critique cette domination.

En soi, la méthode consistant à délégitimer la critique en démonisant son auteur est vieille comme la politique. Ainsi Joseph Staline et ses émules assimilaient-ils toute critique du communisme soviétique à du «fascisme». Si les fascistes étaient viscéralement anticommunistes, cela ne faisait pas de tous les contempteurs du régime soviétique des fascistes. Mais les staliniens continuaient à vilipender leurs adversaires, sans distinction, sous ce vocable infamant. Aujourd’hui, un Robert Mugabe, au Zimbabwe, qualifie régulièrement ses adversaires de «défenseurs de l’apartheid». Que des racistes patentés figurent parmi les dénonciateurs de l’autocrate zimbabwéen est évident. Mais que tous soient des nostalgiques de la ségrégation raciale est une accusation délirante et dérisoire. On pourrait multiplier les exemples.

Il en va de même de l’idée selon laquelle l’antisionisme serait la version moderne de l’antisémitisme. D’abord parce que l’antisionisme n’est pas une idéologie très définie. Historiquement, il a consisté à récuser l’idée d’une solution nationaliste à la question juive. Aujourd’hui, il y a en Israël des gens qui se disent antisionistes par simple hostilité à une occupation des Palestiniens menée au nom même du sionisme. D’autres se disent «post-sionistes» parce qu’à leurs yeux, l’ambition du sionisme étant la constitution d’un État juif, son existence annule d’autorité la nécessité du sionisme. Je connais enfin des Israéliens tout à fait sionistes qui sont si révulsés par la politique de Nétanyahou qu’ils se disent honorés d’être traités d’«antisionistes» par un gouvernement d’extrême droite raciste et colonialiste. Ces derniers remplissent par exemple les rangs d’une ONG comme Breaking the Silence, qui regroupe des soldats dénonçant les crimes commis par leur armée contre des Palestiniens et dont plusieurs des dirigeants sont des officiers et aussi des juifs pieux. Ils ne sont pas antisémites. Ils sont même l’honneur d’Israël. Quant à moi, je considère le sionisme comme une question philosophiquement désuète. En revanche, si le sionisme, comme le prône Nétanyahou, consiste à exiger la reconnaissance d’Israël pour mieux empêcher le droit des Palestiniens à l’autodétermination, alors je suis antisioniste. Serais-je donc antisémite?

So if Netanyahu and others on the Israeli right define Zionism as giving Jews the right to settle anywhere in Eretz Israel—i.e. in Judea and Samaria—does this mean that those who oppose such settlement are antisemites?

The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, in a “Lettre ouverte à M. le Président de la République française,” published in Mediapart, rhetorically asked if Macron, “[l]’ancien étudiant en philosophie, l’assistant de Paul Ricœur a-t-il si peu lu de livres d’histoire, au point d’ignorer que nombre de juifs, ou de descendants de filiation juive se sont toujours opposés au sionisme sans, pour autant, être antisémites?” My dear friend Adam Shatz, in a social media commentary on Sand’s letter, remarked

on the unfortunate and tendentious conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in Macron’s otherwise admirable Vel d’Hiv address. Sand eviscerates Macron’s claims, but the pièce de résistance is his remark that thanks to Israel’s self-definition as the state of the Jewish people (not of the people – even the Jews! – who live in it), the state belongs far more to diaspora Jews like BHL and Alain Finkielkraut than it does to Sand’s Israeli-Palestinian students, whose Hebrew in some cases is better than his!

To oppose such ethno-racial exclusion inside Israel, as well as the apartheid in the Occupied Territories, is hardly to engage in anti-Semitic discrimination, much less call for the “destruction” of Israel or the Jews. (This is a well known Zionist canard, which curiously asks us to imagine that without such discrimination, the state itself would crumble: so much for the dream of “normalizing” the Jews in a modern nation-state.) Rather, to critique actually existing Zionism is to oppose discrimination, racism and oppression, which, outside Israel (and among a dwindling number of Israeli Jews), has been a venerable Jewish tradition. As Sand points out, some of the finest members of this dissenting tradition have been French: Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Maxime Rodinson, Esther Benbassa, Daniel Bensaïd, Rony Brauman. If the new French president, justly praised for his intellect, thinks anti-Zionism is simply the contemporary form of anti-Semitism (which is not to say it never is), and if he thinks he’s combating anti-Semitism by cozying up to the likes of Netanyahu (who is all too happy to cover for Hungarian Jew haters sympathetic to Israel), he still has a lot of learning to do.

An AWAV friend—a secular French Jew who would no doubt refer to himself as non- or anti-Zionist—pointed to one possible unintended consequence of Macron’s words, which is its implication for France’s hate speech laws, notably the 1972 Loi Pleven:

Puisque antisionisme = antisémitisme, il sera donc désormais illégal en France de critiquer publiquement le sionisme et tout particulièrement d’émettre des réserves sur les pratiques des défenseurs du sionisme tel que mis en œuvre actuellement en marge du droit international par l’état d’Israël, au hasard et par exemple le développement constant des colonies en Cisjordanie occupée. Critiquer cela équivaut peu ou prou à tenir des propos antisémites.

Then there was the very presence of Netanyahu at the Vel’ d’Hiv commemoration. I initially chalked this up to diplomacy and realpolitik, as an astute maneuver by Macron to cultivate a relationship with the Israeli PM (as he did with Putin and Trump). But the symbolism of Bibi at the ceremony was difficult to swallow for many—president Reuven Rivlin would have been more palatable—and particularly the place of honor of the Israeli flag. The Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv is a French (and German) story, not an Israeli one. It has nothing to do with Israel (which of course did not exist at the time). There was, objectively speaking, no good reason to invite any high Israeli dignitary to the event. Now Macron could have perhaps justified the Netanyahu invitation if this would eventually yield diplomatic dividends. But as we were reminded during his visit to Hungary last week, Netanyahu couldn’t care less about France or the European Union, both of which he disdains. The notion that France can exercise any influence over Israel when it comes to the “peace process” is the height of naïveté. So rolling out the red carpet for Bibi last Sunday was ill-advised on Macron’s part.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

UPDATE: Emmanuel Macron, prior to the anti-Zionist/antisemitism brouhaha, got into hot water on social media for his words at the G20 press conference in Hamburg, on July 8th, in which he made a remark on the fertility rate in Africa that rubbed people the wrong way, including well-known specialists of the continent. Some on social media even went so far as call Macron a “racist”—which I saw myself—and with others comparing what he said in Hamburg with Nicolas Sarkozy’s notorious 2007 Dakar speech. As for the latter, it was precisely that: a text written by Sarkozy’s top political adviser and that Sarkozy presumably read over before delivering. What Macron said at the G20 was extemporaneous. He was responding to a question at a press conference from an Ivorian journalist about development aid to Africa and who mentioned the Marshall Plan, and with Macron responding as to why the Marshall Plan parallel is not an appropriate one for Africa today (watch it here, from 25:26). He would have no doubt rephrased what he said about African demography if he had had advance knowledge of the question—and perhaps not pronounced the word “civilisationnel“—but the fact of the matter is, nothing Macron said, substantively-speaking, was ill-considered or wrong. To call him “racist” is so ridiculous as to not merit a response.  And what he said cannot be compared to Sarkozy’s Dakar speech. Case closed.

Watching Macron at the press conference, one is struck by how smart, knowledgeable, and well-spoken he is. The total, 180° opposite of his counterpart outre-Atlantique, ça va de soi.

2nd UPDATE: Jacobin magazine has published (August 2nd) an English translation of Shlomo Sand’s “open letter to Emmanuel Macron.”

Bastille Day 2017

[update below]

The greatest parade in the world, as I say on every Bastille Day. Today’s was somewhat particular in view of the guest of honor, whom Emmanuel Macron invited to commemorate the centenary of America’s entry into World War I and the arrival of US troops in France. I was initially appalled by the specter of le gros con at the Place de la Concorde on France’s fête nationale but, after a few seconds of reflection, figured that it was totally normal that the president of the French Republic would invite the POTUS to Paris to mark the occasion, and all the more so as the parade was to be led by 190 American soldiers and with a flyover by US Air Force Thunderbirds and an F-22 Raptor.

As for the politics of the invitation, I think it was a shrewd move on Macron’s part. And Trump—who tweeted that the parade was “magnificent”—was clearly impressed and enjoyed himself. He looked like a boy seeing a military parade for the very first time (“Wow! Awesome! Why can’t we have parades like that?”). If that gets him gushing about France and enables Macron to roll him in the process, tant mieux.

The army marching band’s playing Daft Punk at the end: that was pretty cool IMO. I doubt anyone was expecting that one.

For pundit commentary, if one is interested, France 24 had a round-table last night on “Trump in Paris: America’s new place in the world.” The representative of Republicans in France: I had the dubious pleasure of debating him some seven years back. I told the debate host afterward never again to pair us in a contradictory exchange. As for the rep of La France Insoumise, he’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s spokesman for defense and foreign policy. No comment.

France 5’s ‘C dans l’air’ yesterday on Trump in Paris is also worth the watch.

UPDATE: The New Yorker’s very smart Francophile Adam Gopnik, in a comment otherwise riddled with small errors on French political parties and recent French political history, asks “Why is Emmanuel Macron being so nice to Donald Trump?”

See also the FT’s Gideon Rachman column, “Emmanuel Macron demonstrates fine art of handling Donald Trump.”

Writer and broadcaster Mary Dejevsky, writing in The Guardian, says that “Even in the face of Trump’s sexism, Macron is a genius in diplomacy.” The lede: “The French president showed elegance and discretion with Trump, as he has with Putin. His diplomatic skill shows up Theresa May’s ineptitude.”

And The Washington Post’s sharp Paris correspondent, James McAuley, says “‘Thank you, dear Donald’: Why Macron invited Trump to France.”

Liu Xiaobo, R.I.P.

My friend Xiaorong Li has a remembrance in The New York Times, “Liu Xiaobo’s Unflappable Optimism.”

Also see the well-known Sinologist Perry Link on “the passion of Liu Xiaobo,” in the NYR Daily.

Simone Veil, R.I.P.

The homages and outpouring of emotion over the past two days have been exceptional, not to mention the media coverage. Not since François Mitterrand in 1996 has a political personality in France been so celebrated on his/her death. France is at one on this (a few pauvres cons apart). Simone Veil was, as they say here, un personnage hors norme. She was an exceptional individual and who led an exceptional life—though experienced tragedy in her adolescence that no one reading this can possibly imagine: a Holocaust survivor (Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death march, Bergen-Belsen), but losing her parents and brother; an accomplished magistrate and who rose to the top of the profession, which was not common for a woman of the era (1950s-60s) and while raising three children to boot; appointed Minister of Health in 1974, only the second woman in French history to attain such a governmental post, and at a time when women made up less than 2% of the deputies in the National Assembly; author of the law legalizing abortion (and which carries her name); the first president of the directly elected European Parliament and first female president of any EU institution; Minister of Health (and Social Affairs) again in the 1990s; appointed to the Constitutional Council (1998-2007)—France’s supreme court—and then to the Académie Française (2008)… It is hardly surprising that, from the 1980s onward, her name figured in all the rankings of the most admired persons in France—reaching nº 3 in 2015—and that her 2007 memoir, Une vie, was a best-seller.

Politically speaking, Simone Veil was a centrist: liberal and pro-Europe, who allied with the right throughout her political career—she was a direct adherent of the UDF from the 1980s to the mid ’90s—though flirted with the center-left at times. Le Monde’s Anne Chemin thus informs us in her lengthy obituary

Simone Veil évolue dans les milieux du Mouvement républicain populaire (MRP) dont son mari est proche, mais son cœur penche parfois à gauche: elle est européenne, libérale et ouverte sur les questions de société.

Elle s’enthousiasme pour Pierre Mendès France, glisse à plusieurs reprises un bulletin de vote socialiste dans l’urne et s’inscrit brièvement au Syndicat de la magistrature. En mai 1968, elle observe avec bienveillance la rébellion des étudiants du Quartier latin. «Contrairement à d’autres, je n’estimais pas que les jeunes se trompaient: nous vivions bel et bien dans une société figée», écrit-elle.

And this tidbit

Lors de la présidentielle de 1969, elle vote pour Georges Pompidou… sans se douter qu’elle intégrera bientôt le cabinet du garde des sceaux, René Pleven. Elle enchaîne ensuite les premières en devenant, en 1970, la première femme secrétaire générale du Conseil supérieur de la magistrature, puis, l’année suivante, la première femme à siéger au conseil d’administration de l’ORTF. Ce parcours suscite un certain étonnement dans les milieux bourgeois qu’elle fréquente. «Nos parents étaient assez atypiques, note son fils Jean Veil. Ma mère travaillait alors que celles de mes copains jouaient au bridge ou restaient à la maison.»

I’ve told my American students over the years of the verbal violence, some of which bordered on the anti-Semitic, that Simone Veil sustained during the parliamentary debate over legalizing abortion, and entirely from her own camp—she being a member of PM Jacques Chirac’s government and piloting a bill mandated by newly elected president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (the law passed thanks to votes from deputies of the left). But Mme Veil, a political novice at the time, was strong, had thick skin, and was not intimidated. No one ever intimidated her. It’s not for nothing that she has long been an icon among women in France, for the law that bears her name and her general persona.

Despite the nightmarish year she spent in the Nazi death camps and the murder of family members, she was a strong supporter of the Franco-German partnership. That’s admirable. And malgré the collaboration of the French state with the German occupation during the war, she never wavered in her patriotism. This was, however, not preordained, as Le Monde’s Anne Chemin, quoting Serge Klarsfeld, specifies

Parmi les rescapés de la Shoah, elle est la seule à s’engager dans une carrière politique de cette ampleur, servant un pays qui a pourtant œuvré à la déportation de sa famille. «Simone Veil n’a pas eu de “blessures à la France”, car sa famille, comme mon père, a été arrêtée par des Allemands, pas par la police française, analyse Serge Klarsfeld. Pour elle comme pour moi, c’est très important. Si ces arrestations avaient été le fait de la police française, j’aurais sans doute quitté ce pays et Simone Veil n’aurait sans doute pas eu la carrière politique qu’elle a eue.»

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika sent a letter of condolence to Simone Veil’s family, writing that “the Algerian people count Simone Veil among the friends of just causes” for her successful effort as a magistrate during the Algerian war to save 110 FLN prisoners from the guillotine.

Nicolas Sarkozy—not someone I would normally reference favorably—has a particularly moving tribute to Mme Veil, that may be read on the blog of an AWAV friend.

Political scientist and France specialist George Ross, who is presently ad personam Chaire Jean Monnet at the University of Montreal-McGill Center for Excellence on the European Union, offered this memory on Facebook on Friday

We gave [Simone Veil] an honorary doctorate at Brandeis in the 1980s and I was nominated to be her host. This meant making sure that she was comfortable, protected from the boors, spoken to in her language by someone who knew a bit, or perhaps more than a bit, about her life and achievements, etc. I must say that she was among the very first centre-right political figures whose work and motives I could fully understand. She was a true liberal, deeply European, and a feminist, of course, highly cultivated, charming, and discreet. We drove her around Boston a bit and the most touching, and perhaps revealing, moment in this was taking her to Bloomingdale’s (I think it was B’s) to buy bed sheets as a present for a younger member of her family – at that point the USA still was known for such things. I had already known several important French politicians by this point, none of which could I imagine actually rummaging around a department store in search of bed sheets. She did it with diligence and tenderness for the person for whom the gift was destined. A memory of a true grande dame! Would there be many more of them!

The state funeral for Simone Veil will be held on Wednesday, July 5th, at the Invalides.

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