One of my reservations about Bernie Sanders’ candidacy has been his foreign policy qualifications, or, to be more precise, his interest in the subject. My reservations have been largely put to rest by a piece in Politico Magazine, dated February 11th, by Lawrence Korb, an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration and Washington think tank habitué since, “Bernie Sanders is more serious on foreign policy than you think.” I won’t summarize what Korb says—just read the thing—except to say that I’m convinced.

In point of fact, there is no rhyme or reason to think that Bernie, who has been in Congress for the past 25 years, would be any less knowledgeable on foreign policy than any of the other candidates, Hillary excepted (whom everyone agrees is totally on top of the subject, regardless of how one feels about her positions). And, to put it mildly, I trust Bernie’s foreign policy instincts over those of any of the candidates in the other party, and particularly on subjects like this.

On foreign policy, Salon writer Daniel Denvir had an article dated yesterday, “America needs a ‘Bernie Doctrine’: How Sanders’ foreign policy weakness could become a game-changing strength,” in which he cites several lefty academics, as well as engagé writers on the Middle East. Denvir, entre autres, links to a piece in The Electronic Intifada by Rania Khalek, “Bernie Sanders and the question of Palestine,” which is the most comprehensive I’ve seen on the matter of Bernie’s position on Israel.

In the event—still unlikely—that Bernie is elected POTUS, one may be sure that his Middle East policy will not be significantly different from the present one. Also that he’ll appoint mainstream Washington establishment types to his foreign policy team. The usual think tanks (Brookings, Carnegie Endowment et al) will be well represented in a Sanders administration. Lefties who have illusions on this score will be disappointed.

I watched today, via YouTube, the entire Bernie-Hillary debate in Milwaukee last night. I thought Hillary hit it out of the park but that Bernie was very good too (TPM’s Josh Marshall has a good analysis). I like him—both politically and viscerally—and have a high regard for her, as I always have. If they maintain last night’s tone—with no acrimony or nastiness—for the rest of the campaign, then it will all work out.


The New Hampshire primary

(Photo credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking)

(Photo credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking)

[update below]

My 2¢. I was amazed, along with everyone else, by the margin of Bernie’s victory. As a member of the “Like Bernie, voting Hillary” camp, I would have preferred a closer result but am in no way dismayed by Bernie’s blowout. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote last night, it was a remarkable achievement on Bernie’s part. Watching Bernie’s fine, if longish, victory speech, I agreed with just about everything he said; and even if some of his policy proposals are not too realistic—e.g. free college tuition for everyone, or financing all new welfare state measures exclusively via taxes on the super rich—one understands that he would necessarily compromise on these if he were president (as these would be opening positions in a protracted negotiating process and with Democrats—unlike present-day Republicans—always ready to compromise). As for Hillary, her concession speech was excellent (watch it here ICYMI). One of the functions, as it were, of Bernie’s candidacy has been to pull Hillary to the left and, listening to what she said last night, it is manifestly working. If she keeps talking this way and with the same intensity, she should be able to regain her footing. Inshallah, because, echoing author Kate Harding in The Guardian today, while “I’m glad Sanders won New Hampshire…I want Hillary Clinton to be president.”

But if Hillary is going to be POTUS she needs to tell her surrogates—and particularly husband Bill—to STFU on Bernie and, while they’re at it, to stop playing the feminist/women’s card, which is not a valid argument in and of itself to vote for her (and is not working in any case). If HRC’s campaign goes negative on Bernie in a big way—with low blows and mud-slinging—that will be bad. Bernie’s supporters will be very pissed off—and me too—and it will cripple Hillary in the general. If she gets that far, that is, as if Bernie closes the gap in Nevada and South Carolina, then the thing will really be up for grabs. I’ve been insisting that Bernie will not/cannot get the nomination and still think that but I’ve been wrong before. And, as Matthew Yglesias wrote in Vox last night, “Bernie Sanders is the future of the Democratic Party” (see as well Yglesias’s “9 things we learned about American politics this February.”).

As for the Republicans, I got a little ahead of myself after Iowa last week in opining that the air would likely come out of Trump’s overinflated balloon. Silly me. With his runaway victory yesterday and the order of finish for the others, it’s not clear to me how he can be stopped, at least by anyone other than Ted Cruz, but who, as Thomas B. Edsall reminds us in the NYT today—if one needed reminding—would be even more appalling. It’s nice that John Kasich came in second, as he’s the only one of the lot who is not totally insane and/or a catspaw of his plutocrat donors, but it is most unlikely the (insane) GOP base would help him vanquish Trump. The GOPer base, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, intensely dislikes Jeb! Bush and it’s pretty clear that Marco Rubio is toast, on account of his debate debacle but also the now generalized view of him as a lightweight and panicker who cracks in crisis situations.

So if one doesn’t want Cruz, that means Trump. Ezra Klein, in a comment in Vox dated today, asserted that “The rise of Donald Trump is a terrifying moment in American politics.” Indeed. Matt Labash, writing on The Donald’s temperament and in a lighter tone, had a hilarious lead article in the February 1st issue of the conservative TWS, “Nine tales of Trump at his Trumpiest.” I was laughing out loud while reading it on the metro today. But if the prospect of a President Trump is utterly inconceivable, liberals should nonetheless support him for the GOP nomination, so argued Jonathan Chait the other day in New York magazine and for three reasons: 1. He would most certainly lose to the Democrat. 2. He would blow apart the Republican party. 3. If he were to somehow win and become POTUS, he would, politically speaking, be less bad than any of the other GOP candidates, definitely more moderate on the economy and welfare state issues, and—who knows?—may even grow into the job, as did Arnold Schwarzenegger in California (who, Chait reminds us, was also a gross vulgarian and male chauvinist pig before he became governor). I would prefer not to test Chait’s hypotheses but his reasoning is impeccable. On Trump sounding less like a conservative than a gauchiste, conservative columnist Byron York had a must-read commentary on the eve of the NH primary, “As vote nears, a more radical Trump emerges.” Also check out Ezra Klein yesterday on how Trump’s candidacy has shown that “Maybe Republican voters don’t hate universal health care after all…” No wonder the GOP establishment is so distraught by The Donald.

For those who want to see symmetry in the Trump and Bernie phenomenons, I’m sorry but that won’t fly. On this, TAP’s Harold Meyerson has piece entitled “Informed citizens and the mob.” The lede: “In their final Granite State appeals, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seek different kinds of followers.”

À suivre.

UPDATE: A few good pieces read Thursday morning:

Joan Walsh, “Beyond Bernie’s Bros and Hillary’s Hellfire,” in The Nation. Walsh offers Hillary, whom she’s supporting, a friendly critique and some advice on what she needs to do.

Michelle Goldberg, “Hard choices: I used to hate Hillary. Now I’m voting for her,” in Slate.

Also in Slate: Jamelle Bouie, “Hillary’s time to fight.” The lede: “As grim as her New Hampshire defeat was, Clinton’s upcoming road looks a lot better.”

Charles M. Blow, in his latest NY Times column: “Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters.” The lede: “History and experience have burned into the black American psyche a functional pragmatism whose existence doesn’t depend on others’ approval.”

Harold Meyerson, “The Establishment tanks: The Donald? The Bern? What’s this country coming to?,” in The American Prospect.

Frank Rich, “Expect the GOP establishment to start looking at the bright side of Trump,” in New York magazine.

Amanda Marcotte, “Kasich is almost as bad as Trump: Don’t let the Donald’s repulsiveness distract from the ugliness dished out by other candidates,” in Salon. The lede: “Kasich is being held out as the ‘compassionate’ alternative to Trump, but in most ways, he’s nearly as bad.”

Also in Salon: Heather Digby Parton, “The GOP primary is officially a horror film: Welcome to a world where Trump & Cruz are the last men standing.” The lede: “Trump won in dominant fashion and Cruz met expectations as Rubio fell completely apart. This is scary stuff.”

Finally, Harvey Feigenbaum—George Washington University political science prof and friend—has a commentary up in Le Monde Diplomatique’s English edition, “US primaries and the unintended consequences of democracy,” in which he—arguing much the same thing as have I over the past 35 years or so—critiques the whole primary system as a way of nominating party candidates.


A drone over Homs

[update below]

I’ve had three posts on the horror in Homs (here, here, and here), the first dating from exactly four years ago. The latest images of the unbelievable destruction visited upon that city—as has been visited upon so many towns and cities in Syria—is this one-minute video taken by a drone, broadcast on Russian television, and aired on Channel 4 in the UK (the original from the Russian TV network, which I saw a couple of days ago, appears to have been removed from its website; not surprisingly, one supposes, in view of Russia’s implication—indirect and now direct—in that destruction). If anyone is still wondering why Syrians are fleeing their country, watch the video.

UPDATE: Natalie Nougayrède—former editor-in-chief of Le Monde and its Russia correspondent for many years—has an opinion piece in The Guardian dated February 5th, “What happens next in Aleppo will shape Europe’s future.” The lede: “If there were any doubts about Vladimir Putin’s objectives in Syria, the recent Russian military escalation around this city must surely have set them aside.”

The Iowa caucuses


It is morning in Paris, from where I write, and the middle of the night in the US. I’ve been reading the instant analyses of my favorite political columnists. Before going to bed last night I tweeted a piece by The Daily Beast’s Ana Marie Cox, “President Trump is now a possibility, and it’s terrifying,” in which she observed what had been pretty clear, which is that if Trump were to beat Cruz in Iowa he would necessarily go on to a smashing victory in New Hampshire before heading to South Carolina and other states down that way, where he’d blow everyone else out and ergo be unstoppable. He’d be the GOP nominee and not necessarily a 100% sure loser in November. But as Trump has not only lost Iowa but almost finished third, I won’t yet pronounce him dead—which looks to be conventional wisdom at this hour—but, as they say over here, la baudruche va se dégonfler (translation: the air is going to come out of that overinflated balloon). The cover of today’s NY Daily News nails it.

As for the veritable winner on the GOP side, Marco Rubio, the latest CW has him as the GOP Establishment’s new front-runner, who, in a mano-a-mano race with Ted Cruz, will certainly come out on top and be the party nominee. Just about everyone-Dem and Repub alike—think Rubio would be a formidable candidate against Hillary Clinton and an outright favorite against Bernie Sanders—i.e. that, for Dems, he’s the most dangerous GOPer out there—but I don’t buy it. He may be youthful, glib, a beau gosse, and with a politically sexy ethnic background but he’s a lightweight. In his presumptive area of expertise, foreign policy, I’ve shredded him myself. In a one-on-one debate, Hillary would clean his clock, j’en suis sûr. Mais on n’en est pas là.

The Democrats: The race is going to be a slog for Hillary but I think she’ll win it. I’m among the legions of Dem voters in the “Like Bernie, voting Hillary” camp, who think Bernie’s candidacy is salutary—with his single-minded focus on the economy and that is tugging Hillary’s rhetoric to the left—but would be nervous about his chances in November. I shudder to think of what the Republican attack machine would do to him—Karl Rove & Co are no doubt salivating at the prospect—but with Bernie not having the Democratic establishment and all of its elected officials behind him nearly to the same extent as would Hillary—Bernie, pour mémoire, is an independent, not a Democrat—a point that Michael Tomasky stressed in a column last week. And, frankly, I just don’t see Bernie in the White House. I can’t see him dealing daily with the Washington establishment—an immovable Rock of Gibraltar—and going toe-to-toe with a GOP-controlled Congress. And I have an equally hard time imagining him in summit meetings with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao (not that he wouldn’t be à l’hauteur but foreign affairs just doesn’t seem to interest him; and I haven’t a clue as to who would constitute his foreign and defense policy team). Bernie may have spent the past twenty-five years in Congress but he’s a marginal figure there. He’s a relative outsider. My personal conviction: If Bernie were elected POTUS—which would not displease me at all, don’t get me wrong—he would accomplish little to nothing of what he’s set out to do. And he’d definitely be a one-term president, on account of age but also as he’d likely find himself in the same position as did Jimmy Carter in 1980.

But it is most unlikely he’ll get that far, as I also don’t see Bernie defeating Hillary, of him repeating Obama’s feat of ’08. Obama initially looked to be a long shot when he entered that race but he already had rock star status in the Democratic party, a slew of endorsements from elected and other party officials, and an army of young volunteers. Bernie also has the young people but doesn’t black voters, who were even more crucial to Obama’s victory. And while Bernie’s economic populism is the right message for this campaign, Obama’s in ’08—of reaching out to Republicans, “Yes We Can,” and all the “hopey-changey stuff” (dixit Sarah Palin)—was crafted to cast a wider net. Also, Obama was the most centrist of the Dem candidates in that campaign and had a clear strategy for winning the nomination, of racking up delegates in caucus states that the Hillary campaign had neglected. Obama’s ’08 campaign was the most perfectly run and executed in American political history. But though he locked up the nomination with the victory in the North Carolina primary, Hillary still ended up winning more primary and caucus votes in the end than he. Again, I don’t see Bernie pulling off what Obama did that year.

Bernie supporters—which include many friends: personal and on social media—will no doubt drop a ton of bricks on my head for this. I’m used to that from lefties. The Hillary-Bernie race will likely start to resemble not 2008 but 1988, when Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition gave Michael Dukakis a serious run for his money, and with the latter only pulling away after the Wisconsin primary in mid-April. Lefties—including numerous friends—all enthusiastically jumped on the Jesse bandwagon (though without the black vote that campaign would have amounted to nothing). Lefties didn’t care about Dukakis during the primary season, though they of course all voted for him in November. But they do care about Hillary right now and they loathe her. The Hillary hate I see every day on social media from lefties has to be as virulent as that on the right. A significant number of progressive Dem voters simply can’t stand her. Personally, I don’t understand it. A lot of it is visceral, i.e. irrational. Hillary is reproached for all sorts of heinous acts and deeds, e.g. voting for the Iraq war (though John Kerry did too, and this wasn’t held against him in ’04, at least not nearly to the same degree), of palling around with Goldman Sachs and other finance capitalists (an inevitability if one is or has been senator from New York), or making shitloads of money on the buckraking circuit (which, alas, is par for the course for all top-tier Democrats). What lefties forget is that Hillary was seen as a progressive when husband Bill ran for president in 1992, and definitely to his left. And this appreciation of her did not change during her eight years as First Lady. The negativity toward her dates from her subsequent eight years as senator, when she took positions that New York politicians tend to take. And, in point of fact, she is not markedly to the right of Bernie on most issues. La preuve: yesterday I took the quiz—well-conceived, IMO—”2016 Presidential Election: How do your beliefs align with the potential candidates?” The result: on the issues, I sided with Bernie 98% and Hillary 96% (details here). If there were a significant difference between the two, it stands to reason that there would have been a wider distance in my scores.

Though I believe that Hillary would be a far stronger general election candidate than Bernie, I am indeed concerned about her high negatives (54% the last time I looked, which was a week ago). People think she’s “untrustworthy,” or just not “likable” (as if “likability” ever swung a presidential election in one direction or another). Looking at her polling history on this parameter, one observes that she was indeed popular—that her positives were higher than her negatives—until the email business broke last March. And one noted a spike in her popularity among Dems after her appearance before House Benghazi committee last October. In view of this history, it stands to reason that she can turn the numbers around in her favor—and that she will if she outlasts Bernie to win the nomination. Lefty haters will necessarily start liking her, cuz what are they gonna do? Sit out the election and watch Rubio win? Or Ted Cruz? Or Trump? Sure.

Here are good instant analyses I read this morning (it is now afternoon here), which say stuff better than I could:

John B. Judis, “Initial reflections: A better night for Republicans,” in TPM.

Josh Marshall, “A win for the GOP,” in TPM.

Ryan Lizza, “The Iowa caucuses and the birth of a new Republican party,” in The New Yorker. Lizza retweeted a most relevant NYer article of his from last September 18th, “Donald Trump may not have a second act.”

Jonathan Chait, “‘If you don’t want Cruz or Trump as the nominee, you better get onboard with Rubio’,” in New York magazine.

Jamelle Bouie, “Democrats won in Iowa: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are energizing the party,” in Slate.

Matthew Yglesias, “The surprising success of Bernie Sanders’s insurgency should be a wake-up call to the Democratic establishment,” in Vox.

Ezra Klein, “Bernie Sanders’s tie should be the biggest story of the Iowa caucuses,” in Vox.

Joan Walsh, “Why Ted Cruz won—and Donald Trump lost,” in The Nation.

Amanda Marcotte (writing during the day yesterday), “Why I’m supporting Clinton over Sanders: Liberals don’t need a ‘savior’, but someone who can actually get things done in Washington,” in Salon.

Heather Digby Parton, “The GOP’s 3-way race from hell: Everything you need to know about last night’s Iowa caucuses,” in Salon.

David Corn, “After Iowa, both parties are facing hostile takeovers,” in Mother Jones.

À suivre.

The Fallout from Paris

Photo credit: Peter Dejong/AP

Photo credit: Peter Dejong/AP

That’s the title of an article of mine (here) which was just published in the web magazine South Writ Large: Stories, Arts, and Ideas from the Global South, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The article was commissioned by editor Samia Seragaldin, who asked me to offer my personal sentiments and analysis of France in the aftermath of the November 13th terrorist attacks. The first half of the piece is my blog post of November 14th, written à chaud, which a certain number of people read at the time (it got a lot of hits). The second half is an update—dated January 20th—in which I discuss the reaction of the French government, i.e. of François Hollande and Manual Valls, to November 13th, specifically the état d’urgence and déchéance de nationalité. I will have a longer post on that subject soon.

Recent films from the U.K.


In my post two days ago, on French trade unions and strikes, I had occasion to mention—twice—the British coal miners strike of 1984-85. This naturally reminded me of the film ‘Pride’, which I saw at the cinoche back in fall 2014 but didn’t get around to writing a post on. Did anyone not like this movie? Was it even possible not to like it? It was certainly the most heartwarming, feel-good movie of that year, no doubt about it. Not even a die-hard Thatcherite would disagree.

If one doesn’t know the pic, it’s based on a true story from 1984-85, when a group of gauchiste gays and lesbians in London formed an association, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, to raise money and collect food for the strikers, that being a gauchiste thing to do back then. As they couldn’t just send the money to the miners union (NUM)—PM Thatcher having ordered the sequestering of the NUM’s funds—the gays and lesbians had to take it directly to the miners themselves, to the Welsh mining town Onllwyn. And so they did.

Talk about a clash of cultures: of London LGBTs—who had never seen a coal miner in their lives or been anywhere near Welsh coal mining country—and those in Onllwyn, who were, needless to say, not even aware of the existence of LGBT activists and had never encountered anyone in their lives who admitted to being homosexual, not to mention one from London (or anyone from London for that matter). That the striking miners and their entourages would initially view the gays from London with circumspection goes without saying, though not all did. The barriers eventually did fall and with solidarity prevailing, bien évidemment, though this wasn’t just for the movies. It really did happen. On this, the ending scene, of the big 1985 London rally, where miners and LGBTs united in fraternity, will jerk tears of joy in even the most unsentimental Thatcher partisan.

On this level, the film did not overly lay on the ideology or political parti pris, though the latter is clear enough. The name of the NUM’s Stalinist dinosaur leader, Arthur Scargill, was not mentioned once, nor was Margaret Thatcher’s uttered, so far as I recall. The subjects were the miners themselves: the men who stood to lose their jobs and livelihoods, and with their families and community in the same boat. And how could one not sympathize with them? Thatcher may have had the stronger argument in her bras de fer with Scargill, the British coal mining sector may have been structurally unprofitable and with pits destined to close, and with coal mining being a shitty occupation anyway, but still. Once the miners lost their jobs, that was it for them employment-wise. There was nothing else—and certainly not at their union-negotiated wages—and not in their company towns. So it wasn’t just the fate of the individual miners but of families and entire tight-knit communities, of towns where everyone had been born and raised and knew everyone else. If such has been one’s life since birth, to suddenly lose it is just terrible; it is not something that people from the well-to-do classes can easily comprehend.

As cinema—directing, acting, screenplay, all that—the film is good. The director, Matthew Warchus, was unknown to me, as was the cast, Dominic West (McNulty in ‘The Wire’) excepted (he played one of the LGBTs). US reviews were tops, as were French. Trailer is here.

There are several other films from the United Kingdom that I’ve seen over the past couple of years that I haven’t posted on, most of which were very good to excellent. Here are brief mentions of each, in no particular order.

’71, by first-time director Yann Demange. This is a terrific film, making my Top 10 best of 2014 (‘Pride’ was an honorable mention). It’s set in Belfast in 1971, in the early, terrible years of The Troubles. Soldier Gary Hook (actor Jack O’Donnell), who’s part of a British army company staging a raid in the Catholic Falls Road area, gets separated from his men as they hightail it out following a riot—and with Provisional IRA gunmen shooting at them—loses his weapon, and is left behind. So he tries to make his way out of hostile territory, with the Provos hot on his trail—they know he was abandoned by his men—and with discovery and capture meaning certain death, no doubt to be preceded by hideous physical abuse. This sequence, which takes up much of the film, is incredibly riveting and tense. During his escape, Hook—who’s just an ordinary soldier and regular guy—comes into contact with Protestant Loyalists who aren’t totally on the level themselves, is offered protection by a Catholic family—at great risk to their own physical integrity—who want to turn him over to the regular IRA, who won’t kill him, though he would possibly have to worry if he fell into the hands of a secret British counterinsurgency force that is engaging in underhanded actions in the area. In short, Belfast in 1971 was hell. One didn’t know who was who and with cold-blooded killers on all sides. This is one of the best films I’ve seen on urban civil conflict with multiple armed actors. It may be set in Belfast but could be a lot of places. Both US/UK and French reviews were tops. Trailer is here.


‘The Selfish Giant’, by Clio Barnard. This is another terrific film, which opened everywhere in December 2013 and that I saw a few weeks after. I was initially going to skip it and despite the top reviews in both the US/UK and France (titre en France: Le Géant égoïste), plus it being inspired by Oscar Wilde’s children’s short story of the same name, but seeing that my friend Guillaume Duval, the editor-in-chief of Alternatives Économiques, had praised the film to the heavens in a social media post, I decided to see it illico. Here’s a brief description from this website (and with my bracketed additions)

An official selection at the [2013] Cannes Film Festival, The Selfish Giant is a contemporary fable [set among the lower classes in Bradford, in the English Midlands] about 13-year-old Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Excluded from school and outsiders in their own neighborhood, the two boys meet Kitten (Sean Gilder), a local scrap dealer [most of the characters in the film are Gypsies]. Wandering their town with just a horse and a cart, they begin collecting scrap metal for him [which mainly involves stealing telephone, railway, and electric power cables and copper wire]. Swifty has a natural gift with horses while Arbor emulates Kitten – keen to impress him and make some money. However, Kitten favors Swifty, leaving Arbor feeling hurt and excluded, driving a wedge between the boys. As Arbor becomes increasingly greedy and exploitative, tensions build, leading to a tragic event that transforms them all.

The two youthful first-time actors, Connor Chapman and Shaun Thomas—who manifestly issue from the couches populaires—are great. Check them out in this short interview. What to say, I really liked this movie and recommend it to all and sundry. Trailer is here.

the selfish giant

‘Testament of Youth’, by James Kent (en France: Mémoires de jeunesse). This one I saw more recently, some three months ago. Initially dubious, I was swayed to see it by the positive Allociné audience reviews (invariably more reliable than those of the critics, though these were good too for this one). And I did not regret. I was totally, completely absorbed in and captivated by the film, to the point where it made my Top 10 best of 2015. Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times got it exactly right in his review

From first to last, “Testament of Youth” sweeps you away. Unapologetically emotional and impeccably made in the classic manner, it tells the kind of potent, many-sided story whose unforeseen complexities can come only courtesy of a life that lived them all.

Based on Vera Brittain’s deeply felt 1933 memoir of her World War I experiences, a modern classic that has never gone out of print and kept Virginia Wolfe up all night reading it, “Testament of Youth” is an attempt to write history in terms of personal life that is wrenched out of its author’s very soul. Only that way, Brittain wrote, “could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War.”

To read the rest of Turan’s review, go here. Vera Brittain is played by Alicia Vikander, who merited an Oscar nomination for her performance. I won’t say anything more about the pic except that I really liked it. It’s top notch entertainment, particularly for those over a certain age. UK/UK reviews were very good on the whole. Trailer is here.

testament of youth

‘Locke’, by Steven Knight. This one, which opened in 2014, I saw a year ago on the small screen. It stars exactly one actor, Tom Hardy—who plays the protag Ivan Locke—and takes place entirely inside a car at night—Locke’s BMW—on the M6 motorway between Birmingham and London, with him at the wheel and talking on the phone. The film is billed a thriller and, believe it or not, it is. Here’s the description from this website

The day before he must supervise a large concrete pour in Birmingham, construction foreman Ivan Locke learns that Bethan, a colleague with whom he had a one-night stand seven months previously, has gone into premature labour. Despite his job responsibilities and although his wife and sons are eagerly awaiting his arrival home to watch an important football match, Locke decides to drive to London to be with Bethan during childbirth. Locke never forgave his father for abandoning him as a child, and he is determined not to make the same mistake.

Over the course of the two-hour drive from Birmingham to London, Locke holds a total of 36 phone calls with his boss and a colleague, Donal, to ensure the pour is successful, with his wife Katrina to confess his infidelity, his son, and with Bethan to reassure her during her labour. During these calls, he is fired from his job, kicked out of his house by his wife, and asked by his older son to return home. He coaches his assistant Donal through preparing the pour despite several major setbacks, and has imaginary conversations with his father, whom he envisions as a passenger in the back seat of his car. When he is close to the hospital, Locke learns of the successful birth of his new baby.

I had no idea this was going to be the film before seeing it, that it would be just a guy talking calmly on his mobile phone while driving his car. And it works. It’s quite a good film and that never loses one’s attention. The family members with whom I saw it agreed. One thing that intrigued me was Locke’s accent, which is British but regional and that I could not identify. A Google search afterward revealed it to be Welsh, but which is not the way Tom Hardy normally speaks. He did it for the movie. US/UK reviews were very good on the whole, French ones not bad. Trailer is here.


‘Snow in Paradise’, by first time director Andrew Hulme. This one I saw last spring. One reviewer called it a “spiritual take on the Cockney gangster pic.” The plot, in a nutshell

Dave’s a petty criminal living on drugs and violence in London. When his actions kill his best friend, he’s propelled into feelings of shame and remorse. Discovering Islam, he begins to find peace but his old life comes back to test him.

It was probably the Islam subplot that piqued my interest in seeing the pic, which was a mistake, as I did not care for it. Every last character is an unsympathetic lowlife and with many of them given over to extreme violence. I’m always game for seeing a good gangster movie but this one wasn’t it. I was not entertained and forgot about it almost as soon as I left the cinoche. US/UK critics, who have given it mixed reviews overall, are clearly on the same wavelength as moi, and while their French critics were more positive, Allociné spectateurs have been less so. If one still has the slightest interest, trailer is here.


The French taxi war

Boulevard Périphérique, Paris, January 26th (photo: AFP)

Boulevard Périphérique, Paris, January 26th (photo: AFP)

I actually have nothing in particular to say about the French taxi strike earlier this week—and which may still be going on for all I know, as I haven’t been following the story too closely. I rarely take taxis and have yet to call an Uber (though have the app on my phone). I’m a public transportation guy—and when I need to go somewhere in a car, I drive mine—so am not personally concerned by this (and as I never take the car to Paris during the week, I wasn’t held up in some traffic jam caused by enraged, striking cab drivers or otherwise put out by their action). My friend Claire Berlinski, who lives in the heart of the city—and likely takes a taxi or Uber on occasion—did, however, comment substantively on the taxi strike in a post on the Ricochet blog, “Live from the Frontlines of the French Taxi War.” Ricochet’s tagline is “Conservative conservation and community” and as Claire is one of its editors, it stands to reason that, politically speaking, she situates herself somewhere to the right of center. She thus writes

But that’s not all! The air traffic controllers went on strike, causing the cancellation of 20 percent of flights in and out of Paris. And somewhere between 10 and 30 percent (depending who’s estimating) of the teachers’, doctors’, hospital workers’, public-sector workers,’ and farmers’ unions went on strike. The farmers yet again blocked roads with their tractors and dumped manure outside the tax offices. It was your totally stereotypical, “What the hell is wrong with the French” kind of day. I wasn’t personally inconvenienced because I was working at home, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you batty if you need to catch a flight. You end up standing in the street (if you’re me) screaming, “Bring me Margaret Thatcher. I don’t care if you’ve got to exhume her, just get her over here.”

FYI, Claire is the author of an admiring biography of Margaret Thatcher, so it was perhaps inevitable that she would invoke the Iron Lady when weighing in on a strike. I had a few things to say about her post, which I wrote in a private email. But instead of sending it, I decided what the hell, as it’s political and not personal, I’ll post it on AWAV instead. So voilà, here is what I wrote to dear Claire:

(a) On your question “Is it true that the French are always on strike?” The answer: No, contrary to popular belief outside France (and for some inside). It’s been several years since I’ve seen current data on annual work days lost to strikes but can assure you that it has plummeted over the past four decades. Strikes here have become infrequent; they’re less than the 1990s and there is no comparison with the 1970s. And strikes are even more infrequent in the private sector, happening mainly in the fonction publique and public services. And because they tend to happen in the latter—public services—one notices them (more than if just a private enterprise were affected).

(b) Public sector strikes in France are invariably of short duration: one day, maybe two or three, and tend to be localized. They don’t last. It’s been over twenty years since the last long strike movement (3½ weeks) that was national and really paralyzed the country (the grèves of November-December 1995). And there has been nothing in a very long time that can hold a candle to the 1984-85 British miners strike, in duration or scale. In this respect, strikes in France almost never entirely shut down an enterprise or public service, as the decision to participate in a strike is an individual one of the employee (as is joining a union and paying dues). No employee in France—private sector or public—can be compelled to go on strike or prevented from working if a strike has been called by one or more unions. Not even members of unions are obliged to participate in strikes called by their union if they don’t feel like it.

(c) Strikes in public services may seriously inconvenience the public and tourists, particularly in anything connected with transportation, but what tends to create problems is not the strikes themselves but the public actions of strikers that disrupt public order, e.g. taxi drivers or farmers blocking traffic, or striking students erecting barricades in front of universities and shutting them down. A lot of these actions are illegal, though with the police often doing nothing about it (at least not right away). One may express exasperation at the government for its pusillanimity but sometimes it gives the order not to crack down—or to wait a while before doing so—so as not to cause a tense situation from degenerating further (and, above all, not to kill someone, which is every government’s dread fear). And if a situation degenerates following a show of force by the police, this could—no, it definitely would—deepen the movement, with unions across the board calling for sympathy strikes. Because here’s the thing in France: unions can call a strike on short notice (five days in advance in the public sector) and for pretty much any reason they like (there is some encadrement, usually honored in the breach), and stay on strike for as long as they please. A certain number of strikes in France would be illegal in the US and most European countries. Mais voilà, c’est la France.

(d) So, one may say, what this country needs is a Margaret Thatcher, a nerves-of-steel ball crusher who will bust the unions, ram through reforms, and generally kick ass. This has been a mantra of The Economist magazine and others outre-Manche for the past three decades. But what, precisely, would a French Margaret Thatcher do? I have yet to see an answer from those who say that France needs an ass kicker as she was seen to be. Also, when it came to strikes and unions, what precisely did Thatcher do when she was in power? In point of fact, she stood down exactly one big strike, which was that of the miners. As mentioned above, that one was of an entirely different nature than anything France could possibly experience nowadays. And Thatcher had a dream adversary, the Stalinist dinosaur Scargill, and with a weak, divided political opposition (the Labour party having suffered one of its worst defeats ever in the 1983 election). As for the labor reforms Thatcher enacted— banning closed shops and secondary strikes, etc—these brought British legislation into line with what had been the status quo in the US since the late 1940s (Taft-Hartley), as well as numerous European countries. In this respect, Thatcher has been oversold. And when she overreached (on the poll tax), her party dumped her. Also, French presidents and PMs have indeed pulled a Thatcher over the years in conflicts with public sector unions, deciding that they’re not going to back down or compromise in any significant way, e.g. Jean-Pierre Raffarin in 2003 (Loi Fillon) and Sarkozy in 2010 (réforme des retraites).

(e) But, one may ask, why don’t French governments, even of the right, enact laws that would prevent unions from striking whenever they please and for any damned reason, i.e. to bring France into line with the rest of the advanced capitalist world on this score? (personally speaking, I’m all for strong unions— which are necessary for the health of a democracy, not to mention for the workers themselves—but would eagerly support such a law). Governments would no doubt like to do such a thing but don’t and for at least three reasons. First, it’s not worth the aggravation. The mere proposition of such a projet de loi would be greeted with strikes and demos and protests of all sorts. From the standpoint of a PM, it would be a pain in the ass and with little payoff, so who needs it? Second, strikes in public services generally don’t involve all unions. Unions in France are fragmented and with several present in a workplace (and which are in competition with one another as much as in cooperation, one effect of which is surenchères). Some unions are militant and maximalist (e.g. FO, CGT, SUD), others are reformist and inclined toward cooperation with management (CFDT, CFTC, CGC…). When governments embark on reform legislation that directly affects the unions, they (the governments) invariably find unions who will cooperate with them. E.g. the 1995 Plan Juppé and which led to the big grèves that fall: the CGT and FO were hostile to the Plan and demanded its withdrawal, whereas the CFDT supported Juppé and did not participate in the strike movement. It’s almost always thus. A proposed law seen as a frontal attack on union rights across the board would end the cooperation that does, in fact, exist. Thirdly, governments have decided to take an incremental approach in lieu of the Thatcherite one, of enacting laws gradually rather than doing so in a big bang, e.g. the 2007 law on the service minimum in public transport, which has all but ended the prospect that the RATP could be entirely shut down again in the way it was in 1995. To try to maintain peace and dialogue with important social actors does seem preferable to confrontation and conflict, no?

(f) Re my above bit about strong unions being necessary for the health of a democracy, I just processed a review—in my capacity as book review editor of The Journal of North African Studies—of a new book on the role played by Tunisia’s trade union federation, the UGTT, in the political transition there since the end of the Ben Ali dictatorship five years ago. Without the existence of robust, independent trade unions—a cornerstone of civil society—so the author of the book argues, Tunisia’s transition to democracy would have likely ended in failure, i.e. with the Islamists assuming a monopoly of power. Just saying.

End of email. Claire, who posts on Ricochet almost daily, often writes stuff I find provocative—or that provokes me—e.g. one from earlier this month on “The Huguenots and the Second Amendment.” I have a lot to say on this one. Plus tard.


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