Archive for December, 2011

[update below] [2nd update below]

There’s a fascinating interview in Libération with Greek historian Nicolas Bloudanis, on the modern Greek state—or the lack of it. Bloudanis says that the relationship of Europe to Greece has been based on a fundamental misunderstanding, which is that there is a link, or continuum, between the Greece of antiquity and the Greece of today, that modern Greece is the cradle of European civilization. But this is a myth, as modern Greece is much more a product of four centuries of Ottoman domination than of anything that preceded it. The modern Greek state, which dates from the 1820s, is much closer to a patrimonial state of the Arab world or Africa than a rational-legal state in northern/western Europe (this is my observation based on what Bloudanis says). And the Greek economy has been closer in structure to that of the countries of eastern Europe in 1989 than to those in the EU. It’s obvious to just about everyone nowadays that Greece should have never been admitted into the euro. But it should also have never been admitted into the EC/EU period, either in 1981 or after.

Bloudanis mentions the capital importance in all this of the massive influx into Greece of ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor in the 1920s—of the forced population exchanges between Greece and Turkey—and of the traditions these Greeks brought with them. Very interesting.

The interview dates from October but was brought to my attention by a friend just this week. Read it—the whole thing—here (if it’s behind a wall, then try here). I should mention that the interview was conducted by Jean Quatremer, Libé’s excellent Brussels correspondent. Quatremer is not only tops in his EU reporting but has the distinction of being the very first French journalist to write—and warn—about Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s issues with women, and as early as 2007 (and for which he was denounced by his journalist colleagues, even in his own paper). Good for him.

UPDATE: Jean Quatremer has a post on his excellent blog on the Libération web site, Coulisses de Bruxelles, on why the IMF is asking Greece to lower private sector wages and prices. (February 8, 2012)

2nd UPDATE: Nicolas Bloudanis has a new blog, La Grèce contemporaine (May 7, 2012)

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In October I had a post on a couple of films from the Middle East with women at the center of the story, Nadine Labaki’s droll comedy-fable ‘Where Do We Go Now?’, and Iranian director Mohammed Rasoulof’s ‘Good Bye’. Since then I’ve seen another three films from the Middle East-North Africa with different aspects of the status of women as the theme. The highest profile one, ‘La Source des femmes’ (English title: The Source), by Romanian-French director Radu Mihaileanu, premiered at Cannes, where it received either a rapturous reception or a mixed one (reports differed). Mihaileanu is best known for his ‘Live and Become‘ and ‘The Concert‘, both of which were loved by just about everyone I know who saw them (I thought both were good enough though not flawless—and particularly the former, which had problems in its second half).

This one is set in a remote mountain village in an unnamed MENA country but that is rather obviously Morocco (it was shot in a Berber village in the High Atlas), and inspired by an apparently true story from Turkey. The women in the village do all the backbreaking, heavy labor—notably hauling water in buckets from the spring up the mountain—while the men sit around, play cards, and don’t do a damned thing all day long. They used to be warriors in generations past but that’s all in the past and there’s no work for them nowadays. As hauling the water causes the women to fall down, injure themselves, and have miscarriages, they get fed up and demand that the men do something about it, like put pressure on the public authorities to install a pipeline to transport the water to the village (suggesting that the men do the water hauling was apparently too revolutionary an idea for the women). As the men are lazy f—offs and seem not to mind their womenfolk breaking their backs, the women caucus in the public bath and vote to go nuclear, to not have sex with their husbands until they act. They stage a sex strike (a “no-nookie regime” as one reviewer put it). The men get all up in arms and go crazy but the women’s solidarity, though strained at various moments and with the usual backbiting, proves unbreakable. And of course they win in the end.

That’s the movie. It’s feel good and with heavy doses of bons sentiments, no question about it. French reviews were mixed. US critics at Cannes were not overly impressed themselves, though saw some commercial potential for the pic outside the production countries. Hollywood Reporter thus called it a “[l]ively and saccharine Maghreb dramedy,” and a “certifiably crowd-pleasing slice of world cinema…boast[ing] an Arthouse for Beginners appeal that could reach broad audiences beyond Europe.” But though the pic had positive facets—technically and in terms of cast—there was “an unwieldy, bordering-on-kitsch side to Mihaileanu’s storytelling…[that] tends to walk the line between a soap opera and an advertisement for Royal Air Morocco.” Variety‘s critic was a bit tougher on Mihaileanu’s “formula of equal parts schmaltz and stereotype,” asserting that “this overwrought fable proves a difficult concoction to swallow,” though “the colorful, lushly designed Arabic-lingo pic might seduce undiscriminating audiences and ride the coattails of current interest in the North African revolutions…”

Not stellar recommendations for the movie, though I have to say that while disagreeing with none of the above critiques, I found it entertaining and not all bad. Above all, I loved the cast, which was All-Star for this kind of film, with three top under-30 beurette actress: Leïla Bekhti—sublime as always—, Hafsia Herzi—typically excellent—, and Sabrina Ouazani; the Algerian actress Biyouna; and Israeli-Palestinian stars Hiam Abbass—toward whom I am very partial—and heartthrob Saleh Bakri. All had to learn Moroccan dialectal Arabic for the film, which was quite an accomplishment (particularly as Mihaileanu doesn’t speak a word of it himself). It was also beautifully shot; technically very good. So unless one has a low tolerance for one-dimensional schmaltz and bons sentiments, it’s a film that may be seen.

I should mention a polemic provoked indirectly by the film, between me and a Franco-Moroccan friend. The day after it came out France 2’s news magazine show ‘Envoyé spécial’ had a half hour report on the making of ‘La Source des femmes’, focusing specifically on the villagers—mostly illiterate and almost all poor—, who served as the extras in the film (the report may be seen here). They were interviewed on what they thought of the experience, as well as the theme of the film (which was unclear to many) and if such a sex strike would be possible in their village (answer from the women: interesting idea but would never happen). They were simple people and the whole thing had been a little over their heads. The reporter accompanied the lucky ten villagers selected to go to the Cannes festival for the film’s premiere. So one saw the excited villagers take the one-hour van ride along bumpy mountain tracks to Marrakesh—where some had never been—to buy clothes for the event (and blue jeans for the girls, who had never worn them before), board a plane for the first time in their lives and for the undreamed of trip to France, stroll along the Promenade de la Croisette with all the tourists and glitterati, walk the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals, do a traditional dance and decked out in traditional Berber costumes (from another region; no one in their village had ever dressed that way, so one said), and receive a standing ovation from the audience at the film’s debut. Forty-eight hours later they were back in their dirt poor village.

I thought it was a fine reportage and didn’t have a problem with it, but it outraged my friend (I had already seen the film, she hadn’t). We had a rapid-fire exchange of text messages right after the report, followed by a phone conversation, during which she expressed her indignation at what she saw as the shameless exploitation—during the film’s shooting and at Cannes—of the bemused, economically impoverished villagers, and who were treated at Cannes like exotic primitives at a colonial exposition from a century ago. She wondered how much monetary compensation they had received for their participation in the film, if they had been reimbursed for the clothes they bought in Marrakesh (a huge expense for them), and if they and the village would at all benefit from any of the film’s box office receipts. Based on comments on a web site that immediately posted the ‘Envoyé spécial’ report, my friend was not alone in her à chaud sentiments. After the lightening trip to Cannes the villagers, not knowing how film festivals work, were surprised and disappointed that the film did not win any prizes, and indeed wanted to know what the financial payoff would be for them and the village. My friend was so indignant that she fired off that night an email to Mihaileanu, expressing her mauvaise humeur and informing him that she would refuse to see the film. Her message was polite but firm in its arguments. Mihaileanu, who was in Morocco at that moment, replied to her immediately, in a message that was respectful and almost contrite in tone. Taking her objections to heart he tried to address them—e.g. that 48-hour trips to Cannes are the norm for everyone whose expenses are paid by the festival—, expressed regret at her decision to boycott the film and hoped she would reconsider, and said that he would be returning to the village to project the film, and where he would apologize to the villagers—and to my friend as well—if they felt he had not shown them sufficient consideration.

Well, it was quite a response from Mihaileanu. And to his credit. I thought my friend made valid points (particularly on the song-and-dance skit at Cannes)—and which I conceded to her—but didn’t change my overall view. Mihaileanu had a good story and for a mass appeal, feel good film and wanted to make it as authentic as possible. Having Moroccan darija as the film’s language was an audacious and smart choice (cf. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s calamitous ‘Black Gold‘). As for what the villager figurants were paid for their participation, I would need to know what the going rate is for this kind of thing, in Third World countries and the West, before passing judgment. The Cannes trip: I thought it was nice. Better a 48-hour trip to France—the trip of a lifetime for the villagers—than no trip at all. As for an eventual responsibility of the film’s director and producers toward the village as a whole, to transfer some of the box office receipts to help it out materially, I would say that the lack of water, electricity, and other infrastructure there is a matter for the Moroccan state, not a film production company. If there are regions of Morocco that are impoverished, with no schools or infrastructure and where the population ekes out a subsistence living, this is a political issue for the Moroccans to deal with, particularly in view of the extreme inequalities of wealth in that country, the opulence displayed by its elite (take a spin around the Anfa district of Casablanca if you want to see it up close; if you can’t do that, see this movie), and the massive corruption at the summit of the state. It’s really not the responsibility of Radu Mihaileanu, and whose eventual charitable action wouldn’t change a thing.

Another movie seen recently on women in MENA: ‘Stray Bullet’ from Lebanon. Reviews in France were somewhat mixed, though Le Monde liked it. Variety did too. As its review begins

Theater helmer Georges Hachem makes his film debut with “Stray Bullet,” the literate, deeply felt story of a woman attempting to take control of her life. Set in 1976 during Lebanon’s civil war, this absorbing chamber piece avoids feeling stagebound thanks to considered lensing and editing that are beautifully modulated to evoke time, place and psyche. Star Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”) should provide initial enticement for international buyers who’ll then be wooed by the pic’s force, notwithstanding a few overdrawn moments. Regional arthouse play is likely to make a mark, while fest exposure could lure Euro satcasters.

The film takes place in a Christian area near Beirut and among middle class Maronites, but where women are still bound by tradition and constrained in their choices. One of the female characters moonlights in a militia, where she murders in cold blood. Her discourse around the dinner table on the sectarian conflict is chilling. And no doubt realistic for that time.

The other movie seen: ‘Ephemeral Marriage’, by France-based Iranian director Reza Serkanian, which focuses on the Iranian Shi’ite practice of temporary marriage, that enables couples to licitly “do it” and with no strings attached. Great deal, maybe for women, definitely for men. The protag is a widowed woman in her 40s. I think it’s set in Mashhad but am not sure. Reviews in France were good on the whole. It so far seems not to have been seen by an American critic. It won’t be coming to your local multiplex, that’s for sure.

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Lois mémorielles

Je prends la liberté de publier le texte entier de cette importante tribune de Pierre Nora dans Le Monde sur la loi liberticide que l’Assemblée Nationale a voté la semaine dernière

Lois mémorielles : pour en finir avec ce sport législatif purement français

Point de vue | LEMONDE | 27.12.11

par Pierre Nora, Historien, président de l’association Liberté pour l’histoire

On ne pouvait imaginer pire. Et si le Sénat devait confirmer cette funeste loi sur “la pénalisation de la contestation des génocides établis par la loi”, ce sont les espoirs de tous ceux qui ont désapprouvé la généralisation des lois mémorielles et tous les efforts de l’association Liberté pour l’histoire depuis 2005, qui se trouveraient anéantis. A peine y avait-il une cinquantaine de députés en séance pour voter à main levée. Je ne doute pas que les plus conscients d’entre eux ne tarderont pas à se mordre les doigts devant les conséquences de leur initiative. L’ampleur du désastre est telle qu’il faut reprendre la question à zéro.

Il y a en effet dans cette loi deux aspects très différents : la question arménienne, sur laquelle on s’est focalisé ; et un aspect de portée beaucoup plus générale, qui n’a pas été mis en relief.

Versant arménien, l’affaire est claire. Le parallèle historique entre le “génocide” arménien et la Shoah, qui justifierait l’alignement de la législation française sur la loi Gayssot – pénalisant en 1990 la contestation du génocide juif -, ne tient pas. Pour la Shoah, en effet, la responsabilité de la France vichyste est engagée, alors que, dans le cas de l’Arménie, la France n’y est pour rien. Et s’il s’agissait de faire pression sur la Turquie, le résultat est concluant : la décision française ne peut qu’exacerber le nationalisme turc et bloquer toute forme d’avancée vers la reconnaissance du passé. La Turquie avait proposé, en 2005, la création d’une commission bipartite d’historiens et l’ouverture des archives ; les Arméniens avaient refusé au nom de leurs certitudes : génocide il y avait, et donc rien à ajouter, comme si le mot seul dispensait d’explorer les conditions de la chose. Le gouvernement français aurait dû faire pression pour qu’Ankara installe une commission internationale, dont la Turquie se serait engagée à suivre les conclusions, pour sortir du fatal tête-à-tête.

Le mot génocide a une aura magique, mais il faut rappeler que tous les historiens sérieux sont réticents à l’utiliser, lui préférant, selon les cas, “anéantissement”, “extermination”, “crimes de masse”. L’expression, élaborée pendant la guerre, a été dotée d’une définition juridique en 1948, fondée sur une intention exterminatrice. Elle a pris une connotation extensive aux frontières floues, et son utilisation n’a plus qu’un contenu émotif, politique ou idéologique. Si les Arméniens souhaitent l’utiliser, pourquoi pas ? Il peut se justifier. Mais ce génocide était déjà reconnu par la République française depuis 2001. Alors ?

Ce qui frappe dans la loi adoptée le 22 décembre, son urgence, son téléguidage par l’Elysée, c’est le cynisme politicien, la volonté de couper l’herbe sous le pied d’une initiative parallèle de la gauche au Sénat, son arrière-pensée d’en finir avec toute candidature à l’UE de la Turquie, ainsi diabolisée, et pratiquement “nazifiée”.

Il en va de même de la notion de crime contre l’humanité, associée dans la loi à celle de génocide. La notion est entrée dans le droit en 1945 au procès de Nuremberg, et son imprescriptibilité signifiait qu’aucun des auteurs du crime n’était à l’abri de poursuites jusqu’à sa mort. On l’a vu pour les nazis. Mais l’Arménie ? Aucun des acteurs n’étant encore en vie et le crime datant de près d’un siècle, faut-il que ce soient les historiens qui en portent la responsabilité ? Comment ceux-ci pourraient-ils travailler sur un sujet désormais tabou ?

L’aspect arménien n’est pas le plus grave. Cette loi prétend n’être que la mise en conformité du droit français avec la décision-cadre européenne du 28 novembre 2008 portant sur “la lutte contre certaines formes et manifestations de racisme et de xénophobie au moyen du droit pénal”. C’est faux : elle va plus loin. Devant la décision de Bruxelles, la France avait choisi une “option” qui consistait à ne reconnaître que les crimes contre l’humanité, génocides et crimes de guerre déclarés tels par une juridiction internationale. C’était admettre l’éventualité d’une criminalisation des auteurs du génocide au Rwanda, au Kosovo et autres crimes internationaux contemporains, mais mettre les historiens qui travaillent sur le passé à l’abri de toute mise en cause. La loi actuelle s’applique à tous les crimes qui seraient reconnus par la loi française.

En termes clairs, la voie est ouverte pour toute mise en cause de la recherche historique et scientifique par des revendications mémorielles de groupes particuliers puisque les associations sont même habilitées par le nouveau texte à se porter partie civile. La criminalisation de la guerre de Vendée était d’ailleurs sur le point d’arriver sur le bureau de l’Assemblée en 2008 lorsque la Commission d’information sur les questions mémorielles avait conclu à la nécessité pour la représentation nationale de s’abstenir de toute initiative future en ce sens. D’autres propositions de loi se pressaient : sur l’Ukraine affamée par le pouvoir stalinien en 1932-1933 et les crimes communistes dans les pays de l’Est, sur l’extermination des Tziganes par les nazis, et même sur le massacre de la Garde suisse, aux Tuileries, en 1792 ! A quand la criminalisation des historiens qui travaillent sur l’Algérie, sur la Saint-Barthélemy, sur la croisade des Albigeois ? Mesure-t-on à quel degré d’anachronisme on peut arriver en projetant ainsi sur le passé des notions qui n’ont d’existence que contemporaine, et de surcroît en se condamnant à des jugements moraux et manichéens ? D’autant plus que la loi n’incrimine plus seulement la “négation” du génocide, mais introduit un nouveau délit : sa “minimisation”, charmante notion que les juristes apprécieront.

La loi Gayssot avait sanctuarisé une catégorie de la population, les juifs ; la loi Taubira une autre catégorie, les descendants d’esclaves et déportés africains ; la loi actuelle en fait autant pour les Arméniens. La France est de toutes les démocraties la seule qui pratique ce sport législatif. Et le plus tragique est de voir l’invocation à la défense des droits de l’homme et au message universel de la France servir, chez les auteurs, de cache-misère à la soviétisation de l’histoire. Les responsables élus de la communauté nationale croient-ils préserver la mémoire collective en donnant à chacun des groupes qui pourraient avoir de bonnes raisons de la revendiquer la satisfaction d’une loi ? Faut-il leur rappeler que c’est l’histoire qu’il faut d’abord protéger, parce que c’est elle qui rassemble, quand la mémoire divise ?

C’est ce que défend Liberté pour l’histoire. Nous avions lancé en octobre 2008, aux Rendez-vous de l’histoire de Blois, un appel aux historiens européens que plus d’un millier d’entre eux avaient signé en quelques semaines. “L’histoire, proclamait-il, ne doit pas être l’esclave de l’actualité ni s’écrire sous la dictée de mémoires concurrentes. Dans un Etat libre, il n’appartient à aucune autorité politique de définir la vérité historique et de restreindre la liberté de l’historien sous la menace de sanctions pénales (…). En démocratie, la liberté pour l’histoire est la liberté de tous.”

C’est le moment de rappeler cet appel. Que tous ceux qui l’approuvent prennent l’initiative de nous rejoindre. Il est des revers qui ne font que relancer l’ardeur au combat. Il est des lois que d’autres lois peuvent défaire, des institutions politiques que d’autres institutions politiques peuvent corriger. Rien ne peut davantage prouver le bien-fondé de notre cause, appuyée sur le simple bon sens, que cette attaque en rase campagne. Ou plutôt en pleine campagne électorale.

Historien, président de l’association Liberté pour l’histoire, Pierre Nora est l’auteur notamment de “Présent, nation, mémoire” (Gallimard, 420 p., 25 euros) Pierre Nora, Historien, président de l’association Liberté pour l’histoire

Article paru dans l’édition du 28.12.11
Je reviendrai sur le sujet. C’est pas possible cette loi. AMHA, elle ne sera pas promulguée. L’Elysée, le gouvernment et le parlement trouveront le moyen de la jeter aux oubliettes.

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Voilà my annual list of the best and worst movies of the year (for lists of past years, see here). N.B. the films here came out in the cinema this year in either France or the US. Those in the top categories all have separate posts on the blog (or will soon).

TOP 10:
A Separation (جدایی نادر از سیمین)
Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux prunes)
Habemus Papam
Meek’s Cutoff
Rebellion (L’Ordre et la morale)
The Artist
The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au vélo)
The Tree of Life
When We Leave (Die Fremde)

Declaration of War (La Guerre est déclarée)
Le Havre
Midnight in Paris
On the Path (Na Putu)


Slovenian Girl (Slovenka)

Amnesty (Amnistia)

Animal Kingdom

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da)

10 to 11 (11′e 10 Kala)

Where Do We Go Now? (وهلّأ لوين؟)

Stray Bullet (رصاصة طايشة‎)

Footnote (הערת שוליים)

The Salt of Life (Gianni e le donne)

Giant (Gigante)


In a Better World (Hævnen)


Si tu meurs, je te tue

The Minister (L’Exercice de l’Etat)

The Conquest (La Conquête)


The Women on the 6th Floor (Les Femmes du 6e étage)

When Pigs Have Wings (Le Cochon de Gaza)


The Help



The Way Back

Putty Hill

The King’s Speech

Black Swan

The Devil’s Double

The Debt


The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Los Caminos de la Memoria

Nostalgia de la Luz

Ici on noie les Algériens

Octobre à Paris

This Is Not a Film

Black Gold

Black Gold

Black Gold

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro)


True Grit


127 Hours


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (狄仁傑之通天帝國)


The Art of Love (L’Art d’aimer)

Oki’s Movie (옥희의 영화)


ADDENDUM: Dan Kois, a writer and cultural critic, has a piece in the January 1, 2012, New York Times Magazine—and to which I entirely adhere—on “The Top 10 Reasons to Make (and Love) Top 10 Lists.”

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That’s the title of an excellent review essay in the NYRB by the reliably excellent Mark Lilla, on lefty academic Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Lilla commends Robin for having a genuine interest in the right—unlike older generation left historians—but is critical of his approach, which he says is not “an example to follow, but one to avoid.” One of Robin’s shortcomings, Lilla points out—and which I have observed for decades among American lefties I know (many of whom are dear personal friends)—, is a failure to appreciate the deep cleavages within the right—that right-wingers are not all the same—, not only over tactics or strategy but fundamental world-views. Lilla writes

And what about all the factionalism within the right? Isolationist paleoconservatives at magazines like The American Conservative hate “American greatness” neoconservatives at The Weekly Standard for their expansionist foreign policies and unconditional support of Israel, and the feeling is mutual. Theoconservatives at the journal First Things who resist gay marriage drive libertarians at the Cato Institute up the wall. There are serious and consequential disagreements on the right today over immigration, defense spending, the Wall Street bailouts, the tax code, state surveillance, and much else. Who wins those arguments could very well determine what this country looks like a generation from now. Robin registers none of this.

This is not news to me, as I have had a longstanding intellectual and academic interest in the right—knowing the enemy sort of thing, or at least how “the other side” thinks—, not only in the US but in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. As an object of study, the right has always interested me more than the left (mainly because I already know how and what lefties think, as I’m around them all the time and have been my entire life). But I’ve known hardly any lefties who have any interest in the right or read its literature. E.g. in following the prolific writings of the so-called neocons over the years—in The Weekly Standard, AEI web site, etc—it is clear that there have been significant differences, even conflicts, among them over a number of issues, one being Iraq in the 2003-04 period. But one would not know this had one only read liberal/left web sites or publications. Mark Lilla himself knows something about the subject, in part on account of his past as a youthful evangelical.

In the latter part of his essay Lilla discusses the recent transformation of the Republican party into a reactionary force by any definition of the word. We know it—and reasonable conservatives know it all too well—but Lilla hits it on the head. It’s truly frightening. Read the essay. All of it.

ADDENDUM: Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol—whose politics are liberal-left—has been studying the Tea Party up close and just come out with a book on the subject, which she discusses in the New York Times. She sees it as a more complex movement—and riven with contradictions—than it has been made out to be on the left.

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Algeria, 26 December 1991

Today is the 20th anniversary of the first round of the first multiparty parliamentary election in Algeria’s history. It was indeed the first entirely free-and-fair national election in the history of the Arab world, with all political forces in the country present—i.e. with no significant political party banned or not participating in the vote—and where the result was not rigged by the regime. The result: the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) received 47% and the ruling FLN 23%. If one includes the votes of smaller regime-collaborating Islamist parties, the Islamist total was 55%. Parties calling themselves “democrats”—i.e. westernized and secular (which should be in quotes, as both are misnomers in the Algerian context, as is the term “democrat,” which a certain number of Algerians claiming the label were in fact not)—collectively received on the order of 10%. And the leading “democrat” party, Hocine Aït Ahmed’s FFS (which did in fact merit the democrat label), had an almost entirely regional Kabyle Berber electorate, most of which was culturally traditional.

The result was a shock for the government—led by a minority faction of the FLN—and its allies in the “democrat” camp, and all the more so because of the consequences it would have in view of the electoral system. The Algerians had reflexively adopted the French system of single-member constituencies elected in two rounds. Adopting the right electoral system is crucial for a polity in transition from authoritarianism to a multiparty democracy. There is no right formula for all countries; each has to adopt the system best adapted to its particular conditions and history. But there should always be some variant of proportional representation and with a relatively low threshold, so as to insure representation for smaller parties, which are often comprised of ethnic or confessional minorities lacking a strong regional base, and to foster coalition governments. Single-member constituency systems are fine for mature democracies and that have a long tradition of them but not in polities in transition and with weak to non-existent party systems, where the exclusion of significant sociological forces can undermine the legitimacy of the whole electoral enterprise. And the two-round French system has a particular perverse effect, which is the artificial inflation in the number of seats of the leading party in the first round. What happened in Algeria was a perfect demonstration of this, as the FIS, with its 47% of the vote, won 44% of the seats outright in the first round; had the FIS won every second round runoff in which its candidate was favorably placed (ballotage favorable)—which was a distinct possibility—it would have ended up with 77% of the seats in Algeria’s first multiparty national assembly. Needless to say, the French electoral system was not only inappropriate for Algeria, it was insane. But almost no one in Algiers at the time understood electoral systems—the culture politique of the country’s political actors was pretty low—and the ruling circles in the government and their “democrat” allies—who were convinced that doing the elections à la française would benefit them, not the FIS—showed that they fundamentally did not understand their own society. (Contrast this with Tunisia today, which has gotten things pretty much right so far.)

The rest was history. On January 11th, five days before the scheduled second round, the army intervened, removed President Chadli Benjedid from office, and had the electoral process cancelled. The FIS was banned two months later, part of the party went underground and launched an armed struggle against the regime and its supporters, employing selective terrorism such as had been used by the FLN during the war of independence against the French. In the ensuing repression new Islamist groups formed, notably the notorious GIA, which embarked on a campaign of mass terrorism. The army fought fire with fire and Algeria descended into a nasty internecine war in which tens of thousands were killed (the 200,000 figure cited in the media—and by academic specialists who should know better—is a huge exaggeration; it’s nowhere near that, not even by a third). Twenty years after the aborted election, Algeria is a soft authoritarian regime kept afloat by rentier income from hydrocarbons, with a façade of multiparty politics but where election results are fixed in advance. And with no perspective of any significant change on the horizon.

I would not have remembered today’s anniversary had it not been for a fine article marking the event by the very fine Algerian journalist Akram Belkaïd in Slate.fr. Belkaïd writes that he opposed the cancellation of the electoral process in January ’92 and has not changed his mind about it two decades later. Among Algeria’s democrats (and “democrats”) back then, Belkaïd’s position was not a majority one. Secular, westernized Algerians—the kind of people Europeans and North Americans who visit or live in that country meet and befriend—were terrified by the prospect of the FIS coming to power—the FIS was not a “moderate” Islamist party as is today’s Tunisian Ennahda—and largely supported the cancellation of the second round of the elections (even Mohammed Harbi—who is a true democrat—initially supported interrupting the electoral process, before modifying his position). Through the rest of the ’90s—as Algeria descended into violence and terror—secular, westernized Algerians were split into two bitter, feuding camps: the éradicateurs, who supported the regime’s uncompromising repression of the now banned FIS—who wanted to expunge Algeria of Islamism, even if it involved massive human rights violations, not to mention violating some fundamental principles of democracy—, and the dialoguistes (or réconciliateurs), who had mostly opposed the cancellation of the elections and advocated a negotiated solution to the country’s political crisis and with willing elements of the FIS (and willing elements of it there were). The éradicateur/dialoguiste cleavage was played out in France in a guéguerre on the left, with intellectuals choosing their camp: BHL, André Glucksmann, Pascal Bruckner & Co supporting the éradicateurs; Le Monde Diplomatique and academics with personal ties to Algeria (e.g. Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Benjamin Stora), among others, siding with the dialoguistes. Each camp had its Algerian champions, the leading ones well-known feminist activists: for the éradicateurs, the current Algerian Minister of Culture (who went by her married name back then); the dialoguistes, a leading journalist and a leader of a leftist political party. The polemic was quite bitter. As an uncompromising supporter of the dialoguistes I was subjected to all sorts of accusations by éradicateurs, the best one during a live radio debate in 1995—in Paris of course—with the brother of the head of one of the “democrat” éradicateur parties, who informed the listening audience that I was “un islamiste parfaitement identifié”—not a dupe of the Islamists or an Islamist fellow traveler but an outright Islamist, period… I asked him how I could be an Islamist when I wasn’t even a Muslim… That was the general ambiance of the (non-)debate.

Back to Belkaïd’s article, I entirely agree with him. Twenty years later I do not revise my view one iota. The cancellation of the elections was a disaster for Algeria, brought about the violent death of thousands, pushed many Algerians—particularly those with a university education—into exile or simply leaving the country, and firmly entrenched the ruling power apparatus. The political system in Algeria is frozen and is not likely to be unfrozen for the foreseeable future. The question to be posed is what would have happened had the electoral process continued and the FIS come to power. The éradicateurs and their friends are quite certain that Algeria would have entered into the dark Islamist night, that the country would have turned into an Iran or Afghanistan. Engaging in counterfactual historical speculation is worth what it’s worth but I argued in the ’90s—and will argue today—that it was unlikely that the FIS would have sought to impose an Islamist dictatorship, or succeeded in doing so had it tried. First, the leaders of the FIS—led at the time by Abdelkader Hachani—made it very clear between the first and aborted second rounds that they did not want to govern Algeria on their own. They sought a coalition, notably with the FLN. The FIS leadership was not entirely made up of extremist hotheads. The proof: two leading FIS personalities were co-opted into governments in the early ’90s and by the middle of the decade, fully half of the members of the FIS majlis al-shura were at liberty in Algiers. They had been co-opted into the system. Secondly—and this is crucial—, the leadership of the FLN, which was led at the time by the well-respected Abdelhamid Mehri—and who was in conflict with the government of Sid Ahmed Ghozali—, was opposed to the cancellation of the electoral process. The FLN party apparatus was willing to collaborate with the FIS in a coalition government (such as we’re seeing in Tunisia today). The FFS of Hocine Aït Ahmed, by far the largest democrat party, was likewise opposed to cancelling the elections, as Aït Ahmed saw himself as the future leader of the opposition in the national assembly. Parties whose vote totals exceeded 80% wanted to see the process continue. Algeria was not split down the middle in 1991-92; the overwhelming majority of the population was “dialoguiste.” Thirdly, President Chadli had another two years left on his term and given Algeria’s strong presidential system, no significant reform could have been enacted without his approval. And this included modifications to the constitution, which could only emanate from the president. Fourthly, had the FIS overreached, tried to impose Shari’a law, or fostered instability and violence, the army could have then intervened à la turque and with greater legitimacy.

This is all counterfactual speculation, of course, but the debate is legitimate. We know the consequences of the army’s action of January ’92, from which Algeria has yet to recover. Allowing the FIS to form a government in ’92 would have entailed risks but the risks were worth taking.

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Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro

English title: ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. Director: Robert Guédiguian. This has been a box office success in France since it opened in mid-November and has received excellent reviews (which in France usually means that the critics are friends with the director in question and share his or her politics). I wasn’t going to bother with it, as I am not a fan of Guédiguian, who wears his hard leftism on his sleeve and shoves it in your face in his films, at least in the two I had seen prior to this one. One was his 1997 ‘Marius et Jeannette’, which was a huge hit back then on the French left, at least among those over a certain age. I didn’t like it, as, among other things, its politics were so unsubtle and simple-minded. Roger Ebert, a good American liberal comme moi, was equally unimpressed with the pic, calling it

…a sentimental fantasy of French left-wing working-class life, so cheerful and idealized that I expected the characters to break into song; they do all dance together, in the forecourt of a shuttered cement factory…in a blue-collar district of Marseilles…

You get the idea. After this one I had no interest in seeing Guédiguian’s subsequent films, avoiding even his ‘Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars‘—on François Mitterrand in his dying days (which I really should see, out of professional and cinephile duty)—and ‘Voyage en Arménie‘. I did, however, feel compelled to see his ‘L’Armée du crime,’ on the Manouchian group in the FTP-MOI during the Nazi occupation of Paris. I know this period of history fairly well—and which I should, as I teach it to undergraduates—but not every last detail, so I decided to reserve judgment on the pic until I got the verdict from a friend who is a bona fide specialist of the subject. He informed me, in a private communication, that the film “is a propaganda piece” for the Stalinists of the 1940s French Communist party, is riddled with errors—of chronology, events, interpretation, you name it—, and, in short, “is crap.” So much for ‘L’Armée du crime’.

I was thus going to avoid this latest one like the plague, but finally cracked, mainly on account of its 4.1 rating on Allociné. What a mistake. It’s almost a sequel to ‘Marius et Jeannette’, set in the L’Estaque quartier of Marseille’s 16th arrondissement, a charming seafront area that I’ve been to a few times. Same lead actors, same politics, same schtick. I was rolling my eyes and groaning at various moments, and toward the end let out an audible “Oh please, give me a break!” The audience, mean age 63 or thereabouts, did not react likewise. It was just so caricaturally bleeding heart. A parody of French gauchisme. Variety’s critic—an “Anglo-Saxon” bien entendugot it right

The sweetest young orphans one could possibly imagine get saved by a middle-class Marseille couple in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a blizzard of cloying sentiment not to be confused with Hollywood’s like-titled Hemingway adaptation from 1952. Inspired by a Victor Hugo poem, French director Robert Guediguian (“The Army of Crime”) returns to the small-scale work with which he began his career in 1980, ladling on the syrup in an ingratiating bid to melt bourgeois hearts. While Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre Darroussin are endearing enough as the middle-aged do-gooders, the forecast calls for “Snows” to fall mainly in Gaul.

Implausibly contrived to rhyme with Hugo’s “How Good Are the Poor,” pic has its happily marrieds turning the other cheek after they’re tied up, beaten and robbed by the orphans’ downtrodden older brother, Christophe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Guediguian may intend to salute, per Hugo, the goodness of the poor. However, as Christophe remains callously unrepentant for the crime (while his siblings remain merely adorable), the film favors a couple that’s underemployed but sufficiently comfy to give money away. Super 16 lensing lends the obligatory hint of grit to a classy production.

Yes, the unionized French working class has indeed become middle class and bourgeoisified—no doubt to Guédiguian’s regret—, and is a subtext of the film, but which is in no way contradictory with them expressing working class consciousness or in having a grand cœur. I am no doubt in the tiny handful to make this observation but I think Guédiguian erred in making the hero of the film a militant in the CGT at the port of Marseille. The CGT, despite its history of Communist domination, is an estimable trade union federation and which has often effectively defended the legitimate interests of French working men and women. And I should be careful not to critique it too severely, as an extremely close member of my family is a union delegate in this syndicat. But the CGT in the Marseille port has been particularly retrograde and corporatiste in mentality—like its counterparts in the Paris press, whom I wrote about a few months ago—, and bears considerable responsibility for the economic problems of the city. Even the national CGT has shied away from lending more than lip service support to its Marseille port section in its incessant labor conflicts. Marseille should by all rights be one of the leading ports in the Mediterranean—generating employment in a city that sorely needs it and being a force for economic dynamism—but it is not, in good part thanks to the excessive militancy of the longshoreman’s unions, and notably the CGT (e.g. see here). Sorry to sound like a réac but what I say here is an incontrovertible fact.

If one is wondering why the pic has its name, it’s ’cause the protag couple’s CGT comrades gave them a one-week vacation to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania as a present (and with the protag husband pledging to speak Swahili there, not English—the language of the colonialists, so he declared—, neither of which he spoke anyway). But having bleeding hearts, the couple cashed in the tickets and gave the money to the poor orphaned children of the imprisoned lout who had brutally tied them up and robbed them. Say what one will about Hollywood but no American film could ever get away with such a denouement. It would be laughed out of, well, everywhere. And however much aging French lefties may gush at such bleeding heartism (angélisme, en français) on the big screen, not a single one of them would ever act likewise. On se fout de ma gueule ou quoi ?…

For cinematic treatments of the déclassé working class, the American indy film ‘Putty Hill,’ which I saw earlier in the fall, is far superior. It’s set in a working class suburb of Baltimore, whose characters look to be straight out of season 2 of ‘The Wire’ but well after they’ve lost steady (unionized) employment. These are the Americans who join the army and are sent to fight wars in places like Iraq, who tend not to vote in elections—and are therefore a negligible quantity politically-speaking—, and who are rarely seen in Hollywood movies.

Another film on the working class I saw not too long ago, this one from Scotland, is ‘Neds’. As it’s British, it has its level of violence and general brutality. And with no bleeding heartism. Not for the Celts. They don’t know such a thing in Glasgow. Reviews here, here, and here. Recommended.

ADDENDUM: A couple more observations on Guédiguian’s film. First, the CGT protag is fond of quoting Socialist père fondateur Jean Jaurès, notably to the younger generation. Le retour aux sources. But how utterly conventional. Charles de Gaulle excepted there is probably no political figure in 20th century French political iconography more consensual than Jaurès. Even Sarkozy and the right cite Jaurès to their advantage. And even the Front National. One will, however, not hear any mention in a Guédiguian film of, say, Maurice Thorez or Jacques Duclos (huh? who are they?), or the veritable icons of the CGT-PCF in decades past, V.I. Lenin and J.V. Stalin. Secondly, the trip to Mount Kilimanjaro. Seriously, what group of proletarians, who have likely never ventured further than Spain or Italy—and even then—, would think of giving a cherished comrade co-worker an all-expenses paid vacation to f***ing Tanzania?! If one wants to please an ordinary Frenchman or woman with a vacation to an exotic faraway place, one proposes Martinique or Saint Martin, or maybe Thailand. Or if the cégétistes could put their ideological prejudices aside, New York or Florida. Or Las Vegas. Really, WTF would a couple of proles from Marseille do for a week in Arusha? No wonder they cashed in their tickets.

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Franco-Turkish follies

[update below]

I am quite mad about this. Pissed off in fact. The French National Assembly has just passed a bill that criminalizes denial of the Armenian genocide. If the law enters into force, anyone violating it risks one year in prison and a fine of €45,000. Turkey is enraged, not surprisingly, has recalled its ambassador in Paris, and is threatening all sorts of retaliatory action (voilà the headline in Le Monde dated today: “La Turquie menace la France de sa colère”). Now these are two countries I know and love but I have no sympathy for either in this affair. Or, I should say, I have no sympathy for the Turks but even less than no sympathy for France. When it comes to this particular issue, I have total antipathy for the French (N.B. as a French citizen I have a right to say anything I please on this otherwise lovely country). The Turks may be a pain, with their hypersensitivity to what Europeans say about them, hysterical nationalism, and extreme difficulty in confronting the many dark episodes of their past. But all that is the Turks’ affair. The problem here is with France.

There are five specific problems with the bill. The first is the very idea that speech should be criminalized. The current bill is an extension of two “memorial laws”: the 1990 Loi Gayssot, that outlaws denial of crimes against humanity, and the 2001 law recognizing, in the name of the French state, the Armenian genocide. The Gayssot law, which has been mainly used to criminalize Holocaust negationism, is uncontroversial in France and supported across the board by the left and right (minus the Front National). As a First Amendment purist, I find both laws unacceptable and liberticide (i.e. liberty-killing). No further explanation is necessary, not for an American at least. I can accept that France, for reasons having to do with its recent history, would ban public displays of the swastika. But for a mature democracy to proscribe speech of a political nature is inadmissible. Period. In addition to being liberticide such laws engender the inevitable perverse consequences, which, in the case of the Gayssot law, was seen most starkly in the 1996 brouhaha over Roger Garaudy’s negationist pamphlet Les Mythes fondateurs de la politique israélienne. If it hadn’t been for the lawsuit against him for violating the Gayssot law, the pamphlet would have gone unnoticed by all. But thanks to the Gayssot law and the consequent lawsuit, Garaudy gained major publicity and became a hero in the Arabo-Muslim world—where his pamphlet was translated into numerous languages and sold like hot cakes—, as well as a martyr for the cause of free speech. Great! Moreover, once politicians start interdicting speech, where does it end? E.g. why not a law—if not in France, say in Belgium or Spain, with their laws of universal jurisdiction—criminalizing denial that France committed crimes against humanity in the numerous massacres it carried out in its colonial empire over the years and centuries (and with the inevitable demands for reparation by the successive generations of the victims)? Massacres of which, it may be added, the average French citizen is entirely ignorant. What goes around can come around. E.g. in America, when the idiots of the Communist Party USA enthusiastically supported the enactment of the Smith Act in 1940—that criminalized advocating the overthrow of the US government by force—, as it was immediately used to prosecute fascists, Nazis, and Trotskyists, but then boomeranged against the Communists with the onset of the Cold War (before being gutted of its substance by the Supreme Court). Clearly the French have not taken to heart the line that Voltaire never said, about disagreeing with what one says but defending to the death one’s right to say it.

The second problem with the bill is that legislators simply have no business legislating on such matters to begin with. This is the most common reproach in France, that interpretations of history should be left up to historians, not politicians, who lack the professional credentials or competence to weigh in on what happened in Asia Minor a century ago—or even in France a half century ago—, let alone pass laws on it. In this vein, two former members of the French Constitutional Council—Georges Vedel and Robert Badinter—affirmed that the 2001 law recognizing the Armenian genocide would have been ruled unconstitutional had it been referred to the said council, as the National Assembly was manifestly exceeding its constitutional mandate in legislating on the question (e.g. see here and here). This would seem second nature but for French politicians it manifestly is not.

The third problem is that the bill implicitly equates the Holocaust with the Armenian genocide. Or maybe I should say the Armenian “genocide.” On the Holocaust—on what the Nazis did to the Jews during WWII—there is no dispute whatever. Historians disagree over interpretations, not over the fact that it happened and that it was a genocide. There is not a single trained historian anywhere, now or in the past, who denies that the Holocaust happened or that the Nazis set out to exterminate the Jews—every last one of them—from 1942 onward. Not a single Holocaust negationist is a historian. Robert Faurisson is an emeritus professor of French literature. Arthur Butz teaches electrical engineering. David Irving was a physics major before dropping out of college. The negationist Journal of Historical Review has never published an article by anyone with a doctorate in history. Professional negationists are professional anti-Semites, not professional historians. All this is uncontroversial, having been fully explicated in the work of Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Deborah Lipstadt, among others.

What happened to the Armenians is another matter. I have personally read enough on the subject to be convinced that a genocide—such as defined by the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention—did indeed occur in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, but there is, in point of fact, a legitimate debate on this. The Turkish state has not helped its case by imposing an official history on the question—not to mention criminalizing denial of its version—or having imposed a blanket taboo on free discussion of the subject until only the past decade. But there are bona fide historians—who are specialists of Turkey and know Turkish, both modern and Ottoman—who do reject the term genocide for what happened to the Armenians in 1915, arguing that there were massacres committed in the context of war but that there was no plan hatched in Istanbul to exterminate the Armenian population, even in part, let alone in full. These historians include Justin McCarthy, who has published much on the question (notably this; also see this); Guenter Lewy, who published this, among his many works of history; and Bernard Lewis, who has not written on the matter but has publicly stated his view—most famously in a 1993 interview in Le Monde—that the Armenians were victims of massacres but not genocide, and for which he was hit by a lawsuit in France. McCarthy and Lewy are in a minority among scholars of the Armenian genocide and their work is hotly contested, but their scholarly credentials and competence are not in doubt. Vigorous debates on their work have unfolded in academic journals—e.g. the Journal of Genocide Research and Middle East Quarterly—and where, it should be said, one of their principal detractors in recent years has been the Turkish historian Taner Akçam, who has famously broken the Turkish taboo in asserting that the Ottomans did indeed commit genocide against the Armenians (e.g. here and here). That McCarthy and Lewy could be legally prosecuted in France for their scholarship is both outrageous and unthinkable. Their work on the Armenians has not been translated into French and published here but now it should be, just to put the inevitable perverse consequences of the new law, should it come into force, to the test.

The fourth problem with the bill is the base electoralist considerations that are driving it. As numerous commentators and pundits have pointed out, a presidential election is taking place in four months time and there are several hundred thousand Armenian-origin voters out there (and who, politicians seem to presume, will put this issue above all others in deciding for whom to cast their ballots). As it happens, ten days prior to Sarkozy’s visit to Armenia in October—where he declared that Turkey “must face up to its history” (doit regarder son histoire en face) and threatened to have enacted a law criminalizing Armenian genocide denial—François Hollande gave a speech in Alfortville, a Paris banlieue with a sizable Armenian-origin community, announcing that if elected president he would push for such a law. Sarko just couldn’t let Hollande outflank him on this; and knowing Sarko he most likely consulted briefly with just one or two aides in his PR staff before making the decision.

Another issue. The existence of an Armenian lobby and of a supposed Armenian electorate has been evoked in a matter-of-fact way for years by commentators in France. This in a polity that has ideologically rejected the notion of ethnicity and that blocs of voters could be defined by sub-national identities (and courted by politicians based on these). One of the most pejorative terms in the French political lexicon is communautarisme, a neologism devoid of social scientific value and for which there is no precise English translation—”communalism” comes the closest but doesn’t really do it—, signifying groups based on ascriptive criteria—mainly ethnic or confessional—that publicly invoke sub-national identities that differentiate them, even symbolically, from the larger French nation and then go on to use these as a resource to advance specific political or social revindications. Communautarisme is regarded as a scourge by French politicians, intellectuals, and media talking heads, and which is seen as afflicting immigrant communities from former colonies on the African continent. When French citizens of Maghrebi or African origin seek to organize on the basis of what Americans call ethnicity or race, they are invariably accused by the political mainstream of engaging in the despised communautarisme. But when Armenians do likewise, it occurs to no one to trot out the communautariste bogeyman. Curieuses mœurs politiques dans ce pays…

The fifth problem with the bill is that it highlights the most unattractive donneur de leçons side of France’s face to the world—a.k.a. French arrogance—, not to mention being so inimical to France’s higher national interests. Given the execrable state of Franco-Turkish relations over the past few years, but which have been improving of late, it is mystifying that Sarkozy would risk poisoning them even more by giving the National Assembly the green light to pass the bill, particularly in view of Turkey’s increasingly important diplomatic role in the region (notably with Syria) and the fact that it is France’s third leading economic partner outside the EU (after the US and China). It makes no sense. Alain Juppé, the foreign policy establishment, and business community have been arguing against the law but to no apparent effect. In backing the bill, Sarkozy has demonstrated yet again that he is not an homme d’Etat. François Hollande, Sarko’s probable successor, has not been acting much like an homme d’Etat either. Triste France.

UPDATE: Claire Berlinski links to my post and adds an important statement by the historian Norman Stone, who will risk legal prosecution in France if the law passed by the National Assembly enters into force.

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Black Gold

[update below]

Great movie posters. Terrible movie. In view of the subject matter—Arabia at the beginning of the oil era—, I just had to see it, and despite the mixed reviews it received in the Paris press. Jean-Jacques Annaud was also a draw. I haven’t liked everything I’ve seen by him but he’s usually interesting and hasn’t made an outright stinker. Until now. I knew within five minutes that this one was going to be a turkey and at no point over the subsequent two-plus hours did I revise my view. The pic is set in an unspecified part of Arabia in the 1920s—it was shot in Tunisia and Qatar (and with a Tunisian producer and Qatari financing)—but historical anachronisms abound, the dialogue is ham-handed and cringe-worthy—when not laugh-inducing—, the characters are caricatures, almost none of the lead actors or actresses are of actual Arab origin, and the story is simply absurd. The whole thing is preposterous. It is just so bad. If you don’t believe me, read Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety, which thus begins

Take Antonio Banderas as a desert sheikh and Freida Pinto as a harem charmer, add large doses of orientalism and vast stretches of sand, and you get $55 million worth of “Black Gold,” the first major international co-production for the Doha Film Institute, which has touted the pic as a harbinger of bigtime filmmaking in Qatar…

Bigtime filmmaking in Qatar. Sounds like something from The Onion (then again, Qatar did get the 2022 World Cup…). The money quote from the Variety review

Auda [Tahar Rahim’s character] is married off to Nesib’s luscious daughter Leyla (Indian actress Pinto), a union that’s based on love, but its political expediency rankles, and the young man is sent to his father as an emissary to calm the waters. Auda soon recognizes Amar’s just cause and agrees to act as leader of a decoy mission to distract Nesib by taking an army of released prisoners across the forbidding sands, while Amar surprises his rival from the other side.

This gives helmer Annaud the chance to indulge in large setpieces featuring desert battles and arduous treks, yet the spectacle is muted, and scenes proceed with little energy. The script is full of the usual “defend the honor of our house” stuff that’s only slightly removed from the classic “yonder lies the castle of my father,” and the simplistic narrative, pitting the slightly wicked, venal yet progressive Nesib against the cold, traditionalist Amar, has no more nuance or depth than the thesping. Tribesmen are caricatured as cretinous fanatics, while the script tries to remind viewers that the Koran mentions peace more than war.

In this post-Edward Said era, things apparently haven’t moved from the fantasy depictions of Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheik” (1921) and 1933’s “The Barbarian” with Ramon Novarro. Annaud has acknowledged using 19th-century orientalist painters as inspiration; the harem scenes with an underused Pinto could have been lifted from a Victorian tableau vivant, and not in a good way.

You get the idea. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ it is not. In the spirit of fairness and balance here’s a positive piece on the pic from the Huffington Post. Seriously though, when it eventually makes it to the US, go see something else.

UPDATE: The film has been renamed ‘Day of the Falcon’ for its US release.

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Conservative fantasies

I just have to post this item from Paul Krugman’s blog, on Mitt Romney’s crazy lies about Obama. In rubbishing Mitt, Krugman observes that

…there is a method to this stuff; when Romney declares that Obama has been apologizing for America, or bowing to foreign leaders, or that he believes in American decline, he’s playing into right-wing fantasies. This, the right believes, is what a liberal sounds like.

It’s like the perennial right-wing fantasy of arguing with a liberal at a party and leaving him dumbfounded with your conservative arguments — arguments that any serious liberal involved in public debate has heard a thousand times, and can easily refute with those liberal-biased things, facts. People on the right apparently derive great comfort from feeling contempt for an imaginary type of liberal who probably exists somewhere, but bears no resemblance to their real political foes.

This describes to a T at least three conservatives with whom I have exchanged views, to put it politely, over the years and decades. On so many occasions during the exchange of views, as it were, I have had the distinct feeling that my conservative interlocutor was not arguing with me, Arun, but with an archetypal liberal of his imagination—a caricature of a liberal—, attributing positions to me that I do not hold or have never said I hold in any discussions with him. The conservative here, I should add, always initiates the exchange on politics, giving the impression that he has been fuming about liberals all day and then I show up, or my arrival is eagerly anticipated, so I can get pounced on and polemically bloodied as the liberal tête de Turc, or caricature of a liberal. And peu importe if I hint that I really do not wish to be dragooned into a Crossfire exchange or play Hannity & Colmes, to serve as an exutoire for a right-winger’s pent up aggression against the left, and that I absolutely hate partisan Democrat vs. Republican polemics, which I consider a futile waste of time and to be avoided like the plague. I’m the fantasy liberal, c’est tout.

One thing I did note, and on more than one occasion, was that my conservative interlocutor, in trying to zing me with what he considered to be a clinching argument, would mouth verbatim some line or “fact” he got from the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The WSJ was not given as the source, bien entendu, but I knew that’s where it came from, as I had read it there myself (yes, I would on occasion read the WSJ editorial page). In fact, so much of what this particular conservative has to say sounds like GOP talking points, or are culled from Rush Limbaugh or some right-wing rag. So who’s the caricature here?

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Cesária Évora, R.I.P.

I loved her music. These songs in particular.

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Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P.

[updates below]

Everyone is writing about Christopher Hitchens today, or so it seems, so I will too. I never rubbed elbows with him or saw him speak, and—starting with the negative stuff—came to detest him in the ’90s for his irrational hatred of Bill Clinton and cheerleading the latter’s 1998 inquisition by the unspeakable Kenneth Starr and congressional GOP.  And then there was his 100% support of the Iraq war and of Bush’s reelection 2004 (before he sort of flipped to Kerry in the final week of the campaign; he couldn’t make up his mind). I wasn’t too hard on some of the liberal hawks for their wrongheaded position on Iraq, as a few of their arguments were not without merit—notably from those who had longstanding ties to the Kurds—, and they tended to acknowledge the objections of those who opposed the war. But Hitchens didn’t give an inch on Iraq and seemed contemptuous of those who didn’t share his views. I also gagged when reading about some of the Republican habitués of his dinner parties. It’s one thing to break bread with, say, David Frum, who at least has some intellectual pretensions and is, politically speaking, not a totally odious SOB. But Grover Norquist?? WTF is an intello of Hitchens’ bent doing socializing with someone like that? I should also note Hitchens’ apologia for the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, which had me moaning in dismay.

But… Hitchens was a brilliant writer and intellectual, and I never stopped reading him. I looked forward to his columns in Slate, articles in Vanity Fair, and review essays in The Atlantic Monthly, and always enjoyed them. I first came across him in the New Statesman in the late 1970s. I followed his dispatches from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1980 and became a fan from that point on, reading him weekly in The Nation when he moved there from the NS. Even when my detestation started I found myself in agreement with him more often than not. I think he went overboard in his obsession with “Islamofascism”—a neologism devoid of social scientific value—but greatly appreciated his support of Salman Rushdie after Khomeini’s fatwa, his stance on the 2006 Danish cartoons brouhaha, and uncompromising defense of free speech in the face of Islamists and their apologists on the European and North American left. So much of what he wrote was simply excellent and with perspectives that were quite original (for me at least). One example that always comes to mind here is his demolition of the charlatan André Malraux (the BHL of his era), who is, not surprisingly, still respected in France. But what most impressed me about Hitchens was his superhuman productivity, of his ability to knock off several thousand words a day of beautiful prose, reading I don’t how many books a week, while maintaining an active social life and doing everything else he did, and after having consumed a quantity of whiskey that would have had me unable to talk coherently, let alone write anything comprehensible. I was totally in awe of this.

A lefty friend of mine who knew Hitchens wrote to me today about how he continued to like him personally despite their profound political differences. I’ve read similar sentiments from others who knew him. A few months ago I was forwarded an e-mail that Hitchens wrote to a friend of his (a well-known American intellectual). I was impressed by his letter-writing (or e-mail writing) style. Warm and personable.

Here’s a remembrance of Hitchens by Christopher Buckley, that a number of people have posted on Facebook today. And this by David Corn, formerly of The Nation.

UPDATE: Here’s a piece by Larry Derfner in the lefty Israeli webzine +972, on how “Hitchens was unfairly castigated by the Left for supporting Iraq war.” He makes valid points, though I will still castigate Hitchens for Iraq, and particularly for his arrogance over the issue.

2nd UPDATE: John Cook has a spot on commentary in Gawker on “Christopher Hitchens’ unforgivable mistake” (on Iraq, what else?).

3rd UPDATE: Here’s a good one by Scott McLemee, “Hypocritchens: Where did the literary luminary go wrong?”

4th UPDATE: A friend of Hitchens’ of over 40 years, Neal Pollack, tells some interesting stories.

5th UPDATE: Michael Lind, in a not nice tribute, says that Hitchens was a “gossip columnist of genius,” not a real intellectual. Ouch!

6th UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald, arguing, as did Hitchens, that one need not avoid speaking ill of the dead if they are public persons, speaks ill of Hitchens and then some.

7th UPDATE: I have a question, BTW. Did Hitchens know any foreign languages? His writings are peppered with French words but I have never seen any evidence that he actually knew the language. Nor do I remember a single time when he came to France, where he was unknown. Reporting trips to various countries aside, he seemed to spend all his time in the US and UK, and mainly in Washington. How boring.

8th UPDATE: Alexander Cockburn says farewell to C.H., his onetime confrère.

9th UPDATE: In in interview in Salon dated 10/10/12, Camille Paglia—of whom I am not necessarily a fan—has this to say about Hitchens: “That kind of sneering at religion that Christopher Hitchens specialized in, despite his total ignorance of religion and his unadmirable lifestyle, was no model for atheism. I think Hitchens was a burden to atheism in terms of his decadent circuit of constant parties and showy blather. He was a sybaritic socialite and roué — not a deep thinker — whose topical, meandering writing will not last.”

10th UPDATE: Gregory Shupak has a review in the 17 Jan. 2013 In These Times of lefty blogger Richard Seymour’s book Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, in which Hitchens is portrayed as “an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, ‘often lacked depth’ and was ‘either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.’” Hitchens, “an intellectual opportunist,” was also “a serial plagiarist who failed to get even the simplest of facts right, was allergic to nuance, and made no scholarly contributions.”… Devastating stuff. Seymour really does take Hitch to the cleaners.

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[update below]

Saw this recently, an engaging, quite good Israeli film by the director of ‘Beaufort‘, that was in competition at Cannes. The pic, as Time Out’s review described it,

concerns the intense rivalry between a father and son: Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik…both professors in the Talmudic studies department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It begins – dramatically – with the worst day in the former’s life, when he has to attend a ceremony welcoming his son into the Academy, an honour he himself never received.

The focus of this “Talmudic feud,” one may guess—and as Indiewire’s review put it—, is on “stuck-up academics.” Le Monde thus labelled it an “intellectual comedy,” following in the wake of Woody Allen and the Coen brothers. And Variety, assessing its commercial prospects, opined that “[t]arget auds will undoubtedly be Jewish viewers and college towns, a not insignificant demographic”… Demographics of which a not insignificant number of my friends and associates are a part.

UPDATE: Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston has a commentary on how “Hollywood’s Jews need to see Israel’s ‘Footnote,’ Oscar or no.” (January 25, 2012)

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Roman Polanski is a despicable sleaze, worse than DSK, but he’s still a great filmmaker (a better filmmaker than DSK was a politician, or even an economist for that matter). His latest is great. It’s a black comedy, based on Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage.” The movie is in fact a play, almost entirely shot in one take inside an apartment in Brooklyn Heights (it was actually shot in Paris, which some slick digital work). The cast is brilliant, all of them, but particularly Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet, who are simply great actresses. It opens in the US next week. Don’t miss it.

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L’Exercice de l’État

English title: ‘The Minister’. This is one of the better films about politics I’ve seen lately, specifically about the functioning of power near the summit of the state (of the French state, but it could be any state). It focuses on a minister of transportation, played by Olivier Gourmet, who comes from civil society—i.e. is not a professional politician—in a government that could be either of the right or the left (the film does not specify), and who arrives in office with high-minded principles but ends up compromising them after being instrumentalized and outwitted by his ministerial colleagues, all political pros. It’s a cynical view of politics and power, to say the least. I found the final quarter hour of the film not too plausible but this did not detract from its overall quality, particularly as the rest of it was more than plausible. It won the FIPRESCI Un certain regard award at Cannes this year and was mostly well reviewed in the Hollywood press (here and here). French reviews, not surprisingly, were tops.

Whatever flaws ‘L’Exercice de l’État’ may have had, it was far superior to another French political themed film that showed at Cannes, ‘Pater’, directed by Alain Cavalier. The entire pic is just Cavalier and Vincent Lindon in a mentor-protégé relationship, with Cavalier as President of the Republic and Lindon his Prime Minister. It was only well into the film that I realized that they were play acting, that it was all a game. I am clearly a naïf, or just clueless. I was quite irritated, couldn’t wait for the film to end, and left the cinema in a bad mood. The pic predictably received dithyrambic reviews by French critics, who fell over themselves with praise. Anglo-American critics who saw it at Cannes were less impressed. Variety thus fired this salvo

The epitome of an in-joke, best appreciated by director Alain Cavalier and his slender cast, “Pater” is a confounding slog for most anyone else. Curiously tapped for a Cannes competition slot, this sloppily improvised film about filmmaking doesn’t bother to make clear whether and how it’s a mock-docu account of the shooting of a French prime minister biopic, as Cavalier cavalierly squanders the chance to represent his meta-narrative in stylistically coherent terms. Dialogue about the great glory of appearing in a Cavalier film does nothing to minimize one’s pervasive sense of “Pater” as the auteur’s excruciating display of unearned arrogance. Cavalier appears directing Vincent Lindon in the P.M. role and gratuitously mentioning that he hasn’t donned a tux since his film “Therese” was at Cannes in 1986. That the pic’s title translates as “Old Man” is odd in that the ostensible star is Lindon, who distinguishes himself by nervously playing a nervous actor playing a nervous politician. Lingering shots of wine bottles and moist truffles on a plate accentuate the feeling of a private party, one to which only the director’s inner circle and least discriminating fans have been invited.

Screen Daily offered this assessment

Occasionally droll and engaging, this often opaque venture ultimately disappears up its own meta-cinematic derrière, and is unlikely to appeal outside a hardcore coterie of Francophile lovers of experiment. Commercial prospects are negligible.

And this from Time Out

…after about half an hour or so it all turns a little smug and inconsequential, rather like an in-joke. Perhaps it will mean more to French audiences…

Perhaps the French audiences that actually saw it, as it was not exactly a box office hit on the banks of the Seine, loin s’en faut. Hollywood Reporter was a little nicer

Witty, urbaine and quintessentially French, Pater is a game two famous adult men play with the camera in an offbeat film closer to documentary than to fiction. Director Alain Cavalier and his friend, actor Vincent Lindon, film themselves as they pretend to be businessmen-politicians campaigning for office. The politics are so tongue-in-cheek and the protags so articulate and funny that the film works – at least for the cognoscenti of France, a small niche that can expand to include film societies and upscale festivals. Everyone else is likely to feel excluded from their private party.

I certainly felt excluded, and had no wish to be included.

Another political film I saw recently—this one straight from Hollywood—was ‘The Ides of March,’ directed by George Clooney. Thought I would like this one—particularly given the cast—but I didn’t. It irritated me almost from the get go. The dialogue was a caricature of the way politicos talk and the portrayal of the dynamics of the campaign—of a Democratic presidential candidate in the Ohio primary—from the inside was what Hollywood thinks happens inside campaigns. Numerous scenes and situations did not ring true or were simply preposterous (e.g. the secret meeting in the bar, the way in which the governor’s endorsement was acquired, the affair of the communications director with the intern, et j’en passe). As for the message of the film, that politics is a dirty business, the only thing I can say is: duh. I paid no attention to reviews of this (which were mostly good, on both sides of the Atlantic).The only critiques I’m interested in are by politicos, who have worked as full-time campaign staffers. So far I have not seen any.

UPDATE: Here’s one good review—i.e. a review I agree with—of ‘The Ides of March’, from The Huffington Post.

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Arthur Goldhammer’s French Politics blog links to an interview on the Eurozone crisis with Peter Hall, professor of European politics and political economy at Harvard. I’ve used Hall’s work in my courses. He’s good.

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It all begins with football

That’s what Walter Russell Mead says, in another very interesting blog post of his (he has several a day), where he argues, in regard to America’s world leadership in higher education, that

college athletics, and especially the high profile football and basketball programs, have done more to make American universities the envy of the world than all the math clubs and science fairs held since the beginning of time. Varsity athletics, and especially all male varsity athletics in football and basketball, are the heart and soul of the alumni fundraising that gives American universities their uniquely deep financial resources…

I never thought of it that way but Mead may be on to something. My alma mater did not have a varsity sports program of any kind—which I thought was perfectly fine at the time—but it did have well-known financial problems—and with a pitifully small endowment—and that only worsened over time. And cash-strapped, resource poor French universities have never heard of varsity sports programs (nor French high schools; the very idea is laughable; what a bizarre Anglo-Saxon practice…). Correlation is not causation. But maybe there’s a little bit of one here.

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The rise of the Fifth Reich?

Walter Russell Mead has a must read post on his blog of this title, on how Germany may use the current crisis to impose its domination over Europe. He begins

Over at the always interesting Small Wars Journal, Tony Corn has a stimulating piece on the implications of the European crisis for world politics.  He sees a clueless German policy establishment recklessly moving toward an unsustainable quest for power reminiscent in too many ways of problems Germany has had in its past.

Germany, warns Corn, is planning to use its financial domination of Europe to remake the EU into an extension of German power — more or less the way that Prussia used the Zollverein to bring northern Germany under its control and then dominated the Bismarckian Reich through a rigged constitutional system.  Once that is in place, he writes, the Germans will continue their policy of deepening relations with Russia at the expense of NATO and transatlantic ties, and end Europe’s embargo on arms sales to China.

And he concludes

In any case it is clear that too many American policy makers and opinion makers live in a bubble of conventional wisdom, comfortable assumptions and complacent ignorance.  Articles like this one are a useful corrective to that complacency, and even readers who end up thinking Corn goes a little over the top will appreciate the guided tour of European strategic analysis he provides.

The article also serves as a timely reminder that even in the Age of Asia, Europe still counts.  The euro crisis is a foreign policy crisis and not just a financial headache.  The future of the European Union matters deeply to the United States, and the level of US discussion about the implications of this crisis for the future evolution of the European project is depressingly low.

If Germany does achieve this domination, how will France and the other EU states react? Voilà la question…

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Egyptian election

I’ve been following the Egyptian election like everyone. There’s been a lot of good journalism and instant analyses by academic specialists and think tanks types on it, as on the Arab revolutions more generally. One analyst I find interesting is Eric Trager, a young American political scientist doing research in Cairo. For his dispatches this week, see here and here.

UPDATE: Trager’s latest dispatch: “A visit with a fundamentalist member of Egypt’s new parliament.” (December 10)

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Intouchables & Polisse

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

This is the runaway box office hit in France this fall. Over 10 million tickets sold in one month, which is huge. The lines for the movie at the many cinemas showing it stretch around the block. It’s a feelgood buddy film, a comedy about a middle-aged zillionaire quadriplegic played by François Cluzet, who lives in a villa in the 16th arrondissement and engages a black banlieue ex-con layabout as his caretaker. The latter is played by Omar Sy, a stand-up comic and actor—in movies I would never think of seeing—of Senegalese origin and who hails from Trappes, a tough Paris banlieue with lots of poor immigrants from the African continent. Sy is popular among the younger generation; my daughter—a senior in high school—and her friends are fans of his and have all seen the movie. Sy will no doubt win a César for his performance and become France’s black movie icon. I thought the pic was funny enough—though the audience laughed more than I did—and touching in parts, particularly at the end (it’s based on a real-life story). French reviews are tops (with some notable exceptions). The movie is full of bons sentiments but is inoffensive, light entertainment. It’s hardly a chef d’oeuvre, that’s for sure.

Maybe I’ve lived in France too long, or have just come to view black-white racial dynamics differently from the way they are outre-Atlantique. Variety’s Jay Weissberg simply hated the pic. Money quote

Though never known for their subtlety, French co-helmers/scripters Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache have never delivered a film as offensive as “Untouchable,” which flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens. The Weinstein Co., which has bought remake rights, will need to commission a massive rewrite to make palatable this cringe-worthy comedy about a rich, white quadriplegic hiring a black man from the projects to be his caretaker, exposing him to “culture” while learning to loosen up. Sadly, this claptrap will do boffo Euro biz.

Ouch! The critic at Hollywood Reporter was less severe, though only somewhat, praising the performances of Sy and Cluzet but calling the film “a shamelessly manipulative French crowd pleaser.” Aïe! Looks like we have a transatlantic cultural clash here. The Variety review mentions the 1980s Eddie Murphy-Dan Ackroyd hit ‘Trading Places’. Now that was a funny movie!

Another French hit movie this fall—both critically and at the box office—is ‘Polisse’, a documentary-like drama focusing on the child protection unit of the Paris police. The Hollywood press liked this one—it won the Prix du Jury at Cannes—far more than the above (particularly here and here, a little more critically here and here). Friends of mine whose taste I respect loved it but my feelings were mixed. The cast was good, notably Karin Viard and the not yet well-known beurette actress Naidra Ayadi, but I thought some of the scenes were overly theatrical and histrionic, or simply did not ring true (e.g. there was one amusing scene of the Ayadi character giving a Maghrebi male immigrant a piece of her mind in dialectical Arabic; what she said was great but I can’t imagine such a thing ever happening inside a police station). One of the Hollywood press reviews compared ‘Polisse’ to the ‘The Wire’—the most brilliant series in the history of television—which I thought was absurd. ‘The Wire’ it is not, not by a long shot. One of the problems I had with the film was the way it portrayed the police, how they go about their work, and the way they interact with the public and deal with persons under interrogation. On the latter, there was often a lack of professionalism, or what I consider to be as such. This may well reflect reality, as I have long asserted that the French police are among the worst in the Western world (I avoid saying the worst only because I lack knowledge on how the police operate elsewhere), but I would need an expert view on this. I will come back to the subject of the French police at a later date, after I have read some of the academic literature on the subject, and particularly this new book.

UPDATE: Le Monde had an item on Friday on the screening of ‘Intouchables’ in La Courneuve, a heavily immigrant populated banlieue in the poor and heavily immigrant neuf-trois. The audience—almost all of African and Maghrebi origin, and mainly young—loved the movie. Thunderous applause at the end. (December 4)

2nd UPDATE: An analysis in Libération argues that ‘Intouchables’ is “a sort of veiled propaganda for the social policies of Nicolas Sarkozy.” (December 6)

3rd UPDATE: I have a follow-up post on ‘Intouchables’ here. (March 15, 2012)

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