Archive for February, 2013

Stéphane Hessel, R.I.P.


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

His death has been the lead story on the news here today and been positively burning up my FB news feed, with a torrent of eulogies all day such that I haven’t seen in I don’t know how long. Stéphane Hessel was a good, decent man and did good, exemplary things in his life. And he remained in top mental and physical shape to the very end (I read his Le Monde op-eds with interest over the years and saw him a few times at public talks, plus watched him, in 2006, racing on the street to catch a bus as it had pulled away from the stop; not bad for a man of 89). The best tribute I’ve seen today, on FB at least, is this one by Patrick Weil.

The reason why Hessel was known to the grand public, including the majority of those on FB who are eulogizing him, is, of course, on account of the pamphlet he signed in 2010, Indignez-vous !, which became a mega-best seller, a veritable phénomène de société (if it hadn’t been for this pamphlet the vast majority of those who are singing the praises of Hessel today would have likely never heard of him). At €3 and 13 pages of text, it didn’t exactly put anyone out, either money or time-wise. Just about everyone on the left read the thing and praised it to the heavens. At 93 Hessel became a star and for those young enough to be his great-grandchildren. But at the risk of being a party pooper, I thought the pamphlet was inane and simple-minded, reflecting a sloppy way of thinking that is all too courant on the bien pensant French left. I was mystified that so many people could take it seriously. The passages on the WWII French Resistance were irrelevant to anything happening today and carried no lessons for anything. The pages on Palestine—the only conflict today that apparently aroused Hessel’s indignation—should have been highlighted on the computer screen and deleted. Sent straight to the poubelle. And the expressions of indignation were accompanied by no plan of action. Expressing indignation was an end in itself. I’m sorry but the pamphlet was worthless. Fortunately there was some push back on the op-ed pages at the time, by Pierre Assouline, Luc Ferry, and others. And in English, Christopher Caldwell had a good takedown.

But like I said, Monsieur Hessel was a good man and whose heart was in the right place. R.I.P.

UPDATE: France Inter political editorialist Thomas Legrand had a good commentary this morning on Stéphane Hessel and his Indignez-vous! (February 28)

2nd UPDATE: Haaretz has an obituary of Hessel here.

3rd UPDATE: Blogger Bernard Girard, in commenting on the legacy of Hessel’s pamphlet, asks what remains of it. Answer: not much.

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Gangs of Wasseypur


This is an Indian film I saw last year and that I’m going to talk about in a minute, but first my picks for tonight’s Oscars. Or, rather, my non-picks, as I have not seen one or more of the films in each on the top categories, so lack the requisite basis to express definitive preferences. I would have normally seen most of the Oscar nominated films but in view of my present medical condition, I have not been able to go to the cinema since mid-January 😦 so have yet to see several of those that have opened in Paris since then. But as I have seen most of the nominees for best picture, here’s my assessment of each:

AMOUR – Very good film. Of course. But as it’s French (and by an Austrian director) and has nothing American about it, it doesn’t belong in this category. Let it win best foreign film.

ARGO – Top notch geopolitical thriller. Enjoyed it from beginning to end. But it is not without flaws and cannot be called a chef d’œuvre by any stretch. So it does not get my vote here.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD – I recognize its merits but it did not bowl me over. And I had a small issue with its implicit celebration of the simple bayou people living in filth and squalor. Modernity does have its downsides but I’ll take it any day over the lifestyle of the film’s protags. Also, the young Quvenzhané Wallis may be impossibly cute and adorable—and no doubt melted many hearts during her live interview sur le plateau on the France 2 evening news when the film opened here—but it would be most premature for her to win the best actress award.

DJANGO UNCHAINED – Thumbs way up on this. Great entertainment, great acting, funny, offbeat, zany… in short, Tarantino at his best. Not having seen ZD30 (see below), this is my pick for best pic. And it’s too bad Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t nominated for best supporting actor, as he’s the man…

LES MISÉRABLES – I have not seen this and likely will not. I toyed with going while in the US over Xmas but couldn’t bring myself to. And the across-the-board panning by critics—and on both sides of the Atlantic—plus the fact that I don’t like musicals to begin with heavily outweighed the gushing, dithyrambic reactions of 20-something female FB friends. But I am 99% certain that even if I were to see it, I would not vote it best pic.

LIFE OF PI – Wonderful movie. It loses out to Django only by a hair.

LINCOLN – Is it possible not to praise to this one to the heavens? It would be most un-PC not to, that’s for sure. I did like the film, no doubt about it, but voting it the best would be an intellectual, cerebral decision, not an emotional, visceral one. And at the risk of sounding the contrarian, Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, while very good, did not light a fire under me. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand…

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK – Entertainment for the Bachelor’s degree and higher cohort. I generally liked it—and it did lend itself to discussion afterward (on the subjects of schizophrenia and bipolarity)—but would hardly rate it the best film of the year. (Pour les lecteurs Français, je trouve bizarre et plutôt idiot le titre qu’on a donné ce film en France, ‘Happiness Therapy’, qui ne veut rien dire, ni en français ni en anglais).

ZERO DARK THIRTY – Haven’t seen it yet, as it opened in Paris after I had my accident (and which has kept me housebound for the past five weeks now). Hope I’ll be able to before it disappears from the salles.

Back to the Indian movie at hand, ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, I’ve been intending to give the head’s up on it since seeing the second part after it opened here in December. In my ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2012’ list, I labeled it the “Best epic two-part movie from India about the interstices of organized crime, politics, corruption, communalism, and weak state institutions in the state of Jharkand.” Wasseypur is indeed a real city in what used to be southern Bihar, which is one of the poorer, wilder, and more lawless parts of India. Instead of describing the pic myself, I’ll let US critics do so. Here’s the intro to the review in Variety

The love child of Bollywood and Hollywood, “Gangs of Wasseypur” is a brilliant collage of genres, by turns pulverizing and poetic in its depiction of violence. A saga of three generations of mobsters cursed and driven by a blood feud, it’s epic in every sense, not least due to its five-hour-plus duration. Helmer Anurag Kashyap puts auds on disturbingly intimate terms with this psychopathic family and its hardscrabble North Indian mining town, while encompassing nothing less than India’s postwar history and deep-rooted problems in microcosm. Riveting…

And Hollywood Reporter last May

An extraordinary ride through Bollywood’s spectacular, over-the-top filmmaking, Gangs of Wasseypur puts Tarantino in a corner with its cool command of cinematically-inspired and referenced violence, ironic characters and breathless pace. All of this bodes well for cross-over audiences in the West.  Split into two parts, as it will be released in India, this epic gangster story spanning 70 years of history clocks in at more than five hours of smartly shot and edited footage, making it extremely difficult to release outside cult and midnight venues. Its bow in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight met with rousing consensus…

And Screen International

Though it runs at over five hours, there’s never a dull moment in this Indian gangland epic by one of India’s hottest indie directors, Anurag Kashyap. Oozing visual style, laced with tight and often blackly comic dialogue, bolstered by tasty performances and a driving neo-Bollywood soundtrack, this Tarantino-tinged Bihari take on The Godfather has what it takes to cross over from the Indian domestic and Diaspora markets to reach out to action-loving, gore-tolerant theatrical and auxiliary genre audiences worldwide.

Those with a particular interest in India and/or who are of a social scientific bent will want to see the film, for the way it deals with communal and caste issues, and of Indian political culture. A couple of things. The film is in two parts, which opened six months apart here, so when I finally saw the second I had forgotten some of the details from the first, e.g. who was who and how they were related to one another. So the two parts should be seen in rapid succession. Also, the first part is superior to the second, which descends into an orgy of violence of bloodletting. This part could have been substantially cut. Mais peu importe. If you can stomach the violence, do see it.


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Camille redouble


[updates below]

This is director-actress Noémie Lvovsky’s hit dramedy of last fall, which has received thirteen César award nominations (French Oscars), tying the César record. The ceremony is this evening, so we’ll see how many it actually wins. The pic is a French version of Francis Coppola’s ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, where the 40-year-old protag, Camille (Lvovksy’s character), is being dumped by her husband—whom she met in high school, so the only man she’s ever been with—for a younger woman and whose life is falling apart as a result, so gets transported back in time to right matters and make it so she never got involved with the jerk to begin with. The movie is thus Camille back in the 11th grade and at home with her parents, though in her 40-year old body. For those who were teens in France in the mid 1980s, the pic is a trip down memory lane. I thought it was pleasant and entertaining enough, though wasn’t as bowled over as were local critics, who positively loved it (spectator reviews on Allociné, while grosso modo positive, were somewhat more tepid). US critics who saw it at Cannes last year were also generally, though not unreservedly, positive (here and here), though I do agree with Variety’s Justin Chang, who called it “an amiable comedy that ultimately goes on too long without taking its back-to-the-past premise in an emotionally satisfying direction.” US foreign film aficionados will be able to decide for themselves whenever it opens outre-Atlantique (I predict they’ll like it).

BTW, the film’s English title, ‘Camille Rewinds’, in an inaccurate rendering of the original. “Redouble” is the third person present tense of the verb redoubler, which means to repeat a grade (in school). Thus, Camille repeats the grade (here, the 11th)…

Two films have received ten César nominations each for tonight’s ceremony, ‘Amour’ and ‘Les Adieux à la reine’ (‘Farewell, My Queen’), both of which I’ve posted on. The first I liked, bien évidemment (did anyone not? I do know one actually, but he’s an outlier, on this as on cinema in general) [SEE UPDATE]; the second I did not like at all. Or, rather, it bored me to tears. ‘Holy Motors’, which I have not seen, received nine nominations. I avoided this when it hit the salles and despite the dithyrambic reviews, as it looked a little too much like David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis, which I absolutely HATED. But a couple of friends whose taste I trust have praised it to the heavens—including the one with whom I saw ‘Cosmopolis’, and who entirely shared my sentiments on it—, so I’ll catch it on DVD at some point.

One film that has received two César acting nominations is Pascal Bonitzer’s ‘Cherchez Hortenese’, with the always good Jean-Pierre Bacri and Kristin Scott Thomas. A “loquacious Gallic dramedy” as one US critic called it, “a pleasant, lightweight piece of entertainment, very French in spirit,” in the words of another. Yes, very French, including the title itself, that refers to a Rimbaud poem, which not a soul outside France (academic specialists of 19th century French literature excepted) will know a thing about. The film was perfectly acceptable, though also entirely forgettable. One little problem I had with it was that the Bacri and Claude Rich characters—who were son and father (and are the film’s two César nominees)—were both fifteen years older—in appearance and real life—than their characters in the film (e.g. Claude Rich looks to be in his 80s in the film, but the maximum retirement age of state functionaries, of which his character is, is 67). It’s a detail but a distracting one.


Two well-received films from the fall got no César nominations whatever. One was Olivier Assayas’s ‘Après Mai’ (English title: ‘Something in the Air’), which is a somewhat biographical reenactment of the director’s political activism as a high school student in the early 1970s. I was really looking forward to this film, as I thought Assayas’s epic biopic on Carlos (the terrorist) was excellent and ‘Après mai’ was billed by critics as a faithful reconstitution of the milieu of the post-May ’68 extreme left (thus the title) and the time period in general. And on this level, the film did succeed (entre autres, if one needs any reminding of the odiousness and loathsomeness of the French police, see the opening scene). But while French critics loved it—and with most US critics also enthusiastic (here, here, and here)—I noted that spectators on Allociné did somewhat less so. And as I’ve said more than once, when there’s a noticeable discrepancy between the appreciation of critics and spectators, go with the spectators. I indeed left the cinema somewhat dissatisfied, though couldn’t quite say why. This US review put its finger on it:

The major problem however, is that most of the characters aren’t terribly interesting. Of the young leads, only one, Armand, is older than 20, and most are in their first acting roles. Assayas seems to have cast as much for look, and for an evocation of the period, as anything else, but sadly most of the actors (bar Métayer and the more experienced Créton) struggle to make much of an impression, falling into a kind of bland prettiness.

This said, I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing it. Il faut le voir et juger pour soi-même. [SEE UPDATES BELOW]

apres mai

The other well-reviewed film was Elie Wajeman’s ‘Alyah’, about a Parisian Jewish layabout drug dealer—I guess they do exist—who decides to get his act together, get away from his family, and do aliyah to Israel, a country he has never visited and has no particular interest in. Interesting theme, enough to get me to see it. US critics, like their French counterparts, gave the film the thumbs up (here, here, and here) but it left me indifferent. Ça arrive.


Back to tonight’s Césars, here are my preferences (not predictions, as most of my choices have little to no chance of winning). (N.B. I have seen all the films in the categories in question except for ‘Holy Motors’, ‘Les Saveurs du palais’, and ‘Quelques heures du printemps’.)

Best film: Dans la maison
Best director: François Ozon (Dans la maison)
Best actor: Jérémie Renier (Cloclo)
Best actress: Corinne Masiero (Louise Wimmer)
Best actor in a supporting role: Guillaume de Tonquédec (Le Prénom)
Best actress in a supporting role: Valérie Benguigui (Le Prénom)

UPDATE: I got it right for best supporting actor and actress but for the rest, it was ‘Amour‘ all the way. How could it be otherwise? ‘Camille redouble’ won nothing. I was pleased to see that Cyril Mennegun’s ‘Louise Wimmer’ won the award for best first film.

2nd UPDATE: FWIW, Ron Radosh—a 1960s leftist turned right-winger—liked Olivier Assayas’s ‘Something in the Air’. (May 20)

3rd UPDATE: Luc Sante has a review of ‘Something in the Air’ in the July 21, 2013, New York Review of Books.

4th UPDATE: The unnamed person whom I referred to as “an outlier [on ‘Amour’] as on cinema in general”—who is, in fact, a good friend—, informs me that several other persons in his entourage—as well as in mine, so he reminds me—were also “not keen” on Michael Haneke’s film. Dont acte.

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george galloway

Son of a bitch, if one doesn’t know American (en français: fils de pute, ordure, salopard…). It is banal and commonplace to call George Galloway an a-hole—the man is utterly despicable and beneath contempt, and has been so forever—but what he did last night at Oxford Univeristy—storming out of a public debate when he learned that one of the participants was an Israeli—was on another level of despicability altogether (see here and here for details, and do watch the video). A couple of comments. What Galloway—an MP in the House of Commons, pour mémoire—did would be inconceivable for a deputy in the French National Assembly, whether on the hard left or extreme right. If a French elected representative behaved in such a way to an Israeli—or to someone of any nationality and on the sole basis of that person’s nationality—, there would be a public firestorm and the elected representative would be formally sanctioned. Secondly, it is inconceivable that Galloway would have acted toward the debate participant if the latter had been anything other than Israeli. This rather strongly suggests that George Galloway is an anti-Semite, pure and simple. Period.

How an MP can get away with such behavior in Britain—despite the condemnations—but not in France is an interesting question, that I will perhaps attempt to address at some point. In storming out of the Oxford debate, Galloway invoked his support of the BDS campaign. I have much to say about BDS—which I do not support, needless to say—and that I will come back to soon.

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That’s Maurice “Morry” Taylor, CEO of the Quincy IL-based Titan Tire Co., who wrote a rather insulting letter to Arnaud Montebourg earlier this month—a copy of which was obtained by Les Echos—, explaining why he wasn’t interested in investing in the money-losing Goodyear plant in Amiens, as the workers there “get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three…” (see here and here). In other words, French workers are slackers. The story is getting a lot play in the French news today, and with everyone naturally indignant. Americans, Brits, and others, for their part, are no doubt snickering and guffawing but it’s bullcrap. Yahoos outre-Atlantique may not be aware but French labor is among the most productive in the world. This is a fact (as for the Amiens Goodyear plant, it is indeed the case that its staff is working three hours a day at the present time, but, as one learned on the France 2 news this evening, this has been imposed by management). Morry Taylor—who, as it happens, was a short-lived GOP presidential candidate in 1996—is a jingoistic ignorant idiot (and that Arnaud Montebourg, in his trenchant reply, told him in so many words). If you have any doubts on this, watch this Titan ad with Morry himself. Quel con.

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My Neighbour, My Enemy

Tripoli, Lebanon, Bab al-Tabbaneh from the Citadel, May 2010 (Photo: Arun Kapil)

Tripoli, Lebanon, Bab al-Tabbaneh from the Citadel, May 2010 (Photo: Arun Kapil)

BBC Arabic aired a 53 minute documentary of this title on January 21st, on the sectarian clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in Tripoli, Lebanon, and that may be seen with English subtitles here. The communities, which respectively inhabit the adjoining neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, have been fighting and killing one another on and off—and presently on—for the past three decades. And it can only get worse as the situation over the border in Syria worsens (the clashes in Tripoli presently being a pale image of what is happening there). One take away from the documentary is that Lebanon, like Syria, is not a nation, if one needed any reminding. The documentary is not too analytical and gives little background as to the origins of the conflict, but is an important document nonetheless. If one wants a sense of where Lebanon may be headed, this is it.

ADDENDUM: A remark: an outsider can hardly support one side over the other in this conflict—in which both parties have blood on their hands in no doubt equal quantities—but the mere fact that the Alawite women are not veiled—and that Alawites are less given over to religiosity than the Sunnis—provokes, for me at least, a slight bias in their favor. I know I shouldn’t think this way but I can’t help it. It’s visceral.

2nd ADDENDUM: I am reminded of a post on this blog from June 2011, in which I quoted the text of a memorandum sent by six Syrian Alawite notables—one the grandfather of Bashar al-Assad—to French PM Léon Blum in 1936, expressing fear of the prospect of Sunni domination. Absolutely worth (re-)reading.

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My blogging consœur Victoria Ferauge has posted an annotated bibliography of recent scholarly works she has read of late on international migration, immigration, and citizenship. It will be useful for those interested in the general subject.

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Gérard Depardieu, tax exile, showing off his new Russian passport in Saransk, 6 January 2013 (Photo: Krasilnikov Stanislav/Itar-Tass/ABACA)

Gérard Depardieu, tax exile, showing off his new Russian passport in Saransk,
6 January 2013 (Photo: Krasilnikov Stanislav/Itar-Tass/ABACA)

[updates below]

The NYT has a bull’s-eye article debunking the notion that countries—or American states—with high tax rates are witnessing an exodus of high earners (the Ayn Randian right’s “makers”) to countries—or American states—with lower tax rates. The notion of tax flight, which is tenacious among neoliberals and the right, is fueled whenever a high-profile rich French businessman or celebrity decamps to Belgium or Switzerland—or in the case of Gérard Depardieu, to that land of low taxes and economic freedom, Russia—, or when the like happens in the US, e.g. with CEOs apparently fleeing high tax California to lower tax states (as Walter Russell Mead gleefully reported on his blog the other day). But as the NYT asserts, it’s all a myth. Money quote

It’s an article of faith among low-tax advocates that income tax increases aimed at the rich simply drive them away. As Stuart Varney put it on Fox News: “Look at what happened in Britain. They raised the top tax rate to 50 percent, and two-thirds of the millionaires disappeared in the next tax year. Same things are happening in France. People are leaving where the top tax rate is 75 percent. Same thing happened in Maryland a few years ago. New millionaire’s tax, the millionaires disappeared. You’ve got exactly the same thing in California.”

That, at least, is what low-tax advocates want us to think, and on its face, it seems to make sense. But it’s not the case. It turns out that a large majority of people move for far more compelling reasons, like jobs, the cost of housing, family ties or a warmer climate. At least three recent academic studies have demonstrated that the number of people who move for tax reasons is negligible, even among the wealthy.

The NYT article links to the 2011 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Tax Flight Is a Myth: Higher State Taxes Bring More Revenue, Not More Migration,” which is a must read on the subject. As for those CEOs and celebrities who do move for tax reasons, all one can say is good-bye and good riddance! Bon débarras ! The number of tax exiles from France is insignificant in any case—a few hundred a year—, as the graph below indicates. A drop in the bucket.


As for those apparently fleeing California, the map below, which dates from 2010, shows both the influx into and outflow from the L.A. area, the latter of which is not only to lower tax states but also to other parts of California and the west coast. In commenting on the map, the right-wing nativist Peter Brimelow speculated that the driver of the exodus from the L.A. could be immigration rather than taxes (of white folks fleeing Latinos and Asians), and which he does suggest in the case of low tax south Florida (next map down). All goes to show that people of an ideological bent will read into data what they want to read into it.



Back to Walter Russell Mead, he had a blog post last week extolling an article in the conservative City Journal on the economic boom in Texas and all the high-skilled workers who are moving there. Mead, who is on a crusade against something he calls the “blue model,” favorably compares Texas to California. Well, if the influx of highly educated workers into Texas continues over the coming years, this will be a positive development in my view, as it will hasten Texas’s transformation from a deep red state into a competitive purple one and, by the middle of the next decade, into a safe blue state. Bring it on, I say!

UPDATE: The Feb. 19th WaPo has an article entitled “Will higher taxes on the rich derail California’s economic comeback?” Answer: No. Money quotes

Yet many economists and some young executives in the state say they don’t worry about that high [income tax] rate chilling growth. Other factors loom much larger for California’s business and economic health, they say, including whether the state can maintain deep pools of highly skilled talent and, in complicated but important ways, the renewed upward march of housing prices in the Bay Area and beyond….

Ask [Sifteo co-founder Dave] Merrill what he worries might disrupt his business in the next year, and he ticks off a list: Political changes in China that might raise the cost of manufacturing products there. A plunge in consumer confidence in America. A rapid decline of big-box retailers that stock his products.

He does not worry, he says, about tax increases…

…many Golden State economists say the tax hikes won’t drive away companies. A Stanford University study last year found no link between tax rates and wealthy Californians’ decisions to leave the state, and the state has a history of tax increases not affecting growth, including under a Republican governor — Ronald Reagan.

“The evidence is, from past tax increases, that it makes very little difference,” said Jerry Nickelsburg, a senior economist at the UCLA Anderson Forecast, who predicts only a slight scrape to state growth from the new rate increases. Since 1967, he added, tax hikes and cuts in the state have had a “second-order effect” on growth.

2nd UPDATE: The website Business Insider has a video interview (June 25th) with Jed Kolko, Chief Economist at the real estate search engine Trulia, who explains “The real reason people leave California for Texas“: cheap housing.

3rd UPDATE: WaPo’s Dan Balz has an article (December 28th) on how “Texas [and] California embody red-blue divide.”

4th UPDATE: Michael Hiltzig, of the Los Angeles Times’s The Economy Hub, has a column (December 22nd 2014) asking “Is the oil crash about to snuff out the ‘Texas miracle’?” It begins

One aspect of the Texas economic “miracle” that made the triumphalism of its promoters so hard to stomach was the way they glossed over one of its key drivers: the oil boom. Now that global oil prices are plummeting — down 50% since the summer — Texas may be facing a less than miraculous future.

Obviously. Read the rest of the column here.

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[update below]

The NYT had a salutary article the other day on a subject practically no one knows a thing about—except for the relatively small number of those directly concerned—, which is the plight of professors who teach in American study abroad centers in Paris—of their precarious conditions of employment, lack of benefits, and low salaries (and which one would presume is the case with American study abroad centers elsewhere as well). The increasing use of expendable, low paid, no benefit adjuncts in American universities is a well-known scandal—and that the article mentions—but is generalized in the study abroad centers of those same universities—and with lower pay to boot—, even though welfare states like France are supposed to offer working people a higher level of job protection and benefits. Not surprisingly, most of the professors interviewed for the NYT article did not wish to be identified by name, out of fear of losing their jobs. An administrator at one of the larger Paris programs declined to comment for the article. Of course s/he declined. What was s/he supposed to say? The responses of those who did comment on the record recounted a certain amount of bulldust. Two of the offending institutions mentioned in the article I know personally (their administrators and administrating faculty—almost all Americans—situate themselves on the political left almost to a man or a woman but when it comes to their actions as administrators and the values that guide them in their relationships with those whom they have the authority to hire and fire, they would be right at home on Wall Street or in any corporate boardroom). And then there are some particularly egregious offenders—real bad apples—the article didn’t mention. Can the situation change? Perhaps, but only if the professors concerned could somehow manage to unionize. Se syndiquer. Bon courage.

UPDATE: AJE has a relevant article (April 11) on “Academia’s indentured servants.”

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In my last post I discussed Tariq Ramadan, the charismatic Egyptian-Swiss philosopher who has authored a slew of books on Islam and being a Muslim in Europe, and with a target audience of youthful European Muslim post-migrants. More interesting-looking—for me at least—is some new social scientific scholarship out on Muslims in Europe, which is reviewed in this fine essay by Timothy Garton Ash in the November 22, 2012, NYRB. The new books are Robert Leiken’s Europe’s Angry Muslims, Jonathan Laurence’s The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims, Martha Nussbaum’s The New Religious Intolerance, and Paul Scheffer’s Immigrant Nations (this one looks particularly interesting), plus the Open Society Foundation’s report on Muslims in 11 EU cities. To these one may add anthropologist John R. Bowen’s Blaming Islam, which is reviewed in this essay in Qantara.de. Bowen has authored two major recent works on Muslims and Islam in France—both first-rate—, so this one will certainly be worth the read.


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Tariq Ramadan (Photo credit: Sia Kambou / AFP)

Photo credit: Sia Kambou / AFP

In my January 27th post on France’s Mali intervention I linked to a tribune by a Senegalese academic, Bakary Sambe, who skewered Tariq Ramadan for his opposition to the said intervention, and where I referred to the celebrated Egyptian-Swiss philosopher as an “overrated bloviator.” I am not a fan of the très médiatique Ramadan, needless to say, though used to have a positive image of him, taking him to be a moderate, modernist Islamic thinker based on numerous op-ed type articles he published over the years in the French press, plus flattering portraits of him that appeared here and there (I’ve leafed through a few of his books, which mainly focus on Islamic thought—not a subject of primordial interest to me—, but will admit to not having read one cover-to-cover). I also did not (and do not) care for some of Ramadan’s high-profile detractors in France and the US (e.g. Caroline Fourest, Paul Berman, Daniel Pipes), who have been engaged in an obsessive vendetta against him for years. And I considered indefensible his temporary banning from France in the mid ’90s—over which I initiated a letter of protest by MESA to then interior minister Jean-Louis Debré—and exclusion from the US during the Bush administration.

But after seeing TR up close—for the first time some five years ago, in a classroom talk—and exchanging a few words with him, I decided that he is a slick, smooth-talking self-promoter, who wows audiences with his affability, eloquence—he can give a one-hour talk in flawless English, with no notes and without skipping a beat—, and dapper good looks but ultimately says little of substance. And his answers to questions on politics and social issues during a Q&A are for the most part langue de bois (e.g. I asked him to give his assessment of the AKP government in Turkey—which had been in power for five years—, to which he responded something to the effect of “What is happening in Turkey is very interesting and we need to follow it closely and see where it’s going”… Not terribly deep or enlightening). He’s a friendly fundamentalist, adapting his discourse to the circumstance. He does not, however, merit the demonization to which he has been subjected by Fourest, Berman et al—he’s not significant enough—, but nor does he merit the celebrity he’s attained beyond his following among youthful pious European Muslim post-migrants (and notably by European policy makers anxiously seeking European Muslim interlocutors). Intellectually and politically speaking, TR does not impress me.

And I do find his apologetics for the Muslim Brotherhood disturbing, not to mention his views and equivocations on a host of other issues.

I bring all this up as I read just the other day a review essay in TNR, dated October 1, 2012, of Ramadan’s latest book, in which he offers analysis and commentary on the so-called Arab spring. Reviewer Samuel Helfont, a Near Eastern Studies Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, was not impressed, taking to task Ramadan’s “problematic views,” “sloppy analysis and inconsistencies,” and “contorted arguments and anti-imperialist platitudes,” all of which are quite simply “not serious.” Very good. Couldn’t have said it better myself, even though I haven’t read the book (and have no intention of doing so).

While I’m at it, here is a tribune I also read recently, by the Franco-Tunisian intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb—a political and philosophical enemy of TR’s (the two have publicly crossed swords)—, “Towards A Global Network of Liberal Muslims,” that was first published three weeks ago in a Bangladeshi newspaper. Excellent initiative.

I mentioned Daniel Pipes as one of TR’s detractors. Pipes is no dummy when it comes to subjects of which he is a specialist but is politically reactionary and a crackpot on a number of issues (e.g. flirting with Obama birtherism, obsessively trying to “prove” that Obama is a Muslim, situating himself well to the right of Netanyahu on the Israeli political spectrum). I generally don’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Which is not to say I don’t read him every so often. The other day I came across an interview with him in the current issue of The American Spectator, on “Islam and Islamism in the Modern World,” and which is surprisingly unobjectionable for the most part. I give it the green light.

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War Witch & Tabu


Two nights ago I watched a documentary reportage on LCP (French C-SPAN) on the Lord’s Resistance Army and its psychopath cult leader, Joseph Kony, which focused specifically on the accounts of soldier-slave children who had been abducted into the LRA, managed to escape, and regain their villages. The documentary was filmed in the southern Central African Republic, where the LRA has been operating (plus the DRC) since it was driven out of Uganda several years ago. A remote region of one of the most remote countries in the world (and with one of the most deliquescent states on a continent replete with such states). One can’t get much more off the beaten track than the CAR. One almost felt the dread of the film crew moving about the area with the LRA lurking in the bush—and despite the escort of CAR soldiers—, not to mention that of the villagers and the children. Unspeakable what happened to the latter at the hands of the LRA, and of the atrocities visited upon the former. Small wonder that Kony is at the top of the list of war criminals actively sought by the ICC in The Hague. US Army Special Forces, despite years of effort, have not been able to get their hands on him. Dismaying.

The subject of child soldiers is a heart-wrenching one. The children interviewed in the LCP reportage—aged 12 to 16—were nice, innocent kids when they were abducted into the LRA—when they were as young as 8 or 9—, where, by their own accounts, they killed innumerable villagers and participated in massacres. They had no choice. How does one deal with children who have been through this? Most of them seemed normal while interviewed but they’ve pretty clearly been psychologically damaged to varying degrees. The child soldier phenomenon has, of course, been present in many conflicts in the world—e.g. Khmer Rouge, Sri Lankan LTTE, Colombian FARC—but it’s mainly an African one. As it happens, I saw a feature-length film on the phenomenon a couple of months ago, ‘War Witch’ (French title: ‘Rebelle’), by Canadian director Kim Nguyen, and that is one of the nominees for best foreign film in the upcoming Oscars. The film is set in an unnamed African country, that I determined could only be the DRC, and, sure enough, that’s where it was shot (in the area around Kinshasa). It opens with the assault on a riverside village by an armed gang, who pillage, massacre, and abduct children, including the 12-year old girl and protagonist, Komona—played by the nonprofessional Rachel Mwanza, who won the best actress award at the 2012 Berlinale—, who is forced to murder her parents. If there were ever evil people in the world, the adult leaders of these armed gangs—who call themselves rebels, or revolutionaries, or whatever—are it. The film follows Komona—who is declared by the gang’s leader to be endowed with supernatural powers—as a child soldier, her budding romantic relationship with a veteran (age 14), an albino boy named Magician, and ultimately what happens to them. It’s a disturbing but powerful film, and important to see, as it deals with a tragically real phenomenon, of killer children but who didn’t choose to be that way. I’ve seen two other films in recent years on child soldiers in Africa—’Johnny Mad Dog‘ (shot in Liberia) and ‘Ezra‘ (set in Sierra Leone)—and would rate this one the best, or at least the one to see (if one wishes to see just one film on the subject). Reviews in the Hollywood press—which are positive—are here, here, and here. French reviews are here.

While I’m at it, I should mention another film I saw late last fall, ‘Tabu’, by Portuguese director-auteur Miguel Gomes, that was partly set in Africa (though which has nothing to do with child soldiers). The pic is divided into two parts. The first part is in contemporary Lisbon and focuses on an elderly woman into her dotage and who has a long-buried secret from her past. The second part is a flashback to the 1960s, of the estate in an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa—the segment was shot in Mozambique—in which she lived and the revelation of the secret, which involved romance. I found the first part of the film confusing and not particularly interesting, to the point where I thought the pic was going to be yet another insufferable film d’auteur that critics love but causes walk outs in the audience. But it really came together during the second half in Africa. One’s attention was riveted to the recounting of the buried memory—and which was narrated, as this part of the film was silent (and, as with the first part, was in black-and-white).  The second part made the film. And my sentiments on this were echoed by a friend, as well as by several critics. As Variety critic Jay Weissberg put it, the film “starts off merely perplexing and winds up insinuating its charms.” Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have, not surprisingly, been gushing over the pic, e.g. here, here, here and here, and French reviews here. Weissberg again: “‘Tabu’ is nearly uncategorizable and strictly for patient arthouse crowds, yet those who wait are likely to come away still puzzled but deeply moved.” I agree. Highly recommended.


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This is what historian Sean Wilentz says Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s revisionist history of the US should be properly entitled. When I first heard about Stone and Kuznick’s book (and documentary) these past couple of months I declined to read about it. Oliver Stone is a fine filmmaker—I’ll see just about anything he does—but when it comes to politics and history, he’s out to lunch. A simple-minded gauchiste given over to conspiracy theories (e.g. his ‘JFK’: good cinema, trash history). But Wilentz has done the dirty work in the latest NYRB and taken Stone and Kuznick’s bullshit to the cleaners. He rubbishes their book. Stone and Kuznick’s interpretation of history was in vogue in the 1970s—when I came of age intellectually and politically—and I adhered to it at the time and into the ’80s, e.g. the argument that the US was responsible for the Cold War (William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber, Joyce and Gabriel Kolko et al). But I evolved intellectually and politically, and left all that behind. But many lefties out there—aging red diaper babies and others, who were stunned and bewildered by the fall of the Berlin Wall—have not. They should read Wilentz’s review.

NYRB 022113

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Good fortune

decompte securite sociale

Last week my blogging consœur Victoria Ferauge—a fellow longtime American resident of France—published a post on her fine blog of an experience she recently had with the emergency room of a French hospital, and in which she made some comparisons between the French and American health care systems. As it happens, I also had an experience with the ER recently, my first ever in France (and only the second in my life, the last in the mid 1980s). Exactly three weeks ago, during the season’s first major snowfall in Paris, I was walking home in the early evening carrying groceries, slipped on the very slippery sidewalk, and fell, and with my foot twisting around in the process. I was in great pain, it was dark, and there was no one around. Fortunately a couple of good Samaritans did see me and came to help. My apartment building was within sight and my wife was fortunately home, so she came with a neighbor to meet me. As I couldn’t walk—I had badly messed up my ankle—, the snow was falling heavily, and I clearly needed to get to a hospital, she called the SAMU. Within fifteen minutes or so an ambulance van of the sapeurs-pompiers (fire brigade) arrived and took me to the ER of a nearby hospital. While in the van a fireman asked for an ID card so he could fill out a form. At the ER the firemen waited with me until a member of the hospital staff came to take charge. They were nice, helpful, and, not surprisingly, professional.

I thought I’d be in the ER for several hours but was tended to fairly quickly, even though the place was full. The X-ray of the ankle showed a fracture, so it had to be put in a cast. The doctor (from the Congo-Kinshasa; hospitals in France would have significant personnel shortages were it not for immigrant staff) wrote prescriptions for paracetamol (which is sold over the counter but if one has a prescription it’s covered by insurance), five weeks worth of anticoagulant injections to be administered daily, and crutches (cannes anglaises). He also gave me the number of a private clinic around the corner from my place and told me to schedule an appointment with an orthopedic specialist there ASAP. I was then told I could go home. There was no discharge process and no one asked for insurance information. The fireman no doubt gave the hospital a copy of the form that had been filled out in the van, but all that contained was my name, address, and DoB. My wife, who doesn’t drive, was fortunately able to get friends who live nearby to traverse the snow-covered streets and and pick me up. I was in and out of the hospital in two-and-a-half hours.

As the temperature remained below freezing for several days I couldn’t venture outside on the icy sidewalks, so the appointment with the orthopedist at the clinic didn’t happen until eight days after the accident. He said more X-rays would have to be taken to determine the seriousness of the injury. The new X-rays indeed showed the injury to be worse than that what the original had indicated, thus necessitating an urgent surgical intervention. So the operation took place and I spent two not particularly pleasant nights in the clinic (it was only the second overnight hospital stay of my life, the previous one 38½ years ago, following an operation on the very same ankle, injured while playing basketball). I was discharged a week ago today and with a new cast on. As this was a private clinic there was paperwork and for which my Carte Vitale and carte de mutuelle were needed. Had I not had these—i.e. if I weren’t covered by the Sécu (which everyone legally living in France is) and didn’t have a mutuelle (which 90+% of the population does)—, I would have received a sizable bill from the clinic. But I won’t be receiving any such bill. I did have to write checks to the orthopedist and anesthesiologist for a total of €180 but some or most of this will be reimbursed by the Sécu and mutuelle after I submit the feuille de soins (my doctors are in private practice—though are conventionné, i.e. registered with the Sécu—and basically set their own fees). As for the prescriptions, the only one so far for which money has had to be forked over was the crutches (€29). The registered nurse who comes daily to administer the anticoagulant shots and take twice-weekly blood tests—a team of three infirmières à domicile, who work out of a neighborhood paramedical clinic that does house calls—is also conventionné, though I’ll have a write a check of around €100 for the service when the process is finished (though that should be mostly or entirely reimbursed by my mutuelle).

So now I find myself at home and with a cast on my lower right leg for another five weeks to go, and with instructions from the doctor not to put any pressure on the leg (i.e. absolutely not to walk on the cast, even lightly). Which, in effect, means that I cannot go outside until I see the doctor again in mid-March. I suppose I could try but I doubt I’d get very far walking on two crutches outside (getting down the four flights of stairs in my building would be tough enough and my wife wouldn’t allow it anyway). I have a prescription to rent a wheelchair—which can be done from selected pharmacies—in case I really need to go out, but haven’t yet done so. So I get around the apartment on the crutches but that’s it. In terms of work, I have an arrêt de travail—which would enable me to receive 100% sick pay—but as I teach university-level courses I didn’t want to invoke it. So I have arranged to teach my classes via Skype, which is working okay so far. It’s not perfect and there are occasional technical glitches but it’s the only solution I have. Thank God for technology.

Being housebound, semi-crippled, and unable to do much of anything apart from sit at my computer, read, or watch TV—I can manage in the kitchen but can’t do any real cooking, and can’t carry anything that won’t go in a backpack—is a bummer but I’m not feeling sorry for myself. Far worse things have happened to many people in the course of human history, including friends of mine and close family members. And it’s only for a few weeks. I think about the good fortune I have had in this happening to me close to home and as a citizen of a rich country with national health insurance. I’ve been thinking about such an injury happening to, e.g., a poor person in a poor country, to a Syrian refugee in a freezing camp in Jordan, or to someone in America without health insurance (and even with insurance, of the deductibles and other fees into the four figures, maybe even more; an American friend here joked that the ambulance in the US would have probably asked for my credit card rather than ID). But, above all, I think of the good fortune I have in having my wife and daughter (age 19). I don’t know what I would do without my family right now. My condition imposes burdens on them but they’re responding with good cheer. I would really be up the creek if I lived alone and didn’t have family nearby. I would dread the prospect of living alone at my age whatever the case, but a debilitating injury or medical condition adds an additional dimension to such a prospect. So, yes, I think my fortune is pretty good.

On comparing the French and American health care systems, my mother (age 82) wrote an account of an experience she had some four years ago when she came to visit me, and that was published as a guest post on the blog of a health policy specialist at Duke University.

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© Maxppp

No national daily newspapers were published in France today, due to an ongoing labor conflict between the newspapers and the SGLCE-CGT, a.k.a. CGT du Livre, which is the trade union/guild that enjoys a closed shop monopoly of representation of the employees of Presstalis, the company that distributes three-fourths of the press in France to news kiosks. The conflict is over a necessary, inevitable plan to restructure Presstalis—which cannot turn a profit even in the best of times and would have gone bankrupt years ago were it not for public subsidies—and that will involve the loss of some 1,250 jobs. Yes, it’s really tough to lose one’s job, particularly these days, but I have no sympathy whatever for the striking militants of the CGT du Livre, who are scandalously overpaid, enjoy privileges and benefits that even cadres can only dream of, and whose union is one of the most selfish and destructive in the world (and I say this as someone who almost reflexively supports union struggles in the private sector). The CGT du Livre is selfish and destructive because it manifestly has no qualms whatever in pushing French daily newspapers and the news kiosks that sell them over the edge into bankruptcy, an edge on which many are presently teetering. The CGT du Livre seeks to maintain its status and privileges regardless of the economic context or changes in technology that are transforming the print media worldwide. If its status and privileges are unaffordable, then let the state (i.e. French taxpayer) pay for them, so the CGT du Livre insists. And if the CGT du Livre’s demands are not met, then it will pull the press and news kiosk owners—many of whom barely make the minimum wage—down with them.

Today’s non publication of the Paris press—all titles of which have been hit by rolling strikes over the past few months—was decided by the newspapers themselves, as CGT du Livre goons are blocking the exits of the printing presses. Such an action would not only be illegal in just about every other country but is in France as well. Riot police could well intervene and remove the goons but decline to do so when so requested by the newspapers—and the latter decline to file lawsuits against the CGT du Livre—, as the risk of worsening the conflict and provoking sympathy strikes (legal in France but not in most other democracies) would be high.

I’m letting off steam here, as I am quite indignant about this and have been so for some time now. I am also using the occasion to link to the analysis of the French press and the CGT du Livre I wrote in August 2011. For background on all this—and in English, in which there is practically nothing—, my post is where to go.

Also indignant, indeed angry, over the CGT du Livre’s strike is economic journalist Dominique Seux, who gave this very good editorial on France Inter this morning.

Le Monde Plantu 06022013

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On the occasion of the Super Bowl—which begins in a couple of hours—here is my “Reflections on American football,” that I posted the day of last year’s game. As I explicated in some detail, American football is a perverse sport in several respects, very much an American exception, and with zero export potential. And I point out that the notion that much of anyone outside the US—and who has never lived in the US—may have any interest in the Super Bowl is a laughable American illusion.

On the subject, here is a pertinent essay I just read by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, who argues that US football is in a “death spiral” and “may eventually collapse.” He makes a number of good points, one being this

it’s such an unforgivable time-suck — a few minutes of action surrounded by oceans of advertising, high-end graphics and idiotic banter

I felt the same thing while watching an NFL playoff game in the US in December. There were so many commercial interruptions—literally every five minutes—that I stopped watching and did something else. I don’t see how even the most diehard fans can put up with the constant breaks in the action and advertising assaults. The game is unwatchable.

Another article worth reading is by sports writer Will Leitch in NYMag from last August, “Is Football Wrong? Even to a devoted fan, it’s getting harder to watch the NFL.”

As for tonight’s game, I know nothing about the 49ers or Ravens and couldn’t care less who wins, but, like last year, I’ll try to watch the whole thing (which for me means staying up to at least 4 AM). What the hell…

UPDATE: Joshua Keating has a piece on the FP website on “America’s Game: Why don’t other countries like football?” (and in which I weigh in in the comments thread).

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French President Hollande arrives in Mali's TimbuktuThat was quite a reception François Hollande received in Bamako and Timbuktu yesterday. Looked like the entire population of the two cities turned out to greet him and as their savior (see here, here, and here). The Baghdad victory parade Bush and Cheney could only dream of. This was hardly a FrançAfrique intervention of bygone days, with the French sending a battalion of legionnaires to prop up a client dictator facing internal contestation. I certainly felt gratified by the scènes de liesse. The Mali intervention has so far gone off without a hitch. Moreover, who would have expected two weeks ago that not only would Timbuktu already be liberated from the yoke of the Ansar Eddine and AQIM psychos but that the French would be in control of Kidal’s airport? Pace my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer, who appears unimpressed, this is a huge success for Hollande and will no doubt modify his image among a certain number of his compatriots (à propos, note the pertinent comments by Massilian and Myos in the thread of Art’s post), not to mention outside France. I doubt we’ll be hearing too many references to “Flanby” henceforth, or cutting remarks on him being indecisive.

There has notably been no triumphalism on Hollande’s part nor any declarations of “mission accomplished.” Everyone knows the thing isn’t over and that the narco-jihadists—who withdrew from Timbuktu without firing a shot—are out in the desert somewhere, likely holed up in the mountain ranges along the Algerian border. Good. Let them stay there. At some point they’re going to have to come out for supplies, which will be rather more complicated for them than it was for the Taliban after 2001, as there is no Waziristan to fall back on. As I pointed out in my last post—and that political scientist Laura Seay reiterated the other day in FP—, northern Mali is not Pushtunistan and Ansar Eddine & Co are not the Taliban (not in number or hegemony over their areas of ethnic strength). It will take a while to eradicate them, or render them a non-threat to the areas from which they have been driven, but it is definitely an attainable objective, particularly if necessary political process between the government in Bamako and the MNLA yields results.

Hollande and defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian—with whom I have been impressed (I didn’t have an opinion on him before the intervention)—have been wise in not setting fixed objectives or timetables, and in saying that France will stay “for as long as it takes.”  And while the rhetoric of African soldiers taking over the job is still there, it is pretty obvious that not only is this not going to happen but cannot happen. Soldiers from the ECOWAS states (Niger excepted) not only have no experience operating in the desert but would  also only make the situation worse, as this analysis in Rue89 suggested. African armies are not only not efficient fighting forces but are given over to extreme violence (committing massacres, mistreatment of prisoners) and raping, looting, and pillaging. If soldiers from neighboring African states took over from the French, it would be a fiasco: they would likely get chewed up by the narco-jihadists and the civilian population of northern Mali would very possibly welcome the latter back as liberators. As for the Malian army, it would not be a good idea for it to enter the Tuareg lands (and one notes that the French did not bring the Malians with them to Kidal). So it’s a French job to the end (and with the Algerians discreetly doing their part).

Early critics of the Mali intervention have been laying low the past week. Algerians on social networks have been reacting with bad humor to Hollande’s victory parade yesterday, so reports Akram Belkaïd. In case anyone didn’t see it, the normally excellent Africanist Stephen Smith had an article on the Mali intervention, dated January 24th, in the LRB. Smith knows the region—not to mention French policy there—better than just about anyone but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the piece. It’s not one of his best. He pulls his punches and avoids taking a clear position one way or the other. I was pleased to note that he makes some of the same points I did in my post of a week ago, particularly on the FrançAfrique, but it is preposterous to suggest that Hollande’s action may have been linked to his domestic political standing and low poll ratings. Not even Hollande’s UMP adversaries have (yet) alleged this. But if Hollande does start to rise a little in the polls, ça ne va pas tarder.


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