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Archive for November, 2013

The New Deal we didn’t know

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For those who missed it, the September 26th NYRB—which I read a couple of months late—had a very interesting review essay by Nicholas Lemann, of Columbia University political scientist Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. Here’s a description of the book via the publisher’s website

A work that “deeply reconceptualizes the New Deal and raises countless provocative questions” (David Kennedy), Fear Itself changes the ground rules for our understanding of this pivotal era in American history. Ira Katznelson examines the New Deal through the lens of a pervasive, almost existential fear that gripped a world defined by the collapse of capitalism and the rise of competing dictatorships, as well as a fear created by the ruinous racial divisions in American society. Katznelson argues that American democracy was both saved and distorted by a Faustian collaboration that guarded racial segregation as it built a new national state to manage capitalism and assert global power. Fear Itself charts the creation of the modern American state and “how a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security”

A Faustian collaboration with the Jim Crow South, which saw its national political power increase during the Roosevelt administration. The South was, of course, not a democracy: it was a reactionary authoritarian order—and that ruled by terror over a sizable portion of its population. But there were also authoritarian impulses among members of northern elites, as Lemann writes: an attraction to Mussolini and, with WWII, an indulgence toward Stalin and the Soviet Union (and to which one may add a certain benevolence toward Hitler and Nazism during the 1930s; on the American romance, as it were, with Mussolini, see also John Patrick Diggins’s Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America). The 1930s and ’40s were lousy decades in the history of the world. At least democracy was saved in America and (northern) Europe.

Reading Lemann’s essay on Katznelson’s book reminded me of the latter’s When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, which was the subject of a review essay by George Fredrickson in the November 17 2005 NYRB, “Still separate & unequal” (which may be viewed by non-NYRB subscribers here). Katznelson is a brilliant social scientist. I took a course with him at Chicago back in ’81, in which I read his City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States; a book that changed the way I thought about American politics. In other words, I learned something from it.

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Snowpiercer & Gravity

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Saw this last night. It’s a futuristic, post-apocalyptic sci-fi pic (set in 2031), a genre I normally avoid with my life. But the reviews in the Paris press are tops—and with Allociné spectateurs also largely giving it the thumbs up—and one of my smart cinephile friends praised it to the heavens, so I decided I had to check it out. And Korean director Bong Joon-ho is a reference: e.g. his ‘Mother’ was very good, ‘The Host’ original and not bad, and reviews of ‘Memories of Murder’, which I haven’t seen, were positive. The local word-of-mouth on this one—the film is in English, BTW—has manifestly been good, as the salle where I saw it—one of the bigger ones at the UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles multiplex—was packed, and a full month after its release. Here’s a description of the story—which is based on a French cult comic series from the 1980s, totally unknown to me until yesterday, called Le Transperceneige—from one (positive) review

The film posits that in the near future [in 2014], the governments of the world, keen to curb global warming, release a substance called CW7 into the atmosphere, designed to lower temperatures. It works, but too well, reducing the planet to a frozen, uninhabitable wasteland. The only survivors are those on board a train [designed as a closed, complete ecosystem] built by eccentric, reclusive transport magnate Wilford [Ed Harris]. The higher-ups live in luxury, while those with second-class tickets languish in squalor at the back, in fear of Wilford’s soldiers, living off daily rations of grim, gelatinous protein bars of questionable origin. Previous revolts have always been quashed, but the one that Curtis (Chris Evans), a stoic rebel with a dark past, his second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell) and wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt) have been cooking up is different: because they’ve found out the location of Namgoong Minsu (Bong favourite Song Kang-ho), the incarcerated, drug-addled security expert who designed the doors of the train.

Unsurprisingly for a film set on a train that never stops, this is a movie of almost constant momentum. Things kick off in the tail section, the revolution’s underway before the end of the first reel, and Curtis and co. (whose ranks also include Octavia Spencer and Ewan Bremner as parents in search of their kidnapped children) keep on pushing to the front without catching a breath. Bong’s screenplay…is structured almost like a video game, with each carriage presenting a different world or challenge, complete with end-of-level bosses like Tilda Swinton’s glorious Victoria-Wood-as-Margaret-Thatcher higher-up Minister Monroe, Alison Pill’s demented, heavily pregnant schoolmarm, and the enigmatic Wilford waiting at the end…

The Hollywood press reviews (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, etc) of the pic are all stellar. The above one (IndieWire) indeed calls it the best science fiction film in at least seven years (trailer is here). I wouldn’t know, as I don’t see too many science fiction films. The main thing I can say about this one is that I hated it. It is the most preposterous, ridiculous, ludicrous, absurd, stupid, inane film I’ve seen this year, and then some. It is also despicable, detestable, and reprehensible, as the film is full of violence, gratuitous torture, and sadism, and with one of the darkest views of human society I’ve seen on the screen in I don’t know how long. I know that one has to suspend belief when it comes to science fiction but here it’s just too much. E.g. the train’s damnés de la terre—who look like 19th century coal miners who haven’t showered in an eternity—in the rear wagons (which look somewhat less comfortable than the sleeping quarters at Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen): How did they occupy themselves for the past 17 years on the train and without suffering muscular atrophy or descending into collective psychosis? Where did they go to the toilet? How is it that they’re not all dead following some kind of pandemic? Little questions that nagged me. And then there’s the larger society on the train, which, one supposes, is to be taken as a mirror image of today’s winner-take-all, finance capitalist order, with the 1% vs. the 99. This is no doubt how many are interpreting the film’s message (or “message”), though this really doesn’t make sense, as not only was the original story written three decades ago, when France was dirigiste, but the ideological world-view of the train’s ruling order is decidedly pre-capitalist, even pre-feudal. And the entrepreneur who invented the train and drives it—the evil genius Wilford—resembles more Ramesses II, or maybe Moulay Ismail, than any crazy leader our current capitalist system could produce. I’m sorry but the whole thing is just so stupid, and from beginning to end. And the ending: oh groan, GMAB. Numerous critics have praised the film’s acting. Oh come on, it’s not that good. Ed Harris is right for his role and Tilda Swinton (who—spoiler alert—is happily killed off halfway through) puts on a good act, but that’s as much as I’ll say for this side of it. I am frankly miffed at the thumbs up from critics and vox populi alike; so I find refuge with the 20% of Allociné spectateurs who labeled it très mauvais or nul.

The film reminds me of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 ‘Brazil’, which rubbed me the same wrong way (and that I dragged my parents to see back then; my father never let me live it down). ‘Snowpiercer’ will likely be the last futuristic, post-apocalyptic sci-fi film I’ll see for a while.

I am, however, not entirely hostile to films of this general genre. E.g. I saw ‘Gravity’ a couple of weeks ago, which I generally enjoyed. But while this one has the science fiction label, it does strive for realism and respect for the laws of physics, taking only a few liberties with the latter and for dramatic effect. That fact that astronauts (e.g. Buzz Aldrin) and other scientists liked it is sufficient recommendation for me. The interest of the film is, of course, visual. It’s really quite impressive on this level (and obviously has to be seen in 3-D). J. Hoberman, writing in the NYR Blog, recommends seeing it on an IMAX screen. I’ve never seen anything on an IMAX screen. I don’t even know what IMAX is (I suppose I could Google it and find out). It seems that there are only two in the Paris area, neither of which are in the city (and one is at Disneyland, which is way out). If it shows somewhere convenient on IMAX, I’ll willingly see it again.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

inside llewyn davis

[update below]

The Coen brothers’ latest, which is out in France (US release date is December 6th). I’ll see anything by the Coen brothers, most of which gets my thumbs up (or way way up: ‘Fargo’ is one of the greatest films in the history of cinema). This one is about a down-and-out folk singer in New York City, in precisely 1961, named Llewyn Davis (actor Oscar Isaac), who has talent—I thought he was good—and wants to make a living with his music—it’s his passion and the only thing that interests him—but can’t, and who is unwilling to make the kinds of compromises that would enable him to have half a chance of succeeding in a musical career. He’s also a mooch and a jerk, who manages to piss off or alienate just about everyone he knows, friends and family included. The guy’s a loser, and who almost revels in his loser-ness. It’s not an upbeat, feel good film, that’s for sure (the friend with whom I saw it found it “depressing”). The film is engaging, though, and very well done. It’s a character study and with excellent acting all around (the Coen brothers are brilliant when it comes to casting and drawing personalities, even in bit parts). The music is also good—and I’m not a fan of folk—as is the delineation of the time period and the milieu of Greenwich Village musicians. But I don’t know what the point of the movie is, of why the Coen bros made it. My friend plus my wife, who saw it a few days earlier, had the same reaction. French reviews are stellar, as are those of Anglo-American critics who saw it at Cannes (where it won the Grand Prix). Certain critics have even called it the Coen brothers’ best film ever. No, it’s not. It’s objectively a good movie but is not a masterpiece. It should, however, be seen by anyone who likes the Coen bros’ œuvre, plus maybe those who are into folk music. So: recommended.

UPDATE: Luc Sante has an essay on the film, dated December 16th, on the NYRB blog.

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I came across this excellent, must read piece on FB yesterday from the blog of King’s College London political economy professor Alexandre Afonso, in which he discusses and documents how the academic profession—in the US and Europe (and to which one may add US academic institutions in Europe)—is increasingly coming to resemble a drug gang in its structure. Money quote:

So what you have is an increasing number of brilliant PhD graduates arriving every year into the market hoping to secure a permanent position as a professor and enjoying freedom and high salaries, a bit like the rank-and-file drug dealer hoping to become a drug lord. To achieve that, they are ready to forego the income and security that they could have in other areas of employment by accepting insecure working conditions in the hope of securing jobs that are not expanding at the same rate.

The trend is structural, increasingly linked to the insider-outsider, winner-take-all evolution of advanced capitalist societies. Which does not mean, however, that it is a fatality and there’s nothing to be done. Unionization is one response, and which is becoming a trend in American higher education (stateside friends of mine who work with the unions and bemoan their decline may look in this direction for promising growth potential).

In addition to Afonso’s blog post, one may read anthropologist Sarah Kendzior’s AJE tribune from last year on “The closing of American academia,” in which she examines how “the plight of adjunct professors highlights the end of higher education as a means to prosperity.” When undergraduate students speak to me about applying to doctoral programs, I advise them not to consider going for a Ph.D. unless they are fully funded (and with generous living stipend) and get into a top school. If not, forget it. Bad investment.

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JFK assassination + 50

jfk_kennedy_assassination_anniversary_1963_2013_postcard Everyone of my general age and older will be recalling today where they were when they heard the news. I was seven-years-old and in Bombay, with my mother, sister, and grandfather (my father was in Mogadishu, Somalia—where we were to live to the middle of the following year—awaiting our arrival several days later). We were staying in a hotel (which was off Marine Drive, so my mother informs me). My grandfather came into our room—it would have been the morning of the 23rd—and broke the news to my mother, who burst into tears. That’s my memory. I don’t remember what I thought myself, as I was only seven.

All sorts of people today will also be raking over the eternal conspiracy theories regarding the assassination. But there was no conspiracy. There was no second gunman. I repeat: There was no conspiracy. There was no second gunman. On this, one may consult Vincent Bugliosi’s definitive, case-closing 1,600 page (plus 1,000 pages of endnotes on CD-ROM) Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Bugliosi settled the matter once and for all in his magnum opus. If one does not read the book—which, given the length, would not be surprising—, one may read his interview on the History News Network, “Why Vincent Bugliosi is so sure Oswald alone killed JFK.” He also lays out his arguments in this two-part video. Among the many reviews of the book—which, in serious publications, were all positive—is this one in the L.A. Times. And Fred Kaplan in Slate had a piece last week—driven by Bugliosi’s book—on “Why the best conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination don’t stand up to scrutiny.” I’m sure various persons will wish to dispute me on this but they’ll be wasting their time, as I will simply refer them to Bugliosi’s arguments in the above links. Sorry, case closed.

ADDENDUM: A remark: Conspiracies do happen, of course, but in polities with a semblance of democracy, a free press, and the rule of law, they are eventually uncovered. Conspiracies necessarily involve numerous persons and sooner or later—and usually sooner—one of them is caught or spills the beans. It’s hard to keep a secret even among two or three people, but if lots are in on it, it’s nigh impossible: unless one believes that agencies of the US government—which is the direction most JFK conspiracy theorists gaze in—function like a Sicilian village, with dozens of people respecting some kind of omertà (and enforced, as omertà is, with the fear of certain violent death if one talks). If one believes that this is a reality inside the US government, one will believe anything. To believe that the US government functions this way this signifies that one lives in la-la land. Personally speaking, I won’t go there (there are, of course, contractual obligations for secrecy in spy agencies—though with the inevitable whistle blowers and bean spillers, e.g. Edward Snowden—but not for manifestly criminal conspiracies, let alone murdering a president!). If there had been a conspiracy to kill JFK, we would know about it by now. The identities of the top conspirators would have been revealed, if not through regular law enforcement, then in the hundreds of thousands—probably even millions—of pages written on the assassination. But if the supertankers of ink that have been spilled on it over the past five decades have not uncovered the mystery, this is rather strong prima facie evidence that there is no mystery, at least not on the question of conspiracy. As for the famous second gunman on the grassy knoll, there would have been all sorts of immediate eyewitnesses, and even more if he had fled the scene carrying his rifle (rifles being kind of conspicuous). And if he had dumped the rifle, well, it would have been found pretty quickly. Soyons sérieux. This is not to say that the entire matter has been settled and that there are no mysteries left. There are still mysteries, or unanswered questions, as smart political scientist Larry Sabato said yesterday in this too short video on the WSJ website. There are over a thousand CIA and other documents on the affair that remain classified and could shed light on a number of questions, e.g. on how much the CIA knew about Oswald, which was possibly more than has been admitted. Who knows what’s in those documents. Probably Cold War spy stuff, names of double agents, that sort of thing. But seriously, if those classified CIA documents contained the smoking guns in a conspiracy at the highest levels of the US government, it stands to reason that the conspirators—presumably including the CIA itself—would have scrubbed those document files clean. Destroyed the evidence. Shredded, pulped, and incinerated it. Duh. onion-jfk reclaiming history

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La France qui gagne

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

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

[updates below]

The France that wins. We haven’t heard that one in a while. For anyone who doesn’t live on this planet—or who lives outside France and doesn’t follow international soccer—the French national team played one of the greatest games in its history last night at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, beating the Ukraine 3-0 to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next June. Hardly anyone dared to imagine such a result. In round 1 of the qualifying phase, Les Bleus (logically) finished second to Spain in their group, so went to the two-game playoff (matched against the Ukraine, which finished second in its group; fortunately Les Bleus didn’t draw Portugal). Last Friday’s game in Kiev was a disaster. Les Bleus were mediocre, losing 2-0. The Ukrainians were better and just wanted it more. To win the ticket to Brazil—and avoid the bitter disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup (for the first time since 1994), not to mention humiliation of being the sole big European soccer nation to suffer elimination at this stage—Les Bleus had to win with at least a three goal spread. No team had ever come back from a two goal deficit in a European World Cup qualifier playoff. The statistical probability of Les Bleus surmounting it was exactly 19%, so it was said. It’s really hard to score three goals in a soccer game and shut out the opposing side while one’s at it, and particularly when up against teams of the Ukraine’s quality. But Les Bleus did it (highlights here; on Karim Benzema’s apparent offside goal: as he was robbed of a goal several minutes earlier on a manifestly bad offside call, it was legit he wasn’t called on this one). It was an amazing spectacle. One for the ages. The team rose to the occasion as we have not witnessed in a very long time. I’ve seen just about every game the French national team has played over the past fifteen years that counted for something—World Cup, European championship, and the qualifiers for these—and cannot recall such a performance apart from the 1998 victory against Brazil. And such an explosion of joy at the end of the game, on the field and in the stands.

So we likely won’t be hearing anymore about the French public’s famous désamour of the national team, with its collection of spoiled, overpaid, selfish, antipathetic jerks, or so it has been said of them. The ignominy of the 2010 South Africa fiasco—and the ugly, illegitimate playoff victory against Ireland the November before—will likewise be relegated to the memory hole. On this I differ with the Équipe reporter quoted at the end of Scott Sayare’s good NYT dispatch on last night’s game. E.g. see here.

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It was also nice that Algeria qualified last night, beating Burkina Faso, to which it was a goal down coming into the game. La France et l’Algérie ensemble au Brésil. C’est beau. France, Algeria, and Portugal supporters were celebrating together on the Champs-Elysées last night. It’s going to be a great lineup for the tournament in Brazil. All the major European soccer powers will be there: Spain, Germany, Italy, England, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands (too bad we won’t be seeing Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimović). The qualified teams from Africa—Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast—are the best from that continent. The ones from Asia—Iran, Japan, South Korea, and Australia—are just right. And Mexico and Uruguay are sure to qualify in their playoffs today, so every logical country from the Western Hemisphere will be present. C’est bien.

Remark: the French hard right—so nationalistic and supposedly loving of France—is reacting with predictable bad humor to last night’s victory. Radio silence on Marine Le Pen’s Twitter feed, as on those of the FN and the reactionary Valeurs Actuelles (which has become the leading media mouthpiece of the hard right). And then there was this tweet from UMP hard rightist Lionnel Luca (and he had others of the genre). How low of him. The hard and extreme right just hates it when a French team loaded with African and Maghrebi-origin stars wins (and, adding insult to injury, with the star player of regular French stock—good ol’ boy Franck Ribéry from Boulogne-sur-Mer, who’s as working class as one can get—being a Muslim convert and with Algerian-origin wife). Well, they just need to get over it. Voilà, c’est la France d’aujourd’hui et de demain. Il faut s’y faire.

UPDATE: The FN did issue a communiqué on the game the day after. The Frontistes, who are clearly not exulting in the victory, continue to be obsessed with the “Black, Blanc, Beur” composition of the team, which no one outside the far right brings up anymore. Celebrating la France de toutes les couleurs is so 1998. It’s now banal. Except for the far right.

2nd UPDATE: Mamadou Sakho did indeed score the third goal (at the 72nd minute), as the video here makes clear. It wasn’t a Ukrainian own goal, as was initially reported (including in the NYT article linked to above).

3rd UPDATE: A poll taken over the two days following the game indicates that the désamour of the French public for the team has not dissipated and despite its exemplary performance on Tuesday night. Peut-être. I’ll need to see more evidence of this, though which we won’t have until after the tournament next June-July (as Les Bleus won’t be playing any games that count until then). If a continued désamour persists—and despite an honorable performance in Brazil—, then this will indicate that the problem is more on the side of the public than the team, that large numbers of Frenchmen and women do not relate to a national team heavily comprised of players of Maghrebi and African immigrant origin, and who issue mainly from the cités in the banlieues. On verra. (November 23)

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

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

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

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

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François Hollande 23 février 2013 AFP PHOTO POOL THIBAULT CAMUS

He’s sinking in the polls, in case anyone didn’t know: a 21% approval rating in the last IPSOS baromètre, 20% in IFOP’s, and just 15% in Le HuffPost’s latest YouGov poll. 15% may be too low, implying that President Hollande is losing support in the hardcore Socialist base, though one does have difficulty these days finding even people on the moderate left who will put in a good word for him or cut him some slack. The Leonarda affair and suspension of the ecotax were the proverbial gouttes d’eau, causing even those—myself included—who were cutting Hollande lots of slack to throw up their arms in despair. Jean-Marie Colombani, writing in Slate.fr, argues, however, that all is not lost, that there are still reasons to believe that Hollande could succeed. Peut-être. But Eric Dupin, also in Slate.fr, observes that unpopularity is an incurable political disease, meaning that Hollande is politically done for. His goose is cooked. Rien à faire.

I would like to agree with Colombani but unfortunately think Dupin is more on the mark. If any president or prime minister in an advanced democracy has sunk to the low 20s in the polls and then proceeded to win reelection a few years hence—which, in a French (or American) presidential election, means the incumbent reaching a minimum 48% approval rating—, I am not aware of it. President Mitterrand dropped to the mid 30s (in the TNS-Sofres monthly baromètre) halfway through his first (seven-year) term but started to climb with the first cohabitation, reaching 60% by the 1988 presidential election. President Chirac, for his part, hit the low 30s a year-and-a-half after winning office in 1995 but still had 5½ years to go on his term—and in view of his mediocre mid-low 40s approval rating in early 2002, would have likely lost the election that year had it not been for the accident of the 21 avril. As for President Sarkozy, I had a blog post exactly a year before the first round of the last election in which I categorically asserted that if his poll numbers—then in the low 20s to low 30s range—did not rise significantly by the end of the year, he was toast in ’12. And he was indeed toast.

Barring some unlikely external mega-event—a French 9/11 or something of the sort—the only way Hollande’s poll numbers can possibly rise into the range in which reelection is conceivable is with a blast of economic growth—at least 2.5-3% per annum—beginning in late 2015 at the latest and with concomitant drop in unemployment, such as occurred in the 1997-2000 period. No economist or any other halfway informed observer believes such a thing is in the realm of the possible. So Hollande is likely to remain unpopular for the rest of his term: with negative numbers from the totality of the right and center—not even a portion of which has ever given him the thumbs up—and voters to the left of the PS (Front de Gauche, etc). The left is certain to take a hit in next March’s municipal elections, though this may not be as severe as in 1983 (or 1977 for the right, when voting behavior in municipal elections was more driven by national politics than it is today). On verra. But the left is going to get massacred in the May 25th elections to the European Parliament, with the Socialists likely to finish third or even fourth: behind the UMP, FN, and possibly UDI-MoDem. That will be the logical moment for Hollande to do a remaniement: to shake up his government and appoint a new prime minister. Jean-Marc Ayrault is a good man—a decent politician of the moderate left—but is too much like Hollande. And he projects even less authority. He’s become inaudible. I can’t think of a Fifth Republic PM whose stature was so shrunken, and only into the second year of his term. And his poll numbers are as low as Hollande’s. Hollande is apparently not considering replacing him—the two work very well together—but after the European elections that probably won’t be tenable, particularly if the PS’s score is below that of Michel Rocard’s list in 1994 (and which scuttled Rocard’s presidential ambitions for the following year).

Only two alternatives to Ayrault make political sense, however: Martine Aubry or Manuel Valls. No one else could possibly make a difference in Hollande’s or the PS’s fortunes. If it’s Aubry, it will mean a sharp change in economic policy—a tack to the left and away from deficit reduction—and with her governing almost as  a co-president. Or as a PM in a cohabitation, which is what it would be in effect (as one cannot conceive of her agreeing to anything less). Don’t know if Hollande would be willing to do this, or how he would deal with Berlin, Brussels, and the inevitable tensions—if not outright crises—that such a changement de cap would provoke within the European Union. If it’s Valls, the economic course would remain as is but the change would come in other domains (e.g. security, immigration)—and which would intensify the defiance of the significant portion of the left that despises him (as a sort of Sarkozy of the left’s rightest flank). And it too is unlikely that he would go to the Matignon without guarantees of a carte blanche from Hollande to be a veritable chef de gouvernement, i.e. not executing feuilles de route sent down from the Elysée. So much for Hollande’s authority, of which he is presently accused of having so little. So who knows if any of this will come to pass (or if Aubry or Valls will even want the job in view of their future presidential ambitions).

So that will leave the aftermath of the March 2015 regional elections, in which the left will suffer somewhere from a major setback to an outright debacle. At this point, Hollande will have but one choice—and this is what I’m leading up to, that is the whole point of this post, which has been on my mind the past couple of days—, which is to dissolve the National Assembly and go to early legislative elections. By this time the (increasingly unruly) Socialist group in the Assembly may be down to 289 deputies (50%+1) or even below—subsequent to defeats in élections partielles—and with the government dependent on the dozen-odd PRG and divers gauche deputies plus the écolos, the latter of whom may be in quasi-opposition by then. If Hollande dissolves the Assembly and goes to élections anticipées—declaring that the successive election results and near loss of a majority in the National Assembly have left him no other choice—, the Socialists will of course suffer a defeat, but which would happen in 2017 anyway. Better to put them out of their misery earlier rather than later. And thanks to a possible sursaut on the part of left voters, the defeat may perhaps be more on the order of 1986 (respectable) than 1993 (catastrophic). And also thanks to the near certainty of numerous triangulaires (and even quadrangulaires): of three- and even four-way second round contests, with the PS (and allies), UMP, FN, and UDI-MoDem. The FN will be present in force but also the Jean-Louis Borloo-François Bayrou UDI-MoDem “l’Alternative,” which will presumably field a full slate of candidates and not make first-round deals with the UMP. The outcome could well be uncertain—in view of an impressive first round score for the FN, the interest in the UDI-MoDem alliance as an alternative for centrist-leaning PS and UMP voters, and the droitisation of the UMP and internal tumult and programmatic incoherence caused by this—and with the UMP failing to win an outright majority.

If the UMP were to need the UDI-MoDem to govern, this would offer interesting possibilities for Hollande in appointing a prime minister (someone he could work with, e.g. Bayrou or Borloo, or a UMP moderate à la François Baroin or Bruno Le Maire). But if the UMP won an outright majority, then he could appoint Jean-François Copé, after which the bras de fer would begin. Whether the cohabitation were consensual (relatively) or conflictual, Hollande’s stature and poll numbers could only go up. Left voters would reflexively rally behind him as he faced off with the right. And he would be in better shape going into the 2017 election—were he to decide to run—than otherwise. As for the PS—which is politically brain-dead and with no clue as to what it stand for or wants—, its fortunes would no longer be tied to that of President Hollande. It could begin the process of putting itself back together (and maybe seriously taking up Manuel Valls’s 2009 suggestion that it change its name, which will enable a serious future opening to the center). Breaking with the current electoral calendar—as established in 2002 with the quinquennat and coincidence of the legislative elections immediately following the presidential—would restore the relationship of the President of the Republic and the National Assembly to what it was intended to be in the Fifth Republic. And it would mark an end of the insidious hyper-presidentialization of the political system that was the unintended consequence of the quinquennat and electoral calendar. So if François Hollande dissolves the National Assembly in 2015 or early ’16, he will be doing a favor not only for himself and the PS but also for the French political system.

This scenario may, of course, not come to pass but I’m betting it will. Eric Dupin, in his aforementioned article, mentioned the possibility of dissolution but didn’t develop it. Other commentators and analysts have likely advanced the hypothesis but I haven’t seen anything. So unless someone else has already elaborated the scenario, you heard it here first.

As for why Hollande’s presidency has gone off the rails—why he has sunk so low in the public’s estimation—, I’ll come back to that at a later date.

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A Death in Jenin

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Adam Shatz’s long awaited article on “The Life and Death of Juliano Mer-Khamis” is finally out, in the latest issue of the LRB. I say “finally out” as I’ve been discussing the subject with Adam for a long time now and read the first draft of the article last month, which was over 18,000 words. The published one is a little over half that, though Adam assures me that nothing significant was lost in the editing. (If one does not know who Juliano Mer-Khamis was, see my blog post here, which I wrote the day after his murder 2½ years ago; also see here and here). In addition to being a brilliant, exceptionally well-written article—as one has come to expect from Adam—, it is one of the most important investigative reports on Israel-Palestine that I’ve read in years. One takes as a given that the Israelis are a**holes in the Palestinian territories—that their occupation is loathsome and despicable—, and nothing that Adam writes alters that given. What is important in his article is what the militant engagement of Juliano Mer-Khamis with the Palestinians and his murder in Jenin says about Palestinian political culture and future prospects of coexistence between the two peoples. The picture is complex but anyone who still dreams of peace and maybe eventual harmony in I-P will not find cause for optimism in Adam’s article. I’ll come back to the subject in more depth soon but, in the meantime, do read the article.

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[update below] [2nd update below]

This is my first post on the NSA/Edward Snowden brouhaha, which I have admittedly not been following extremely closely. Lots of headlines, a newspaper article read to the end here and there, reports on the TV and radio news, that’s about it. Certain gauchiste FB friends have gotten all bent out of shape over the affair, poussant des cris d’orfraie, announcing that they will henceforth be encrypting their emails (as if anyone could care less what they have to say about anything), etc etc. I abstractly understand that there may be constitutional and civil liberties issues at stake here but don’t personally feel concerned by it, as I just don’t care if the NSA is logging my emails and records of my phone calls along with trillions of others. A couple of grains of sand on a long stretch of coastline. I have no illusions about the potential—indeed the present-day ability—of the US government to behave arbitrarily and/or in a repressive manner, but don’t see it being realized through electronic surveillance. And what does privacy mean nowadays anyway? If I have anything really confidential to tell someone, I’m certainly not going to do it via email or social networks, NSA PRISM or not. I’m sorry but Big Brother just doesn’t worry me.

But I have now been compelled to read into the NSA/Snowden business, as a couple of students in a Master’s course I teach will be doing a class presentation on the subject tomorrow (they proposed it). So I have had to inform myself and particularly on the European angle—being in France and the students French—and the revelations of the NSA’s surveillance of Angela Merkel’s and other European leaders’ phone calls. Of the numerous articles and analyses I’ve read on this aspect of the affair, the one I’ve found the most useful is by ex-CIA case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht in TWS, “When to spy on our friends: The NSA in Europe.” As he argues, it is not only normal that America should spy on its friends—as the friends spy on America—but there are excellent reasons to do so, and this includes eavesdropping on the communications of allied leaders, who may be engaged in their own dealings, sometimes shady, with non-allies (e.g. Gerhard Schröder with the Russians); pursing particular policies that may collide with those of the US; or may be penetrated themselves by enemy intelligence services (remember Günter Guillaume?). European allies know this, which is why their publicly indignant reactions after the latest revelations are to be taken with a grain of salt.

Gerecht also had a good piece in June on the American side of the issue, “The costs and benefits of the NSA: The data-collection debate we need to have is not about civil liberties.” Gerecht nails it in these two articles, IMO.

Jennifer Sims of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs echoes Gerecht in a good piece on the Foreign Affairs website last week, “I Spy… Why allies watch each other.”

French physicist and former research director at the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique, Jacques Villain, had a salutary op-ed in the October 25th Le Monde, informing the reader that “Les Etats-Unis n’ont jamais cessé d’espionner la France.” But France, so he reminds us, has seriously spied on the United States as well. Ce qui est tout à fait normal.

It is also tout à fait normal for Europeans and everyone else to try to protect themselves from the NSA’s mega-vacuuming of their metadata—as this analysis in today’s NYT explicates—, notably by working to break America’s near total control of the Internet.

Stephen Walt had a good post on his Foreign Policy blog last week as to whether or not the US is getting its money’s worth with the NSA spying—that can justify the massive resources consecrated to it (and that offsets diplomatic problems generated by revelations of the NSA’s reach). And last June Walt had a blog post spelling out “The real threat [to Americans] behind the NSA surveillance programs.” Ordinary Americans may not have much to worry about but potential government whistle blowers, investigative journalists, and the like may indeed need to worry.

Eric Posner, in a review essay in TNR, “Before you reboot the NSA, think about this: The paradox of reforming the secrecy-industrial complex,” ponders how to implement effective institutional oversight of the NSA. The book under review is Princeton political scientist Rahul Sagar’s Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, which looks to be the one to read on the topic.

In this vein, Jeffrey Rosen wrote an op-ed for Le Monde, “PRISM, un défi pour le droit,” on NSA espionage and what judicial recourse may be available to French citizens.

Affaire à suivre.

ADDENDUM:  It turns out that I had a post on the NSA affair back in July. Totally forgot about it.

UPDATE: Le Monde has a page 2 article, dated November 29th, entitled “La France, précieux partenaire de l’espionnage de la NSA.”

2nd UPDATE: The National Interest has a piece, dated December 4th, on “Why we must spy on our allies.” The author, Elbridge Colby, served with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and with the President’s Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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Blue Is the Warmest Color

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I can’t remember the last time there was so much buzz over a French film outside France, and beginning four months prior to its commercial release no less. I was obviously not going to miss this one and not only because it won the Palme d’Or. I’ll see anything by Abdellatif Kechiche, though came to have mixed feelings about him as a director after his 2010 ‘Vénus noire’ (Black Venus). His first three films—’La Faute à Voltaire’ (Poetical Refugee), ‘L’Esquive’ (Games of Love and Chance), and ‘La Graine et le mulet’ (The Secret of the Grain)—were great, and particularly the latter two, which were among the best French films of the last decade and richly deserved their Césars. ‘L’Esquive’, which came out a decade ago, remains the best cinematic treatment to date of the teenage offspring of Maghrebi immigrants in France and the subculture of the peri-urban cités. ‘La Graine et mulet’ is first-rate on this score as well, and launched the career of the fine actress Hafsia Herzi to boot. Everyone I know who saw this one thought it very good, with the only point of disagreement being its 2 hour 20 minute length (it could have perhaps been cut by 20 minutes or so but this wasn’t a problem IMO). But I strongly disliked ‘Vénus noire‘, as did my wife, and was mystified by the top reviews it received here (though the reaction of Allociné spectateurs was more tepid). At 2 hours 45 minutes the pic was interminably, insufferably long for what it was. It could have worked had it been an hour or more shorter but its unjustifiable length turned it into a voyeuristic freak show, which provoked a certain malaise (with us at least), as the (true) story turned out to be about the lubricious fascination of 19th century European men with the outsized posteriors and extended labias of southern African women. My wife thus decided that Kechiche was a pervert and has not lost an opportunity to reassert this whenever his name has come up over the past three years (I’m agnostic on the question). She even decided ex post that the belly dancing scene in ‘La Graine et le mulet’—a film she liked when we saw it—was prima facie evidence of Kechiche’s esprit tordu in regard to women…

So when ‘La Vie d’Adèle’ (its title in France, though the English one—a direct translation of the graphic novel on which the film is based—makes more sense) won the Palme d’Or in May and its subject—the lesbian relationship between two young women, and with explicit sex scenes—became known, this was the clincher for my wife. No way was she going to see it. The brouhaha that ensued almost immediately after the Palme d’Or was awarded—of Kechiche’s allegedly fascistic directorial style and of being an insufferable jerk with his actresses and just about everyone under his authority more generally—didn’t help (for an amusing pictorial critique of Kechiche’s directorial style and work methods—put together by members of the technical crew—see here; though, in Kechiche’s defense, he is by no means the only major film director in history to have terrorized his actresses during the shoot). The film’s full 3 hour length was also off-putting: like, who does Abdellatif Kechiche think he is to make films so long and demanding of the audience’s time? With his Césars, he obviously has carte blanche from his producers to do whatever he pleases. The guy’s clearly become a megalomaniac. But the film was praised to the heavens by Steven Spielberg and his entire Cannes jury, followed by the great majority of critics on both sides of the Atlantic (here and here). So after unsuccessfully trying to persuade my wife to reconsider her refusal, I went to see it by myself.

The verdict: it’s a very good film. And totally engrossing. At no point during the three hours did I get impatient or look at my watch. The two actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos (who plays the younger character, Adèle) and Léa Sedoux (Emma, several years older), are absolutely excellent. What performances! They occupy the entire film, and particularly Exarchopoulos, who is in almost every scene. Elle crève l’écran. They more than deserved their joint best actress award at Cannes. And their love story is brilliantly developed. One feels the intensity. The portrayal of their respective worlds is also pitch perfect: Adele’s high school and her peers (the film is set in Lille), her sexual coming of age and discovery of her preferences in this domain, Emma’s artistic milieu, and their respective families (middling class for Adèle, highbrow intello for Emma). Through the 2 hour 15 minute mark I was calling the film a chef d’œuvre. But it ran into problems in the final 40 minutes or so, when Emma fell out of love with Adèle. This was by the numbers and not convincing to me, particularly the critical scène de ménage, which was overly theatrical and not believable. Couples do not break up like this after several years of romantic involvement and cohabitation. Their reunion in the restaurant and how it unfolded also stretched credulity. And too much was made of the social class differences between the two and their respective career choices; in a real life relationship, this wouldn’t be so big a deal. And I was puzzled by the way it ended. But all this does not detract from the pic’s overall quality; all the unsatisfying final quarter did for me was turn what could have been a masterpiece into merely a very good film.

As for the seven-minute sex scene, which has received undue attention in the US (more so than in France), it’s the most explicit I’ve seen in a mainstream film in a while. It’s borderline pornographic, though isn’t really. The scene, which was skillfully shot, has its place in the film and is not gratuitous, as it’s about passion and love rather than raw sex (though it’s that too). The question that has been posed is how realistic it is, if this is how lesbians really make love. The dominant view, so it appears, is that it’s a male fantasy of women having sex, of what lesbian sex must be like (e.g. here, here, and here; trailer is here). But one of my colleagues of the younger generation told me that lesbian friends of his thought the scene was spot on accurate. I wouldn’t know. Whatever the case, I’m interested in hearing the reaction to the film from younger women I know, and await, in particular, the assessment of my 19-year-old daughter and her best friend (NYT critic A.O. Scott, in scoffing at the ridiculous NC-17 rating—and which some US theaters are overtly ignoring—, writes that his 14-year-old daughter has seen the movie twice; why not?). But I recommend the film to all those who, knowing what they’ll be in for, have the slightest interest in it. In my book, it’s a must see. [UPDATE: The December 19th NYRB has a review essay of the film by Lorrie Moore, who teaches English at Vanderbilt. Her numerous insights—and notably of the long sex scene—are very interesting.]

Some brief comments on other recent French films on love and/or sex that I’ve seen over the past few months.

‘Jeune & Jolie’ (English title: Young & Beautiful), by François Ozon. Ozon is a valeur sûre, having directed some of the best French films of recent years, notably ‘In the House‘ and ‘Potiche‘. Had he not been the director of this one, I likely wouldn’t have bothered with it, and despite the inevitable buzz generated by its subject: a 17-year-old named Isabelle (played by the rather beautiful 22-year-old newcomer actress Marine Vacth; A Star Is Born…), from a bourgeois family in Paris’s beaux quartiers, a senior and good student at Paris’s most elite high school (Lycée Henri IV), and who, for inexplicable reasons, decides to become a call girl in her after school hours, making contact with moneyed clients via the Internet and rendezvousing in hotels or private apartments. Luis Buñuel’s ‘Belle de jour’ naturally comes to mind. Isabelle’s sexual awakening is depicted early on but her interest on this score in within the teen norm. She is not portée sur la chose, hardly needs the money, is socially well-adjusted (though does not tell any of her friends about her new after-school activity), does not come from a broken family (her parents—both professionals—are divorced but live near one another, and with her mother remarried), and has a good rapport with her 13-year-old brother. And knows—in principle—the potential dangers involved in meeting strange men in those circumstances. On the face of it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And when she is inevitably found out—her family is naturally shattered by the revelation—she is unable to explain why she had done it. So I was particularly interested in the reaction to it by my daughter and her BFF, who saw it after I did, as they’re Parisians of almost the same age as Isabelle and with very similar physiques (and my daughter’s BFF is, like Marine Vacth, a fashion model, and  even made it into the NYT recently; see here, third photo down on the left). Their reaction was somewhat negative, as they found Isabelle’s choice incomprehensible, repelling, and not credible for a girl of her social class. My explanation—which they did not contest—was that teenagers, even from the well-to-do classes, do crazy, reckless things and for which they do not measure the risks, e.g. consume hard drugs, get shitfaced drunk, drive cars way over the speed limit (mainly guys), mutilate their bodies in various ways (mainly girls), have sex without contraception, engage in petty crime (e.g. shoplifting) for no rhyme or reason, and that they are unable to rationally explain. The movie received good reviews both in France and from Hollywood press critics, who saw it at Cannes (here, here, and here; though this one is more mixed). When it comes out in the US it will no doubt be hit with the ridiculous NC-17 rating. But it should be seen anyway, including by teens, so one can form one’s own judgment. Trailer is here.

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‘Grand Central’, directed by Rebecca Zlotowski. The appeal of this one for me was the A-list cast—Tahar Rahim (Gary), Léa Sedoux (Karole), Olivier Gourmet (Gilles), and Denis Ménochet (Toni)—and the top reviews it received. It’s set among workers at a nuclear power plant—which, from its appearance, is manifestly the complex at Cruas in the Rhône valley—, not the engineers and technical staff but those who do the subaltern jobs, which are dangerous and not well paid. The workers live in a trailer park near the plant and live the trailer park life in their off hours, with one of them, Gary—who’s done time in prison and is in réinsertion—, having a torrid affair with colleague Karole, but who happens to be the live-in fiancé of Toni, also a co-worker. The depiction of the world of nuclear power plant proletarians—whom one rarely hears or reads about—was interesting, particularly of the high-risk work they do (this part of the film was shot inside a decommissioned nuclear power station in Austria). But the love triangle was not too convincing IMO, notably why Karole took up with the not-very-interesting Gary and under the nose of her companion. So this part of the film fell flat for me (and sure enough, Allociné specatateurs were less enthusiastic over the film than were the critics). A couple of the Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes liked it (here and here) but a couple of others (here and here) were more mixed. The latter got it right. Trailer is here.

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‘Le Temps de l’aventure’, directed by Jérôme Bonnell. The English title is ‘Just a Sigh’, as translating the French one directly wouldn’t make sense given the meaning of “aventure” in this context. This one takes place over a single day in Paris, on precisely the first day of summer last year, with the Fête de la Musique going on throughout the city (and campaign posters of the last legislative elections visible). Alix (Emmanuelle Devos), who is based in Calais, is a 40-something stage actress taking the early morning train to Paris, where she has an audition, and makes eye contact with a handsome, distinguished-looking early 60s-ish passenger, who turns out to be an English university professor named Douglas (played by Gabriel Byrne; who is indeed handsome; for the anecdote, a certain older generation female member of my immediate family told me after seeing ‘Usual Suspects’ back in ’95 that she found him so beautiful that she could hardly look at him). Alix and Douglas briefly exchange words at the Gare du Nord, when he asks her (in English, as he doesn’t speak French) for directions to the Saint Clotilde church in the 7th arrondissement, after which they continue on their respective ways. But Alix has had a coup de foudre, can’t get the handsome Englishman out of her mind, so after her (failed) audition she heads over to the church, spots Douglas in the middle of what is a funeral service—of a French academic friend of Douglas who died suddenly—, he comes over to her afterward, there’s awkwardness, they go to a restaurant, then to a hotel, and voilà—and despite him being happily married and her in stable relationship (though she has a hard time reaching her companion, who lives in Paris, on the phone that day). After spending a torrid afternoon together—on a warm summer day in the City of Love—, she has to get the train back to Calais, where she has a performance, and he back to England. Two passing ships in the night. Things like this do happen, I guess, and if I racked my mind I suppose I could come up with a case or two of it with people I’ve known. The movie was well received by Paris critics (though somewhat less so by Allociné spectateurs), as well as by those in the Hollywood press who saw it (here and here; trailer is here). I had a couple of issues with the unfolding of the story and particularly toward the end, which I didn’t think were too credible. But what made it worth seeing was the performances, and particularly Emmanuelle Devos. She’s a great actress, no two ways about it.

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Finally, ‘L’Écume des jours’ (English title: Mood Indigo), directed by Michel Gondry. I will say as little about this one as possible. Michel Gondry is a serious director but I’m not a fan of the two previous films I saw by him: ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (couldn’t get into it; not my kind of movie) and ‘The We and the I’ (tedious, too long for what it was). As this one is based on a 1947 novel by Boris Vian—utterly unknown to me—, which is, so I learned, beloved by countless Frenchmen and women of my generation and the one older, I decided to see the pic, what the hell. The all-star cast—Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy—was also a draw. It’s a fantasy film. Surrealistic, loaded with special effects. When I realized five minutes into the pic that this was what it was going to be—and for the next two hours—my heart sank, as, with the occasional exception, I cannot stand fantasy/surreal movies. But I stuck it out, as I didn’t want to ask my wife if she would walk out of it with me (though she told me afterward that she would have willingly, as she also found it insufferable). There was a love story at the center of the film, involving the Duris and Tautou characters, but I wasn’t focused on it. It was two hours of cinematic torture, which I just wanted to be over. Now I won’t say that it was objectively a bad film. Adepts of the Boris Vian novel can weigh in on that. It just wasn’t for me, so I really can’t evaluate it as a movie. French reviews were all over the place. Here’s one in English. Trailer is here. See it if you like the genre (and have read the book). If not, avoid it with your life.

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On this 59th anniversary of the outbreak of the Algerian war of independence, here is a noteworthy témoignage on Larbi Ben M’hidi—FLN chef historique—by the French army officer, Captain Aler, who arrested him in February 1957, at the height of the Battle of Algiers (Captain Aler’s views as to Ben M’hidi’s qualities were, it should be said, also shared by Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Bigeard, who interrogated Ben M’hidi after his arrest—but who was not responsible for his murder). If the French army had not extrajudicially executed him, Ben M’hidi may well have become the first president of an independent Algeria. Given that Ben M’hidi towered over almost all the others in the FLN leadership—politically, intellectually, and as a man; and particularly over the man who (unfortunately) became the country’s first president—, his murder was a huge loss for Algeria. And for France as well.

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