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Archive for March, 2014

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[update below]

The debacle was even more monumental than expected. It was historic, worse than 1983. The left—mainly PS—lost 155 communes with a population of 9,000 and over, 49 between 30 and 100K, and 8 cities of over 100K. Those who’ve read about it elsewhere already know the story: the PS managed to save Paris (Anne Hidalgo), Lyon (Gérard Collomb), Lille (Martine Aubry), Strasbourg, and Nantes—and, thanks to a merged list with the Front de Gauche, picked up Avignon from the UMP (and fended off the FN) plus a few others—but it was the Berezina just about everywhere else. Toulouse, which the PS won in 2008, went to the UMP, along with numerous cities that have been Socialist/left bastions for decades, even a century: e.g. Limoges, Belfort, Nevers, Dunkerque, Chambéry, Amiens… The dense network of PS-run municipalities that was painstakingly built up by François Hollande during his period as party first secretary—and particularly in the western part of the country—was decimated in one fell swoop. After the 2008 elections the PS was looking to be the party of cities, the one with the strongest local base, but now the UMP/UDI have taken that mantle (and with the UDI-MoDem, led by François Bayrou in Pau, taking its share of communes, meaning that it will be a big center-right player in the coming years). Even the PS victories in the large aforementioned cities have to be relativized, as the intercommunal governing structures that have been established over the years, and particularly since the 1990s—and which will progressively supplant the communes themselves in local decision-making—, will also pass to the right. So even though Martine Aubry won reelection in Lille she was not happy last night, as the UMP took nearby Roubaix and Tourcoing, meaning that she will lose the presidency of the Lille Métropole Communauté Urbaine, which is almost as important to her as being mayor of her city. As for the future Métropole du Grand Paris, the UMP (Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet?) may have enough votes to control it when that time comes (January 2016).

On this score, the results in the famous ‘red belt’ around Paris were also calamitous for the left (PCF and PS), which, entre autres, lost the communes in the neuf-trois I mentioned in my post last week: Bobigny, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Le Blanc-Mesnil, Livry-Gargan, Saint-Ouen, and Villepinte. By my count the PCF only has six communes left in the Seine-Saint-Denis. And to the list of setbacks one may add Villejuif in the Val-de-Marne, which has been Communist since the 1920s but was taken by the UMP, whose list, in a merger contre nature, included a local EELV fed up with the eternal PCF rule over the town; among the renegade Villejuifois écolos was the gauchiste economist Alain Lipietz (he and the others have been suspended from the EELV for their transgression). My (Algerian origin) in-laws there are no doubt content with the outcome (I’ll have to call them this week), BTW, as their property taxes will most certainly not be raised by the new UMP-led administration.

Local taxes were a big issue in this election and across the board. They’ve gone up significantly and just about everywhere, in communes run by the right as well as the left. E.g. in my very right-wing banlieue, the taxe d’habitation has increased by at least 25%—maybe even more (I’d have to do the calculation)—since the 2008 election, and which was one of the factors in the defeat of the incumbent mayor (UDI/ex-UMP) at the hands of his erstwhile (UMP) associate-turned-rival. The ras-le-bol over inexorably rising local taxes will be a big challenge to all the new mayors, as they try to maintain local services plus deal with already high municipal indebtedness.

As for the Front National, it won 11 communes. If one hasn’t yet seen the list, go here, here, or here. Notable FN victories include Marseille’s 7th sector, with a population of 150K—it will be interesting to see how the new FN mayor, Stéphane Ravier, gets along with the neighboring 8th sector mayor, la très forte en gueule Algerian-origin Samia Ghali (the only PS tête de liste to win a Marseille sector yesterday)—; Hayange in the Moselle, a dying industrial town and site of ArcelorMittal’s recently shuttered steel blast furnaces that President Hollande promised to save but could not—and whose FN mayor-elect, Fabien Engelmann, is a former trade unionist (in the formerly Communist-run CGT, from which he was expelled for joining the FN)—; and Mantes-la-Ville in the Île-de-France (Yvelines), whose FN list squeaked through to victory due to the (incomprehensible and inexcusable) inability of the two rival left lists (PS and divers gauche) to merge between the two rounds—and, irony of ironies, the mayoral candidate of one having been physically manhandled by Jean-Marie Le Pen in an infamous incident in 1997.

But it wasn’t a slam dunk for the FN yesterday, as party heavyweights Florian Philippot and Louis Aliot (Marine LP’s current S.O.) failed to win Forbach and Perpignan respectively, and Gilbert Collard bit the dust in Saint-Gilles. And it needs to be reiterated that Robert Ménard’s victorious list in Béziers was only supported by the FN, with a number of its conseillers municipaux-elect—including Ménard himself—not being FN members.

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Marine Le Pen and other FN leaders swear that they’ve learned from the fiasco of the FN’s local government experience in the 1995-2002 period—notably in Toulon, Vitrolles, and Marignane—, which was marked by incompetence, amateurism, and corruption—not to mention initiatives such as serving pork dishes only in school cafeterias catering to Muslim students—, and won’t repeat the mistakes. Frontiste communes will, it is promised, be governed more responsibly and professionally this time. On verra. One of the first issues the mayor-elect in Fréjus, 26-year-old David Rachline, will have to deal with is the project—currently underway—to build a mosque in the commune. One would assume that FN mayors, echoing the rhetoric of Marine LP, will take a hard-line against expressions and manifestations of “communautarisme,” a neologism that, translated into American, refers to the asserting of ethnic identities by persons of post-colonial immigrant roots, i.e. from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, and which the dominant French ethos—shared by right and left alike—considers to be a bad thing (but only when it involves communities hailing from the African continent; no one cares if it’s the Portuguese, Armenians, or even Vietnamese or Chinese who do it). The younger generations from these communities are more educated, organized, and assertive in expressing ethnic identities nowadays than in the past, so if FN mairies try to pick a fight with them, a fight they will get.

In an analysis of the elections last night, Art Goldhammer wondered if the real political problem in France is less the failings of François Hollande—or of Nicolas Sarkozy before him—than of the French presidency itself, of its seeming omnipotence and the outsized expectations this generates, and that inevitably leads to disappointments on the part of the electorate. Art is absolutely right on this. As he points out, the constitution of the Fifth Republic was tailor-made for one man, Charles de Gaulle, a larger than life historical figure who returned to power at a time of grave national crisis—the Algerian war—and when France needed a strong executive who could assert primacy over the legislative branch of government (and also a seditiously-inclined military). But that historical moment is gone and not only is there no one with the stature of de Gaulle—il n’y a plus de grands hommes—but there is no justification nowadays for an advanced democracy to concentrate so much power (hors cohabitation) in the hands of the executive. It worked more or less for François Mitterrand, though he was saved by the first cohabitation, which paved the way for his reelection, and with his interminable second term ending in failure. Jacques Chirac’s presidency was a failure from almost the get go (and with him winning reelection on a silver platter thanks to the accident of the 21 avril). And the bilan of Sarkozy’s presidency—and now Hollande’s—requires no elaboration. In the case of Sarkozy and Hollande, plus Chirac during his brain-dead second term, the perversity of the omnipotent presidency has been aggravated by the quinquennat and the accident of the electoral calendar, in which the presidential and legislative elections happen one month apart, and with the legislative following the presidential—a sequencing that was decided in a law passed by Lionel Jospin’s gauche plurielle government after the 2000 referendum and was supported by the UDF (but not Chirac’s RPR). What this did was permanently hitch the fortunes of the National Assembly—elected in the wake in the presidential election, axiomatically giving the newly elected president a majority—to the President of the Republic, thus rendering it even more powerless vis-à-vis the executive. The latter calls all the shots. The problem is institutional, not linked to the personality of whoever happens to be the chief resident in the Elysée palace. So in view of the omnipotence of the President of the Republic and the expectations of the French people that he will solve all the problems—and at a time when France, which has no control over its own currency, has less power on the European and world stage than ever, and with an increasingly uncompetitive economy—, it is inevitable that his poll ratings will plummet almost as soon as he takes office and his party massacred in intermediate elections.

The next elections—after May’s European—are the regionals, in March 2015. The PS controls 21 of 22 regions in metropolitan France. Anyone want to take bets on how many they’ll be left with after that one?

ADDENDUM: The abstention rate yesterday was 38%, which is historically high for a municipal election. But the turnout was nonetheless higher than for other types of elections, notably the European. And way higher than one would ever see in an off year election in the US. If the upcoming American midterm elections could attain such a turnout, the outcome would be very different than the one we’re likely to get (and less favorable to the Republicans). Just sayin’.

UPDATE: Rue89’s Pascal Riché explains—with a certain dose of mauvaise foi, he admits—why yesterday’s result was, in fact, a setback for the Front National. Not a bad analysis, actually.

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There’s almost no question about it: the Socialists are going to get massacred. They could lose as many as 100 communes with a population of 10K or more. The PS’s dense network of local elected officials will be decimated. Whatever governmental remaniement President Hollande cooks up next week will be bien dérisoire in the face of such a monumental setback. Socialist voters are so demoralized and exasperated with their president—it is nigh impossible to find anyone on the left these days who will stand up for Monsieur Hollande—that they will most certainly repeat last Sunday’s performance and stay away in droves from the polls.

The UMP will do very well, of course, but all eyes will be on Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which, according to the above map, has a good shot at picking up seven communes—with Béziers and Forbach all but certain—, in addition to Hénin-Beaumont and Orange (whose mayor, Jacques Bompard—re-elected last Sunday with 60%—, quit the FN a decade ago but is no less a facho than when he first won the town in 1995). But the FN and its extreme right allies could, in fact, win as many as 20 municipalities, including several that the map forgot to include: Beaucaire (Gard), Bollène (Vaucluse)—whose incumbent mayor, Marie-Claude Bompard, is not formally FN but is politically identical to her husband in nearby Orange—, Brignoles (Var), Cluses (Haute-Savoie), Cogolin (Var), Hayange (Moselle), Le Luc (Var), Le Pontet (Vaucluse), L’Hôpital (Moselle), Marseille’s 7th sector, Tarascon (Bouches-de-Rhône), Villeneuve-sur-Lot (Lot-et-Garonne), and Villers-Cotterêts (Aisne). To these one may add Villeneuve-Saint-George in the suburban Parisian Val-de-Marne (and near where I live), where the 2nd place divers droite list—which had been endorsed by the UMP and UDI—merged with the 3rd place FN against the PCF-led incumbents. If the FN wins most of these, it will be a political earthquake equivalent to the PS’s débâcle annoncée. It does appear, though, that Avignon will be spared the FN, with the fusion of the PS and Front de Gauche lists there.

For an idea of what may lie in store for communes under FN rule, see this Rue89 enquête from two months ago, on Jacques Bompard’s reign in Orange, “Orange, 20 ans d’extrême droite: «Les cœurs se sont fermés».” Persons of Maghrebi and African immigrant origin—and particularly those who live in public housing—will wish they lived somewhere else.

And on Hénin-Beaumont’s new frontiste mayor, Steeve Briois, see this one by Claude Askolovitch in Rue89, “Quand Steeve Briois, 15 ans, jubilait dans un bus rempli d’immigrés,” in which Askolovitch reproduces a passage from his (excellent) 1999 book Voyage au bout de la France: Le Front National tel qu’il est, recounting his experience of following Briois, then a teenage FN activist, around the declining industrial towns of the Pas-de-Calais. Briois, who hails from the couches populaires, developed a youthful antipathy toward his generational contemporaries of Maghreb origin, i.e. the punk was a racist from the get go. Now people do grow up and evolve in their ways of thinking. Or they don’t.

Also in Rue89 is this very interesting reportage of the FN’s campaign in Marseille’s 7th sector (13th-14th arrondissements), “La tentation du FN à Marseille: «Il faut bien leur faire peur»,” which may yield it victory tomorrow. One learns, entre autres, that a certain number of Maghrebi voters, driven by opposition to the gay marriage law or simply because they are totally fed up, voted FN. What is clear is that the FN simply does not strike fear in the hearts and minds of a significant portion of the electorate, including voters of immigrant origin who would normally have reason to fear it.

One will have noted that the majority of communes that the FN stands to win are in the southeast. On the regional cleavage in the FN vote, geographer Laurent Chalard, whom I linked to in my previous post on the election, had a good op-ed in Le Monde earlier this week on “Les failles stratégiques du Front national,” in which he discussed the contradictions at the heart of Marine Le Pen’s and the FN’s discourse as they strive to address constituencies with fundamentally divergent revindications: the FN’s traditional middle class/petit bourgeois base in the southeast, which is opposed to state intervention, taxes, and Parisian bureaucrats; and working class voters in the northeast, who fear globalization and favor state intervention in the economy to protect their jobs or restore them. How the FN manages this contradiction—and if the mainstream parties of the left and right can exploit it to undermine the frontistes—will have a significant impact on the party’s fortunes in the coming period.

As I did last Sunday, I’ll be working a bureau de vote all day tomorrow as an assesseur titulaire in my commune (where the local right-wing is tearing itself apart in a fratricidal war, as it always does in local elections). À suivre.

ADDENDUM: The blog 500 Signatures: French Politics & Elections Blog of political scientists Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi is closely tracking the FN’s electoral progress, and with lots of data and statistical analyses.

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The website of the French journal Esprit has a lengthy interview (en français), “La fin de l’illusion turque,” with Ahmet Insel, who teaches economics and politics at Galatasaray University in Istanbul (and is a founder of the İletişim publishing house). It’s one of the most interesting analyses I’ve read of late on the current political situation in Turkey, and notably on the conflict between RT Erdoğan and the Gülen movement, and the role of the military in this. Insel says that an AKP national vote of 45% or above in tomorrow’s municipal elections—which he deems probable—will represent a big victory for Erdoğan, providing him with the legitimacy to launch an all-out offensive against the Gülenists (not to mention anyone else he feels like going after). But in the (improbable) event that the AKP wins less than 40%, many AKP militants will start looking to a post-Erdoğan era and which may provoke a split within the party, such that the AKP could lose its current majority in the Grand National Assembly.

But whatever happens in tomorrow’s elections

le Premier ministre restera condamné à une posture défensive. Il va passer le reste de sa vie politique à craindre l’ouverture de nouveaux dossiers, la publication de nouvelles preuves accablantes. Qu’elle soit lente, en passant par une phase «poutinienne», ou rapide en cas de défaite aux élections locales, la chute de M. Erdogan est inéluctable.

Sooner rather than later, inshallah.

What Insel has to say to about the Kurdish question is also most interesting. Erdoğan wants to cut a deal with the PKK but his hands are being tied by various domestic actors, not the least of whom is the nationalist Turkish public, i.e. the AKP base, and its ethnic conception of the Turkish nation.

Insel, who is quite smart, also has an interview in today’s Libération, “Turquie: «Erdogan est mortellement blessé, mais il ne tombera pas tout de suite».”

2009 municipal elections

2009 municipal elections

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Geographer Laurent Chalard, who teaches at the Université Paris-IV Sorbonne, has an analysis in Figaro Vox of the significant drop in support for the PS last Sunday from voters of immigrant origin. The abstention rates in communes with concentrations of Maghrebis and Africans reached record levels, notably in the Seine-Saint-Denis (a.k.a. le neuf-trois), Paris’s 18th-19th-20th arrondissements, Marseille’s 8th sector (les quartiers nord), and Lyon’s eastern banlieues, and with Socialist-led lists taking a disproportionate hit. Voter participation rates have always been lower than average for these populations and for structural reasons, which Chalard mentions: a voting-age population that is both disproportionately younger and less educated, and with lower levels of political mobilization via intermediate groups or the parties themselves. The latter point I can attest to from personal observation: in my mostly middle/upper middle class banlieue, the only parties/candidates who actively solicit votes in the one cité in town are from the Front de Gauche. The others don’t bother, deeming that there are few votes to be had there—which is the case with the right—or, as with the Socialists and écolos, because they’re not comfortable with ethnic-style campaigning and don’t have a populist economic message to compensate for that, so leave the cités to other parties of the left.

A second factor identified by Chalard for the high abstention rate is the government’s policies and discourse on questions de société, i.e. on issues having to do with social mores, notably gay marriage. Voters of Maghrebi and African origin may be on the left when it comes to the economy but are culturally conservative; thus the opposition by Muslim personalities and groups to the mariage pour tous law last year and the disproportionate hysteria in the banlieues over the so-called “théorie du genre” during that preposterous episode early last month. Chalard’s hypothesis is plausible but I’m dubious. It’s still the economy, stupid, and with the immigrant-origin communities—which are inadequately socialized politically and alienated from the system as it is—affected by unemployment even more than the rest of French society.

Mediapart has had two enquêtes over the past two days on the disaffection of immigrant-origin voters in the current election cycle and their defiance toward the Socialists, one on the Seine-Saint-Denis, the other from Marseille.

The Socialists’s adversaries in the Seine-Saint-Denis are not only the right—UMP and UDI (the FN is not a factor in the department)—but also the PCF/Front de Gauche. The PS, which made big gains in the department in the 2008 elections and at the expense of the Communists, had high hopes of knocking off the latter in several communes but suffered a setback on Sunday, notably in Montreuil—where National Assembly deputy and rising star Razzy Hammadi was eliminated from the 2nd round and with a humiliating fifth place finish—, Saint-Denis—the PCF’s last remaining municipality of over 100K inhabitants, which it has been running almost continuously since the 1920s—, Saint-Ouen, and Villetaneuse, and with Aubervilliers and Bagnolet in the balance. And the UMP/UDI have a strong chance of taking Bobigny—the neuf-trois prefecture and longtime PCF bastion, the loss of which to the right would be hugely symbolic—, Aulnay-sous-Bois—whose très droitier UMP tête de liste, Bruno Beschizza, is a former police officer—, Le Blanc Mesnil—which has been PCF since the 1930s—, Livry-Gargan, and Villepinte.

As for Bobigny, the UDI mayoral candidate, Stéphane di Paoli, seems to be running a smart campaign, at least judging from his list of candidates to the city council, which includes a woman wearing an Islamic headscarf and who is prominently displayed in the campaign’s main poster. And it’s getting publicity outside the commune, as one may see in this dispatch in the high-profile Franco-Islamic website Oumma.com. The video of the exchange between the communist militant and young veiled woman is worth the watch. The latter manifestly understands the meaning of French laïcité more than does the former. If I were a Balbynien, I’d likely vote for Monsieur di Paoli.

ADDENDUM: Here’s a post of mine on “the Muslim vote” in the 2012 presidential election, which one poll had at 93% for François Hollande (far more a rejection of Sarkozy than an affirmative vote for Hollande). In the Seine-Saint-Denis, Hollande received 65% in the 2nd round against Sarko (N.B. not everyone in the neuf-trois is of post-colonial immigrant-origin or from the couches populaires; there are plenty of regular “white” Frenchmen and women out there).

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This is not quite an instant analysis and I don’t have much to say about yesterday’s vote that isn’t being said by everyone else, which is that it was a disastrous result for the Socialists—worse than anyone expected or that was projected in polls—, an excellent one for the Front National, and not at all bad for the UMP, and with the backdrop a record abstention rate for this kind of election (39%), reflecting a demobilization of the Socialist party’s base. PS voters disproportionately stayed home—and one needs to specify that it was indeed PS voters, as the other constituents of the left, i.e. the écolos and Front de Gauche, did well where they ran separate lists. The Socialists are not even trying to spin the result. Patrick Menucci, the PS mayoral candidate in Marseille—who finished in third place (behind the FN) with a paltry 21% citywide, a calamitous score that absolutely no one anticipated—, bravely insisted on France Inter this morning that he could make up his 17 point deficit with Jean-Claude Gaudin but one doubts anyone believes this (including Menucci himself). In my own very right-wing banlieue, where I manned a polling station yesterday (photo below) as an assesseur-titulaire (for the PS-EELV-MRC-PRG-MUP list), the total score of the two left lists was 18%, compared with 21% in both the 2008 and 2001 municipal elections (and with François Hollande receiving 40% in the 2nd round of the 2012 presidential).

Two comments. First, on the FN’s result. It was certainly very good for the frontistes but is, objectively speaking, not that big of a deal. So the FN’s secretary-general Steeve Briois won a narrow outright victory (50.3%) last night in Hénin-Beaumont, a depressed industrial town of 25,000 souls in which the party has been investing political resources for years and that Marine Le Pen won with 55% in the 2012 legislative election (losing the larger constituency by a hair). It’s about time the FN won that sorry place. As for Béziers, where the FN-supported Robert Ménard will most certainly be elected mayor next Sunday, it should be specified that he is not an FN member and doesn’t even issue from the extreme right. He was a founder of the civil libertarian Reporters sans Frontières in the 1980s, hung out more with leftists than rightists back then, and was engaged with bona fide, mostly left-wing Algerian democrats who opposed both the military-backed regime and Islamists as that country descended into internecine bloodletting in the 1990s (a product of Ménard’s then support of Algerian democrats was this book). Ménard—whom I don’t know personally but used to see around—was/is a flamboyant, bloviating self-promoter—and, IMO, an insufferable jerk (e.g. the kind who incessantly talks very loudly into his mobile phone in public)—who has found a new outlet for his flamboyant, bloviating self-promotion in Marine Le Pen and the hard right of the political spectrum. It will be most interesting to see how he and his frontiste associates run a city of 71K inhabitants, a third of whom live with less than €1000/month. Likewise with Gilbert Collard, the near certain mayor-to-be of Saint-Gilles, likewise a self-promoter extraordinaire and whose political parcours spans the far right to the far left and everything in between (as I noted two years ago here). The FN managing a handful of municipalities—as many as ten and possibly including Perpignan (but please, not Avignon)—would be a good thing IMO, as Marine LP & Co will finally have some concrete political responsibilities and a bilan to defend. For a party whose national electoral support has been in the teens for the past three decades, it is only normal that it should have at least a few elected officials in executive positions. But again, the number of communes it will be running will only be a drop in the bucket: less than one percent of municipalities with a population of over 10,000. And that will be as good as it gets for the FN.

Second comment. The PS may be able to limit the damage next Sunday via at least a partial mobilization of its electorate. Maybe. In Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who very unexpectedly finished behind Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet citywide, will still likely win next Sunday (as merged PS-EELV lists in the 4th, 9th, 12th, and 14th arrondissements will be en ballotage favorable, and may even take the 5th arrondissement if the right’s warring lists there don’t merge; we’ll know after tomorrow night’s deadline for merging and reconstituting lists). Martine Aubry in Lille, Gérard Collomb in Lyon, and Jean-Marc Ayrault’s successor in Nantes will also win, despite sharp fall-offs in the PS vote yesterday. And Toulouse and Strasbourg look doable. So it ain’t over till it’s over.

But whatever happens next Sunday the municipal elections will still have constituted a big setback for the PS and President Hollande, meaning that there will be a governmental remaniement sooner rather than later and most certainly with a new prime minister. As for what good that will do and if it will change anyone’s fortunes, allez savoir… RDV la dimanche prochaine.

Arun, March 23 2014

Arun manning the ballot box, March 23 2014

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That’s what this Time magazine article on Turkish PM Erdoğan’s Twitter ban and nationalist demagoguery calls him. As for what a honey badger (en français: ratel) is and does, take a look at this YouTube linked to in the article. Beurk!

I’ve been trying to decide who’s worse, Erdoğan or Putin. They’re both equally unspeakable, in fact, with Erdoğan maybe only slightly less awful due to Turkey’s more or less democratic institutions—though which are seeming less these days—, institutionalized party politics, and more or less free and fair elections. But if Erdoğan and Putin were to switch countries, I would definitely fear Erdoğan more than I do Putin now.

Christopher de Bellaigue has a review essay in the April 3rd NYRB, “Turkey goes out of control.” The books under review are Soner Cagaptay’s The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century’s First Muslim Power and two on the Fethullah Gülen movement, one by Joshua D. Hendrick, the other (in Turkish) by Ahmet Şık. Cagaptay is a curious case. He was a fierce critic of Erdoğan and the AKP through the last election—repeatedly warning in numerous articles and op-eds of the threat the AKP posed to secularism and Turkish democracy—but then did an almost 180° turnaround. Though he doesn’t come out and praise Erdoğan personally—at least not so far as I’ve seen—he’s now bullish on Turkey’s future—economically, geopolitically, etc—under the current regime and expresses not a peep of criticism of Erdoğan and his government, not even during the Taksim/Gezi Park movement last June. So he’s become a sell-out changed his mind. Ça arrive.

UPDATE: Zeynep Tufekci, UNC-Chapel Hill prof—and to whom I linked several times last June—, has a very good post on her Technology and Society blog on “The day the Turkish government banned itself from Twitter.” The lede: People in Turkey have banned the ban.

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I just read (several days late) a full-page op-ed by Belarussian-Ukrainian investigative journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich in Le Monde dated March 16th-17th, “Poutine et les bas instincts,” in which she describes, almost to her horror, the Kremlin propaganda induced nationalist hysteria that is currently sweeping the Russian population. Russia sounds very much like Serbia in 1990-91, and with Russian attitudes towards Ukraine akin to Serbia back then vis-à-vis Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Worrisome, to say the least. Alexievich‘s tribune is translated from Russian. If it exists in English—or if I can find it in Russian—I’ll post it as an update.

UPDATE: This looks to be the original Russian—or maybe Belarussian—version.

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Anti-Putin demonstration, Moscow, March 15 2014 (Photo: AP/TOPIX)

Anti-Putin demonstration, Moscow, March 15 2014 (Photo: AP/TOPIX)

Jack F. Matlock Jr., US ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991, had an op-ed well worth reading in WaPo last Friday, “The U.S. has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War.” Entre autres, he reminds the reader that the breakup of the Soviet Union was not an inexorable consequence of the end of the Cold War and that the Bush 41 administration did not favor this.

In today’s WaPo is an op-ed by Molly K. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis, who were advisers to the former Georgian president, on how “Putin’s global ambitions could destabilize Europe.” The authors assert that Vladimir Putin seeks to create a Russo-Orthodox union that would extend beyond the former Soviet Union and into Europe. On verra bien.

On the new geopolitical map, as it were, that will take shape with Russia’s action in Crimea, Le Monde editorial director Sylvie Kauffmann had a most interesting column in the issue dated March 18th, “Après la Crimée, un monde nouveau,” in which she made a number of observations and points, one being that the Russia-Ukraine crisis will signal the “return” of the US to Europe; after the “pivot” to Asia, we will now see the re-pivot to Europe. She also noted the deafening silence of Russia’s putative ex-Soviet allies to the coup de force in Crimea, notably Kazakhstan president Nazarbayev. One also learns that the OECD has suspended Russia’s candidacy to join that organization. Ouf! Russia is utterly unfit for membership in the OECD and it would be more than a scandal if it were allowed to smooth talk its way in.

In TNR the invariably excellent Timothy Snyder says that “Far-right forces are influencing Russia’s actions in Crimea” (March 17th). For the Russians go to on about “fascists” in Kiev is, as they say, like the pot calling the kettle black. Ou, comme on dit en français, c’est l’hôpital qui se moque de la charité…

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Omar

Omar

Saw this last October. I should have written about it then, or perhaps last month, when it opened in the US and was in the running for the best foreign language film Oscar (it lost out to ‘The Great Beauty’, which is not surprising, as it was a long shot to begin with; it’s hard to imagine the Academy awarding an Oscar to a film regarded—incorrectly in my view—as being so anti-Israel). When I first saw Hany Abu-Assad’s ‘Omar’ I pronounced it a chef d’œuvre and the best Palestinian film ever. Period. Even better than Abu-Assad’s 2005 ‘Paradise Now.’ I’ve since had the opportunity to see ‘Omar’ a second time and, while still giving it the thumbs way up, will reserve judgment on it being the best ever Pal pic until I give ‘Paradise Now’ another look (re Elia Suleiman’s œuvre—which is favored by certain friends—, I find his films interesting but quirky; not masterpieces IMO). As for the reviews of ‘Omar’ by mainstream professional critics—very good in France, mostly good in the US—I’ve paid little attention to them. When it comes to films with such a heavy political content and on subjects I know well—e.g. Israel-Palestine, Algeria—I tend to ignore the regular film critics and look instead for the views of those with specialized knowledge (academics, journalists, political actors, etc) or who have a particular interest in the issue (activists, etc)—and with whom I may or may not agree. And on ‘Omar’, I find myself not entirely on the same page with the viewpoints on the film that I’ve come across (an exception being David Shulman’s fine review a week ago on the NYR blog). Those familiar with ‘Omar’ and the film’s politics will know that it is considered pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, which is perhaps normal given the identity of the director, the fact that it was entirely Palestinian-funded, and with all Palestinian actors (that some may be citizens of Israel—including director Abu-Assad—and that much of the film was shot in Israel—Nazareth and Beit She’an—is irrelevant; it’s a Palestinian film, period). And, of course, the manner in which it depicts the occupation and the question of collaboration. On this, the film has been praised by pro-Palestinian activists. One is the engagé Nazareth-based journalist and writer Jonathan Cook, who reviewed the film last September on The Electronic Intifada website. Cook thus describes the mechanisms of collaboration

The reality…is that collaboration is Israel’s chief tool for maintaining what is effectively an occupation for Palestinians inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It makes organizing resistance, or even struggling for basic rights, all but impossible. Over decades, Israel’s gatekeepers have devised a spider’s web of techniques for ensnaring ordinary Palestinians. Once caught, as a fellow prisoner warns Omar, escape is impossible. And sure enough, Omar soon finds himself trapped by a seemingly harmless remark. (…) The film fearlessly dissects how this system of control works and why Palestinians, like Omar himself, are mostly powerless to evade or subvert it. Abu Assad’s decision to put the problem of collaboration at the heart of his film is therefore a bold one indeed. It is also vitally important because, until Palestinians confront the issue openly and honestly, they have little power to break Israel’s stranglehold on their lives.The film’s message is more hopeful than this synopsis may imply. Real awareness is possible, Abu Assad concludes in the final scenes, and with it comes the only hope for personal and social transformation.

Writing on his blog last month, the très engagé Richard Falk—UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the past six years (a post from which he will soon be retiring الحمد لله)‎—pronounced ‘Omar’ superior to ‘Paradise Now’ in a number of respects. In addition to examining the film’s treatment of collaboration, Falk did likewise with question of Palestinian violence targeted at Israelis

The reality of Palestinian violent resistance has two important consequences even though it seems currently futile from the perspective of challenging the occupation in any way that promises to liberation: it gives dignity to Palestinians who seem united in their will to live-unto-death despite their defenselessness and it makes Israelis vulnerable despite their seeming total control of the situation… (…) [F]rom the Palestinian side, nothing is worse than becoming a collaborator, and yet only a hero among heroes, would have the super-human capacity to avoid such a fate given the brutality used by Israelis to acquire the information they need to enforce their will on a hostile population. For the occupier recruiting collaborators is a vital part of improving security; for the occupied, it is the final humiliation, making the fate of the traitor far worse than that of the slave.

Pro-Israel reviewers liked the film rather less. E.g. Village Voice film critic Nick Schager, in a review last October, wrote that

A screed is a screed no matter its superficial genre trappings, as evidenced by Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, whose thriller machinations are merely a vehicle to deliver narrow-minded political preaching. (…) While Omar and his Palestinian loved ones are presented as uniformly funny, romantic and likable, Israelis are depicted as unjustifiably cruel and devious, be they the soldiers who harass Omar for no reason, the officers who torture him after he’s rightly arrested for the soldier’s death, or agent Rami…who tricks Omar into confessing and then blackmails him into becoming an informant. Throughout, Abu-Assad paints in such stark black-and-white terms that there’s no complexity to the ensuing saga, in which Omar is tasked with ratting out his friends if he ever wants to be with Nadia, only to discover that she may not be untrustworthy. With its deck so stacked that it plays out like a crude anti-Israeli sermon, the film – which ultimately determines that deception, betrayal and cold-blooded murder are acceptable if committed against Israelis (or by women), but not if done by Israelis – proves one-dimensional as both a political argument and a drama.

Tom Tugend of the Jewish Journal also thought ‘Omar’ demonized Israelis

As was the case in Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Rana’s Wedding,” the protagonists in “Paradise Now” do not hide their antagonism toward Israelis; nevertheless, the latter are portrayed as recognizable human beings, not merely sadistic oppressors… However, in “Omar,” Abu-Assad forgoes such artistic and ideological balance, painting the Israelis as heartless torturers and connivers with no redeeming qualities.

In a lengthy review essay in the March issue of The Tower, conservative writer and blogger Rich Richman—quoting the work of Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, among others—likewise shredded ‘Omar’, labeling it propaganda and expressing indignation that it received an Oscar nomination over Yuval Adler’s ‘Bethlehem’, which was Israel’s Oscar submission and strikingly similar to ‘Omar’ (though is much more of a “genre film”; I saw it recently and will post on separately). And then there’s a review, which I stumbled across quite by accident, by a wacky right-wing blogger—and film critic à ses heures—named Debbie Schlussel, who called ‘Omar’ a “slow, boring, poorly-written Palestinian propaganda film” that shows how “Palestinians are lying, conniving pieces of crap who cannot be trusted…” Quelle conne.

People—myself included—read all sorts of things into movies. Palestinians on the West Bank have had mixed feelings about ‘Omar’, so I hear (seeing it, entre autres, as being destined mainly for Western audiences in the way it depicts the protag Omar). Hany Abu-Assad, for his part, said, in a Jerusalem Post interview, that “the heart of the film is the tragic love story” between Omar and Nadia. “[T]he pic’s romantic plot is the key component,” he insists: it’s “a love story, not a war story.” S’il le dit…

I have five general comments to make about the film—and in reaction to the reviews cited above, which are wide of the mark on several counts IMO. First, the depiction of the occupation is dead on accurate, notably the deleterious effects of the separation barrier on the daily lives of Palestinians—symbolized in the scenes of Omar scaling the wall at peril to his life to see his sweetheart Nadia—and of the behavior of Israeli soldiers toward the Palestinians more generally, and particularly young Palestinian men. The scene of the soldiers arbitrarily ordering Omar to stand on the rock—for no other reason than to humiliate him—happens everyday in some form or another somewhere in the Palestinian territories. It is utterly banal (as is the rifle-butting Omar received when he talked back to the soldiers). The aforecited pro-Israel reviewers may call the scenes in question propaganda but they cannot credibly claim that these distort reality. If the film made the Israeli soldiers look bad, it is because they indeed behave badly in such instances (and which is how Palestinians under occupation experience them). That said, it is inexact to say that the film demonizes Israelis. Israelis hardly figure in the film, in fact: of the ones whose faces we see—and apart from the soldiers who stop Omar next to the wall—there is only the Shabak agent Rami, who is not negatively portrayed. He is not an antipathetic character. He’s a professional doing his job and, as Omar’s handler, plays good cop more often than not.

As for the torture scene, it actually wasn’t clear to me at first that it was even the Israelis who were doing the dirty work. I assumed it was a joint PA-Israeli operation and with Pals inflicting the actual torture, mainly because of the manner in which it was carried out (bludgeoning, blow torches, stringing up from the ceiling…). Not that I don’t put it past the Israelis to behave brutally but, subsequent to the 1999 supreme court ruling, they’ve ceased these kinds of interrogation methods, and particularly methods that leave physical marks. Or so I assumed. To clarify the matter, I ran the question by persons-in-the-know—at NGOs that work on IP—, the response to which was that enhanced interrogation methods, if you will, are still practiced but not systematically and take forms other than what was depicted in the film (e.g. sleep deprivation, loud music, denial of medical treatment—i.e. not methods that draw blood and/or scar the skin). If one wants to be charitable here, one may say that Abu-Assad was taking artistic license in portraying Israelis employing torture techniques à l’arabe. Artistic license was likewise at work in the two chase scenes (the first of which I initially assumed involved PA cops), as the Shabak no longer stages hot pursuit daytime raids in the heart of the Nablus casbah… As so much of the film was metaphorical—e.g. it wasn’t explicitly set in any particular locale in Palestine—and accurately depicts the way Palestinians experience the occupation, I’ll give Abu-Assad a pass on this.

Second comment: the film effectively depicts the vise in which the Israelis have the Palestinians, “a spider’s web of techniques for ensnaring” them, to quote Jonathan Cook. When it comes to “organizing resistance,” the Palestinians are fucked, completely and totally, and through institutional mechanisms and methods that, as David Shulman notes, the Israelis have been honing since the Mandate era. But the Palestinians, with their patriarchal codes of honor and penchant for internecine violence—which is on full display in ‘Omar’ (e.g. Tariq willing to kill his best buddies over transgressions, i.e. sex, with his sister Nadia; it is not the case that the film portrays Palestinians as “uniformly funny” and “likable”)—, have greatly simplified the Israelis’ task, not to mention the manner in which the Pals’ “resistance” has been conceived. Resistance may take civil and armed forms—peaceful or violent—, and the Palestinians have almost always privileged the latter (even during the first Intifada, during which practically no demo did not involve mass stone-throwing; I doubt Gandhi or M.L.King would have approved). But the use of violence by the Palestinians has always been doomed to failure and which most of them have long been fully aware. Even during the 1960s to early ’80s heyday of the PLO and its fedayeen incursions into Israel, the constituents of the PLO all knew that they had no hope of posing even a modest military challenge to Israel, let alone defeating it. Their aim was to provoke a war between Israel and the Arab states—i.e. Egypt and Syria—, with the latter liberating Palestine and sending the Zionists packing. But that dream came to an end with Sinai II and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. And if some Palestinian groups thought that kamikaze attacks on civilians could maybe provoke an exodus of Jews, that was put paid to by the catastrophic Palestinian defeat in the second Intifada and the erecting of the separation barrier.

Which leads to the third comment, on the shooting of the soldier by Omar and his pals (with ringleader Tariq pulling the trigger), which is the central event in the film. Given the vise of occupation and the futility of armed struggle, one has to ask WTF were Omar, Tariq, and Amjad thinking when they decided to kill the soldier? What was the strategic logic of the act? And did they really imagine that the Israelis—with their dense network of informers and mania over protecting the lives of every last one of their (Jewish) citizens—would not eventually find them?  Now it is indeed the case that many such killings in these kinds of conflicts lack a clear strategic goal, at least vis-à-vis the enemy. Men commit the acts to impress their comrades, prove themselves to superiors, or simply to wreak vengeance (e.g. vengeance was a central motivation in the FLN’s terrorist campaign during the 1956-57 Battle of Algiers). Richard Falk suggests in the quote above that Palestinians—presented as eternal victims—commit such acts to maintain their “dignity” and make the enemy—whom they have no chance whatever of defeating militarily—feel “vulnerable,” even though the momentary restoration of dignity will most certainly land one in prison—and with all the humiliations that entails—and only reinforce the enemy’s military vise. Fabulous. If this is the finality of the Palestinian “resistance,” then one can only conclude that the Palestinians have the stupidest resistance movement in history. If one grades resistance or liberation movements on their ability to set clearly defined objectives and then elaborate a strategy to attain them, then the Palestinian “resistance” movement—present and past—gets an F!

The fourth comment—and which further bears out the stupidity of the Palestinian “resistance”—has to do with collaboration and the Palestinian psychosis over this, which is the central theme of ‘Omar’. “Collaboration” is, in fact, a misnomer in the Palestinian case, as this implies active support offered willingly to the occupier, for ideological reasons—e.g. Frenchmen who collaborated with the German occupation during WWII—or financial or other non-political considerations—e.g. harkis during the 1954-62 Algerian war. Palestinians in the West Bank/Gaza who “collaborate” with the Shabak do not do so willingly; they are coerced or pressured into informing; they are made offers they can’t refuse. They’re informers under duress, not collaborators. Palestinians all know this; they know that those in their midst—e.g. Omar in the film—whom they suspect of being informers have been coerced into it and that such could happen to any one of them. The last thing Omar wanted to do was rat on Tariq to Shabak agent Rami. He was not a traitor. But he was nonetheless socially ostracized following mere rumors that he’d been turned by the Israelis and risked execution by his comrades—his best friends from childhood—if the suspicions were even halfway confirmed. The Palestinian armed groups, instead of trying to turn the problem of informers to their advantage—to make them double-agents, or adopt an approach that saves all their skins, or something of the sort—, murder their own. They make it so easy for the Israelis. Again, as far as resistance movements go and in view of the utter futility of engaging Israel in armed struggle, the Palestinians are just so fucking stupid.

Fifth comment. One sees no sign of the Palestinian Authority in the film. It’s as if the Palestinians have no (para-)state authority and are on their own in their interface with the Israelis—but which is, in fact, not the case for the majority of the inhabitants of the West Bank, and particularly in urban areas (where the film takes place). And while Tariq and his pals are presumably in a cell of an armed group and with a hierarchical superior, one does not see this. Cf. Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers,’ which focuses on the FLN’s operation in the Casbah—initiated by Yacef Saadi, who, in the larger FLN organization, counted for nothing outside the city of Algiers—but makes sure to show the higher political leadership. In ‘Omar’, as in other Palestinian films, the Palestinians are depicted as leaderless, and with the “resistance” comprised of freelancing armed gangs. If this is what the Palestinian “resistance” is about, then it had might as well hang it up now, as it is utterly doomed.

As for the aesthetic/cinema side of ‘Omar’, it’s first-rate: excellent acting—particularly Adam Bakri as Omar and Waleed Zuaiter as Rami—, good dialogue, well-directed, gripping, and with an ending that knocked the wind out of me… Great movie!

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

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I initially had no interest in seeing this—the trailer didn’t hook me at all; not my kind of movie, even though I thought that the one other film I’d seen by Wes Anderson, “Moonrise Kingdom,” was pretty good—but in view of the stellar reviews on both sides of the Atlantic plus the gushing recommendation from friends and colleagues, decided what the hell, so I went with a friend two evenings ago. And it’s not bad at all. Agreeably entertaining, droll, offbeat characters and an A-list cast… On passe un bon moment. But its Adventures of Tintin portrait of the Old Europe has a more somber side, as Wes Anderson was influenced by the work of Stefan Zweig, who witnessed Europe’s descente aux enfers during the calamitous decade of the 1930s and committed suicide in 1942. Voilà a few articles on this aspect of the film:

Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ Promises to Make Americans Rediscover the Books of Stefan Zweig,” by Jason Diamond, in Flavorwire (February 7th).

‘I stole from Stefan Zweig’: Wes Anderson on the author who inspired his latest movie,” in The Telegraph (March 8th). The lede: As his film The Grand Budapest Hotel hits cinemas, Wes Anderson talks to George Prochnik about its inspiration, the early 20th century Austrian author Stefan Zweig.

Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson, and a longing for the past,” by Richard Brody, in The New Yorker (March 14th).

Wes Anderson’s Elegy to Stefan Zweig,” by Max Nelson, in the Los Angeles Review of Books (March 14th).

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John Mearsheimer—who I am not necessarily a fan of—has an op-ed in today’s NYT, “Getting Ukraine wrong,” that largely gets it right, particularly on this point

Mr. Obama should adopt a new policy toward Russia and Ukraine — one that seeks to prevent war by recognizing Russia’s security interests and upholding Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

To achieve those goals, the United States should emphasize that Georgia and Ukraine will not become NATO members. It should make clear that America will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev. And it should demand that future Ukrainian governments respect minority rights, especially regarding the status of Russian as an official language. In short, Ukraine should remain neutral between East and West.

This recalls Zbigniew Brzezinski’s February 23rd FT op-ed, “Russia needs a ‘Finland option’ for Ukraine.” Money quote

The US could and should convey clearly to Mr Putin that it is prepared to use its influence to make certain a truly independent and territorially undivided Ukraine will pursue policies towards Russia similar to those so effectively practised by Finland: mutually respectful neighbours with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.

In brief, the Finnish model is ideal for Ukraine, the EU and Russia in any larger east-west strategic accommodation.

But to be credible to the Kremlin, the US needs also to spell out privately that attempts to destabilise the emerging democracy in Kiev or detach parts of Ukraine – not to mention even overt or covert Russian participation in its neighbour’s domestic conflicts – would compel Washington to use its influence internationally to prompt steps that would be economically costly to Moscow.

Options to that effect can range from unilateral individual and state-to-state financial sanctions to a review of Russia’s status in the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the Group of Eight leading industrial nations.

FIFA—which is only somewhat less corrupt than Russia and Ukraine—could also reconsider the attribution of the 2018 World Cup to Russia (after it strips Qatar of the 2022 games…).

James Meek—The Guardian’s Kiev correspondent in the 1990s—has a lengthy lead article in the latest LRB on “Putin’s counter-revolution.”

And Christian Caryl has a piece in the upcoming issue of the NYRB on “Putin: During and after Sochi.”

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Anti-Russian demonstration, Simferopol, March 2 2014  (Photo: Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Anti-Russian demonstration, Simferopol, March 2 2014
(Photo: Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

I was away from my computer for three days so wasn’t able to keep up with all the good analyses on Russia/Ukraine of late. Here are two notable ones I’ve read in the past 12 or so hours:

Timothy Snyder, “Crimea: Putin vs. Reality,” in the NYR Blog (March 7th).

Leçons ukrainiennes“: editorial in Le Monde (issue dated March 7th) by editor-in-chief Natalie Nougayrède, who reported from Russia for many years.

To these one may add:

A NYT op-ed (March 7th) by Ben Judah, “London’s laundry business,” on how “Britain is ready to betray Ukraine to protect its cut of Russia’s dirty money.”

Another NYT op-ed: Chrystia Freeland, “Russia has already lost the war” (March 9th). Freeland—a well-known Canadian journalist, politician, and Russia hand—explains that “[t]he biggest danger for Vladimir V. Putin is that Ukraine’s revolution will eventually spread toward Russia.”

In a “Letter from Moscow” in Politico Magazine (March 4th), “Ukraine, Putin TV and the Big Lie,” journalist Leonid Ragozin says “[y]ou won’t believe what the Russian media is saying about America right now.”

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ARTE aired another remarkable documentary last night (for the other one, see previous post), this on the uprising in Homs, Syria, and which was shot over a two-year period by Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki. It won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival (English title: Return to Homs). It may be viewed for the next week on ARTE’s website here (90 minutes, version française).

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ARTE aired a fascinating one-hour documentary last night on Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States—the first ever by a Soviet leader—in September 1959, “Khrouchtchev à la conquête de l’Amérique.” He spent thirteen days in the US—Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, rural Iowa, and Pittsburgh. I of course knew about the visit but hadn’t seen the film footage. The documentary may be watched on ARTE’s website here (or here). It’s absolutely worth it.

What is particularly striking is the hundreds of thousands of people—regular Americans—who turned out to see Khrushchev, lining the streets everywhere he went (and in the towns his train passed through between L.A. and San Francisco). One can hardly imagine that nowadays, of huge crowds spontaneously gathering to greet a visiting foreign leader—in the US, France, or just about anywhere. But that’s the way it was back then. For the anecdote, when Chou En-lai came to Somalia on a state visit in 1964 (I was living there at time), a significant portion of Mogadishu’s population—probably most—turned out to greet him (my memory of this is hazy, as I was a mere lad, but it’s there). Likewise with Nicolae Ceaușescu’s visit to Somalia in 1967. The following year, when Charles De Gaulle came to Ankara, Turkey (where I was now living), tens of thousands of people lined Atatürk boulevard to see him (standing up in the open-top limousine). Ditto when the Apollo 11 astronauts (Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin) came a year later (we got off school for that one). I wonder how many Turks turned out to greet François Hollande on his state visit there in January? Or Americans when he went to the US last month? Poser la question c’est y répondre…

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Viktor Yanukovich and Vladimir Putin, December 17 2013  (Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Viktor Yanukovich and Vladimir Putin, December 17 2013
(Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Voilà more links to worthy articles read over the past 48 hours.

‘We Are Speaking Very Loudly. We Are Carrying a Small Stick’: Dmitri K. Simes on why Russia isn’t taking the U.S. seriously,” in The New Republic (March 3rd). Dmitri Simes (interviewed by John Judis) gives the most sophisticated explanation of Russian perceptions—and a critique of US policy—I’ve seen so far.

Also in TNR (March 3rd): James Mann, “Enough With the Clichés Already: The Obama administration’s rhetoric on Russia is accomplishing nothing.” A biting critique of the Obama administration’s rhetoric on the current crisis by a foreign policy analyst who knows his subject.

In TNR (March 2nd): Julia Ioffe, “Kremlin TV Loves Anti-War Protests—Unless Russia Is the One Waging War: Studies in ‘whataboutism’.” “Whataboutism”: great neologism.

And in TNR (March 2nd): Isaac Chotiner, “Meet Vladimir Putin’s American Apologist.” One doesn’t even need to read the article to guess that the apologist in question is Stephen F. Cohen.

Stephen Kinzer (formerly of the NYT) in a Boston Globe op-ed (March 3rd): “US a full partner in Ukraine debacle.” Kinzer, who appears to share the same general view as Stephen F. Cohen, says that “Any solution short of partition will have to take Russia’s interests into account. Thus far the United States has shown no interest in doing that.” My question to Kinzer: But what precisely are Russia’s interests here and how has the US not respected them?

Anatol Lieven (of King’s College London), “Why Obama Shouldn’t Fall for Putin’s Ukrainian Folly,” in Zócalo Public Square (March 2nd). The lede: Russia and the West have conspired to tear the country apart. Both sides must stand down now or face the consequences.

Mark Galeotti (NYU historian), in his In Moscow’s Shadows blog: “Putin’s Pyrrhic Crimea Campaign” (March 2nd).

Ben Judah (ECFR policy analyst), “Why Russia No Longer Fears the West,” Politico Magazine (March 2nd).

Peter Ackerman, Maciej Bartkowski, and Jack Duvall (specialists of non-violent protest), “Ukraine explained: a nonviolent victory,” OpenDemocracy (March 3rd).

Alain Besançon (major French historian) in a Le Monde op-ed (March 2nd): “«L’aide fraternelle» de la Russie.”

Kathryn Stoner (Stanford U. political scientist), “Putin’s Search for Greatness: Will Ukraine Bring Russia the Superpower Status It Seeks?” Foreign Affairs (March 2nd).

Also in Foreign Affairs (March 3rd): Ivan Krastev (director of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia), “Russian Revisionism: Putin’s Plan For Overturning the European Order.”

(Andréa Fradin, Slate.fr)

(credit: Andréa Fradin, Slate.fr)

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Pro-Russian protesters, Donetsk, March 1 2014. (AFP Photo/Alexander Khudoteply)

Pro-Russian protesters, Donetsk, March 1 2014. (AFP Photo/Alexander Khudoteply)

I’ve been following events in the Ukraine and Russia like everyone—and, like many, don’t quite know how to think about them, except that what’s happening is scary. As for what the US and EU should do, that one’s easy: do all they can to stop violence, try to calm the Russians down, and broker some kind of agreement—if possible—that respects Russia’s vital interests, on the one hand, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine on the other. But I am not going to engage in an extended commentary on the issue, as I am not a specialist of the countries in question, would only be repeating the analyses of real specialists, and with anything I could say bordering on the café de commerce. So in lieu of my pontifications, here are links to worthwhile articles I’ve read on the subject over the past 48 hours or so.

Timothy Snyder, “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda,” on the NYR Blog (March 1st). This piece is particularly good.

Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s War in Crimea Could Soon Spread to Eastern Ukraine. And nobody—not the U.S., not NATO—can stop him,” on The New Republic website (March 1st).

Marie Mendras (one of France’s top Russia specialists), “L’Ukraine est déterminée à occuper sa place,” op-ed in Libération (February 28th).

Charles King (Georgetown U. international affairs and government prof), “Crimea, the Tinderbox,” to appear in print in the March 3rd International New York Times.

Two articles by Alexander J. Motyl (Rutgers U. poli sci prof) dated March 1st: In Foreign Policy, “How Far Will Putin Go?” The lede: Russia’s leader is acting impulsively — and full-scale war may be next; in Foreign Affairs, “Putin’s Play: What Happens After Russia Intervenes in Ukraine.”

Kimberly Marten (Barnard College political scientist), “4 reasons why Crimea is not Abkhazia,” on the WaPo Monkey Cage blog (March 1st).

Writing in the February 28th Libération, Jean Quatremer and Lorraine Millot, “Ukraine: comment l’Union européenne s’est pris les pieds dans le tapis russe.”

David Remnick of The New Yorker, “Putin goes to war” (March 1st).

Mary Mycio, “Crimea and Punishment,” in Slate (March 1st). The lede: Vladimir Putin is miscalculating how easy it will be to control a Crimean mini-state.

Also in Slate (March 1st): Fred Kaplan, “Putin’s War.” The lede: Obama had no good options to stop the invasion. In fact, the only mistake the president made was ever suggesting there would be “consequences.”

If anyone has read or sees a good piece, do pass it along.

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The Lunchbox

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I note that this gem of a movie from India has just opened in the US. I saw it in December and loved it, as did every last person I know who saw it. It is such a touching, charming, poignant film. Two souls in the teeming Bombay megalopolis—a mid 50s widower (played by the well-known Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan) and 30ish housewife with yet no children (the rather attractive actress Nimrat Kaur)—cross paths, though without their paths actually crossing. For a synopsis, go to the film’s website here. In addition to the heartwarming story, watching the pic quite literally made me salivate for Indian food, and particularly Indian home cooking. And one sees the dabbawalas at work: the caste of (illiterate) men who deliver thousands of lunch boxes daily from homes (meals prepared by wives) to offices and workplaces (of husbands) and without ever mistaking an address (except once, in this movie), such that the dabbawala business model, as it were, has been studied by the Harvard Business School (e.g. here and here). The story also concludes exactly as it should, and with the final scene particularly good. So thumbs way up! Don’t miss it! Kenneth Turan’s L.A. Times review is here, French reviews (very good) are here, interview (en français) with director Ritesh Batra is here, trailer is here. BTW, ‘The Lunchbox’ was incomprehensibly not India’s submission to the Oscars for best foreign language film. Had it been, it would be a strong contender to win that award later today.

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2014 Oscars

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For the first time ever I’ve seen every movie nominated in the top categories and before the ceremony (i.e. there were none of utterly no interest, that I declined to see, and/or wasn’t able to see). The list of nominees is here. Some of them I have blog posts on: 12 Years a Slave (excellent), American Hustle (overrated; it’s entertaining and with fine acting but is not that great of a movie), Gravity (good for 3-D but only for 3-D), Nebraska (loved it), and The Wolf of Wall Street (way overrated), plus Blue Jasmine (overrated). As for those I haven’t posted on, voilà my brief take on each:

Captain Phillips: Entertaining, well-done pic and “authentic”—as the Somali pirates are real Somalis, amateurs recruited in the Somali communities in Minneapolis and London—, but the suspense value of which is diminished by the fact that you know how it’s going to turn out. An inherent problem in movies that reenact actual events… As far as Somali piracy films go, I will rate the Danish ‘A Hijacking‘ a notch higher, as it, being European, contains an element of tragedy (as how can piracy on the high seas have no tragedy?). I also wasn’t overly impressed with Tom Hanks’s performance. And it seems that real life crewmen of the Maersk Alabama are hotly contesting the way the film presents Captain Phillips, who, they insist, does not merit hero status.

Dallas Buyers Club: Again, a movie based on a true story, though here I wasn’t well informed on the details going into the theater except that it was about the beginning the AIDS epidemic—in the 1980s—, when a positive diagnosis of HIV meant near certain death and in short order. The pic is very good, thoroughly entertaining, and with a stellar performance by Matthew McConaughey. The other performances, e.g. Jared Leto, are also quite good. Among other things, the film will gratify those who have it out for the pharmaceutical industry (and its often unholy collaboration with doctors). Thumbs up.

Her: First I’ve seen by director Spike Jonze. I normally don’t go for futuristic-type films but this one was very good. Absorbing and mesmerizing. A deep reflection on love and the virtual world spawned by technology. And the acting is first-rate: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (virtually), Amy Adams… Thumbs up!

Philomena: Okay, I thought this was a touching, moving, well done film and with some fine acting—particularly Judy Dench—, that jerked my tears (I’m sentimental, so no joke), and made me loathe even more those who claim to be close to God—here the personnel of the Catholic church—but who make simple, innocent people so unhappy. It’s a movie for the masses—not a chef d’œuvre—but may absolutely be seen.

And then there’s this:

August: Osage County: A two-hour psychodrama at a family gathering in bumfuck Oklahoma, of unattractive, uninteresting, antipathetic, indeed despicable people—with two or three exceptions—screaming at each other almost non-stop. And some of what happens or is revealed in this dysfunctional family’s grand déballage is scarcely believable to boot. Meryl Streep’s (best actress nominee) performance is overwhelmed by the wretchedness of her character. Julia Roberts (best supporting actress nominee) isn’t much better. What a disagreeable movie. Who needs this? Avoid it. At all costs.

Voilà my Oscar ballot:

BEST PICTURE: 12 Years a Slave.
Obviously.

DIRECTING: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave).
Obviously.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club).
I was initially leaning toward Bruce Dern but McConaughey was really first-rate in this.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Judy Dench (Philomena).
Not a hard choice. I couldn’t stand Cate Blanchett in ‘Blue Jasmine’ and Amy Adams was good in ‘American Hustle’ but not meritorious of the top prize. As for Sandra Bullock in ‘Gravity’, forget it.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Bradley Cooper (American Hustle).
This was a coin toss. I’d have normally gone with Barkhad Abdi but it’s so easy for a Somali to play a Somali. And playing a transsexual, as Jared Leto did in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, doesn’t seem overly complicated either. For the record, I’m not a fan of Michael Fassbender.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: June Squibb (Nebraska).
I loved her character in this film. Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o are worthy runners-up. As for Sally Hawkins, nah.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Omar.
Best Palestinian film ever (and which will be the subject of an upcoming blog post). It beats out by a hair The Broken Circle Breakdown, which I loved. The Hunt is a fine film. As for The Great Beauty, see my post from two days ago. The Missing Picture I haven’t seen.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: The Act of Killing.
This is the only one of the five nominees I’ve seen but it doesn’t matter, as none of the others—two of which I know about, two I hadn’t heard of—could possibly rival this incredible documentary.

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