Archive for April, 2014

The Putin System


[update below]

LCP (French C-SPAN) broadcast a very good two-part, 1¾-hour documentary by this title (“Le Système Poutine”) the other night on Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and exercise thereof during his first two terms as president. The documentary, which was made for France 2, dates from 2007 but remains entirely relevant today—which is no doubt why LCP decided to rerun it. It’s absolutely worth watching. It may be viewed (updated) here. As it happens, CBC broadcast a slightly shorter version in English, which may be seen via YouTube here.

It is beyond me how anyone who is not a Russian nationalist could have even minimally favorable sentiments toward that KGB bully boy, though he does have his fans in the West, mainly on the far right: e.g. the French Front National, Hungarian Jobbik, Greek Golden Dawn, and other charming formations out that way on the political spectrum (e.g. see here, here, here, and here). And a certain number of American conservatives—e.g. Patrick Buchanan, Sarah Palin—also have a soft spot for the bear-wrestling, oil-drilling tough guy Putin—American right-wingers have a fetish about being “tough”—, with his defense of Christianity, family values, and all (e.g. here, here, here, and here). Somehow I’m not surprised.

UPDATE: TNR’s Julia Ioffe says that “Putin’s American toady gets even toadyer” (May 1st). That toady is, of course, Stephen Cohen.

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This may seem out-of-the-ordinary but I’ve seen two films from Kazakhstan in the past week. Kazakh cinema is not uninteresting, having produced some noteworthy pics over the years, e.g. Schizo (2004)—which, entre autres, offered a searing portrait of a country and society ravaged by seven decades of Soviet communism—, Tulpan (2008)—I loved this movie, which made my Top 20 best-of list of the last decade—, and Songs from the Southern Seas (2009), to which one may add the 2007 grand spectacle Mongol, which was multinationally produced and acted, and perhaps also the wonderful 2008 Tengri: Blue Heavens, which was directed by a Frenchwoman and mainly set in Kyrgyzstan but whose main character was Kazakh.

The first of the films seen last week was ‘Student’ (en France: L’Etudiant), which showed at Cannes two years ago. Variety’s (positive) review sums it up

A roughly faithful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” despite its setting in contempo Almaty, Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbayev’s “Student” unspools a stark, Bressonian tale of a young man who commits an almost random act of murder. With its deadpan perfs, retro visual style and crime-story plot, the pic almost feels like an Aki Kaurismaki movie but without the jokes or rockabilly music, just the despair.

Contempo Almaty. Looks like a dreary place, with gleaming but soulless office towers, fancy cars, and the accompanying sans foi ni loi nouveau riche guided by the ethos of capitalisme sauvage—Kazakhstan has lots of oil and natural gas, the profits from which accrue to a happy few—, and drab quartiers populaires with crumbling apartment blocks à la sovietique, where the non-nouveau riche live. The film does indeed conjure up Kaurismäki, though I can’t speak about Bresson (whose œuvre, I am embarrassed to admit, I am insufficiently familiar with). The film is, shall we say, languid and with the nameless student protag uttering all of three or four sentences total. Slant magazine’s (not so positive) review, remarking on “the film’s static shots and somnambulistic pacing,” thus concluded

Granted, the obvious precursor here is Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. But whereas Bresson broke the world and humankind down into shards of perceived experience, only to recast them in what Paul Schrader termed “transcendental style,” Omirbaev adopts rigorous montage as nothing more than a fashion, and narrative ambiguity becomes a ploy just to leave shit unexplained.

A lot of “shit” is indeed unexplained, leaving in the dark those who have not read Dostoyevsky’s classic (and I have not, I am not embarrassed to admit). In respect to the novel, THR’s reviewer wasn’t overly impressed with what the director did with it

Of course, Omirbaev has full artistic license to rework his literary source material however he sees fit. His dream sequences are certainly striking, especially one involving a donkey pulling a Range Rover, which pays neat homage to both Dostoevsky and Bresson. Unfortunately, his more conventional dramatic scenes mostly feel flat and banal. By showing us the ill-judged actions of a depressed slacker rather than the tormented confessions of a dangerous mind, Student succeeds only in sucking all the life out of a classic plot.

Dostoyevsky fans may want to check out the pic and decide for themselves, but others should probably hesitate before putting it in the Netflix queue. French reviews, not surprisingly, are mostly very good. Trailer is here.

The other Kazakh film seen last week was ‘Harmony Lessons’ (en France: Leçons d’harmonie), which premiered at the Berlinale last year. This one is good, though makes for tough watching. I’ll let Variety’s Leslie Felperin—also the reviewer of ‘Student’—describe it

Writer-helmer-editor Emir Baigazin demonstrates near-perfect pitch with his first professional feature, “Harmony Lessons,” an immaculately executed study of bullying and revenge in a small town on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Coaxing intense perfs from a young non-pro cast and demonstrating a painterly eye with austere, digitally shot compositions, Baigazin has crafted a disturbing study in crime and punishment that evokes, among others, Kieslowski and Bresson, but still speaks in its own unique voice.

Kieślowski and Bresson. Kazakh directors are definitely inspired by the greats. And they’re into crime and punishment. The protag in this one, Aslan, is, like his counterpart in ‘Student’, catatonic—he hardly utters a word—and is a student, albeit in high school (not university). The school here may be out in the steppes somewhere but it’s elite-looking, with the students in uniform and being prepared for higher education. The underlying theme of the film, or so I interpreted it, is the hierarchically organized violence that permeates Kazakh society at all levels. Even Aslan, who is victimized by the bullies at his school, tortures insects as part of his science experiments. It’s a bleak film but is powerful and well-done. So I recommend it. Other Hollywood critics who saw the pic at film fests gave it the thumbs up (here, here, and here). French reviews are tops. Trailer is here.


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This is the latest film by Iraqi Kurdish/naturalized French director Hiner Saleem, who directed the well-regarded ‘Vodka Lemon‘—which I have yet to see—, ‘Kilomètre Zéro‘, and ‘Si tu meurs, je te tue‘—which I did see (both good). I greatly enjoyed this one. It’s a genre Western set in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I’ll let Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg, who saw the pic at Cannes last year, describe it

The opening sequence shows off Saleem’s deliciously picaresque humor, as independent Kurdistan’s first legal hanging is derailed by faulty equipment. If the scene feels like a Western set in a flea-bitten Mexican border town, the comparison is apt, since the helmer plays with parallels emphasizing the rudimentary infrastructure of the newly autonomous nation and the entitlements of regional warlords. Reluctant policeman Baran (intense-eyed, charismatic Korkmaz Arslan) wants to give up the force, but a brief return home to mother convinces him he needs to get away.

Baran is transferred to a godforsaken settlement near the Turkish frontier, where smuggling is the accepted way of life. Local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi) offers the lawman protection in exchange for looking the other way, but the upstanding Baran isn’t interested in dealmaking. While unsympathetic to the smugglers, he gives clandestine support to a team of female Kurdish freedom fighters trying to get medical supplies to needy comrades.

The romance angle comes courtesy of returning schoolteacher Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), back in town after convincing her family she’s not ready to be married off quite yet. Frozen out by local parents uninterested in having their kids educated, she’s also a target for Aziz Aga’s salacious crew, which looks to humiliate the independent woman. Baran comes to her defense and gets involved when word gets back to Govend’s father that his daughter is immoral.

The pic’s ungainly title is derived from “Pepper Land,” the name of the local saloon and the only gathering place in this one-horse town. For Saleem, telling his story in an oater format allows him to indulge in a fair amount of genre play along with the Western genre’s longstanding openness to upending gender stereotypes. Govend is the victim of a smear campaign, yet she’s also unwilling to forgo her independence — the joy of freedom beaming from her face while heading back to town and away from the family makes clear her self-confidence and unwillingness to compromise. Adding all-women freedom fighters furthers the femme-empowerment message.

Enjoyable storytelling and sympathetic performances run throughout the story, though for sheer laugh-out-loud absurdism, nothing beats the healthy self-mockery of the opener. A calculated sparseness in the setting acts as a unifying force, especially when scenes tend to have a self-contained feel that doesn’t always create a sense of flow. Visuals favor Sergio Leone-style closeups along with stunning landscapes featuring pink-tinged sunsets and ravines like Utah canyons, showcasing Kurdistan’s natural beauties. Music features a smile-inducing mix of tunes ranging from Elvis to Western twangs to rockabilly, tied together by the multitalented Farahani’s own playing on the steel hang.

Second degré absurdism underlies the whole film, e.g. “sheriff” Baran playing Bach and Elvis in his “one-horse” Kurdish village and the all-female detachment of Turkish Kurdish (obviously PKK) guerrillas. But the pic also takes on more serious themes, such as archaic codes of honor, patriarchy, and forced marriage, which is what the protag Govend resists. And, it should be said, the sublime Golshifteh Farahani is more beautiful than ever, rien à dire. Another theme: the determination of the intrepid, incorruptible Baran to impose the authority of the state and rule of law, here on the outlaw tribal potentate Aziz Aga. French reviews of the film are mostly tops (and particularly those of Allociné spectateurs), as is critic Deborah Young’s in The Hollywood Reporter. Trailer is here. So thumbs up to this one! À ne pas manquer.

While I’m at it, I should mention an Afghan film I saw last fall, ‘Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)’, directed by Barmak Akram, which also deals with patriarchy and archaic codes of honor, but not among tribespeople or villagers but in the educated, urban well-to-do class, here in contemporary Kabul. It’s a bleak, depressing film, and does not offer a very positive image of Afghan society—as I tweeted after seeing it—but is well done and may be seen. Hollywood reviews (good to mixed) are here, here, and here, French reviews (mostly tops) here, trailer is here.


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New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has an article, dated April 6th, of this title, which is one of the more interesting examinations I’ve read on the exasperating, poisonous liberal-left vs. conservative-right polemic over Obama’s presidency and the issue of race. The lede: “Optimists hoped Obama would usher in a new age of racial harmony. Pessimists feared a surge in racial strife. Neither was right. But what happened instead has been even more invidious.”

There are lots of good passages in the article, in particular this one

…the truth is almost too brutal to be acknowledged. A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists—Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen—published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents. The authors tested their findings against every plausible control factor—for instance, whether the results could be explained simply by population density—but the correlation held. Higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 made white Southerners more opposed to affirmative action, score higher on the anti-black-affect scale, and more hostile to Democrats.

The authors suggest that the economic shock of emancipation, which suddenly raised wages among the black labor pool, caused whites in the most slave-intensive counties to “promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs,” which “produced racially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.” The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North—an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.

The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.

The article is lengthy but well worth the read.

Chait, who is one of the best political journalists in America these days, also has a piece in NY Mag, dated April 23rd, asking “Is the rising Democratic majority doomed?” The short answer: no, but the Repubs are not totally down and out.

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[updates below]

That’s what political scientists Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson call him in a TAP forum, “Piketty’s Triumph,” on the publication this month of his Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), which has been taking the US by storm. It’s really something the gushing attention that’s being showered by the American chattering class on a 700-page book by a left-wing French economist—who could write his own ticket in American academia but prefers life in Paris—and the English version of which is a translation from French. I’ve been familiar with Thomas Piketty’s work and perspectives for a while, as he has been writing for and speaking to the larger public on economic issues since early in the last decade—he had a regular economics column in Libération for several years, entre autres—, and was an economic adviser to successive Socialist party presidential candidates. I haven’t yet read his latest book; I’d normally get a copy here in V.O.—it was published last September by Editions du Seuil—but as the English one was translated by my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer—and who no doubt improved on the original French version—, that’s what I’ll read.

Even if I had read the book, though, I wouldn’t offer a review of it, as there are countless others more competent to do that than I. Here are links to good stuff I’ve read (or watched) of late on Piketty’s magnum opus:

One of the best is Emily Eakin’s April 17th article in The Chronicle Review, “Capital Man.” The lede: Thomas Piketty is economics’ biggest sensation. He’s also the field’s fiercest critic.

Paul Krugman—who’s been singing Piketty’s praises on his NYT blog—has a review essay on the book in the NYRB (issue dated May 8th), “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age.”

Bill Moyers, on his TV show Moyers & Company, had a great 20-minute interview last night with Krugman on Piketty’s book, “What the 1% Don’t Want You to Know.” Make sure to watch this one.

On Tuesday the Tax Policy Center—of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution—had an hour-and-a-half forum, at the Urban Institute in Washington, on Piketty’s book, with Piketty presenting his argument and then commentary by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (liberal-left) and Kevin Hassett (co-author of the 1999 best-seller Dow 36,000) of the American Enterprise Institute (conservative). A good, highbrow debate. Watch it here.

On Wednesday the CUNY Graduate Center hosted an event on the book, with Piketty, Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Steven Durlauf, and moderated by Janet Gornick and Branko Milanović. I wish I could have attended that one. It may be seen on the Graduate Center’s YouTube channel.

For those who can follow French, here’s Piketty debating Emmanuel Todd last September 6th on France 2’s Ce soir ou jamais, on the occasion of the book’s V.O. publication.

The New Republic’s Marc Tracy has a piece (April 17th), “The Economist Was a Rock Star.” The lede: Thomas Piketty isn’t just a brilliant economist; he’s a fantastic storyteller.

À propos, see the dispatch in yesterday’s NYT, “Economist Receives Rock Star Treatment.”

In The Observer (April 13th) is a commentary by Andrew Hussey entitled “Occupy was right: capitalism has failed the world.” The lede: One of the slogans of the 2011 Occupy protests was ‘capitalism isn’t working’. Now, in an epic, groundbreaking new book, French economist Thomas Piketty explains why they’re right.

For a critique of Piketty’s book from the left, see economist James K. Galbraith’s “Kapital for the Twenty-First Century?” in the Spring issue of Dissent. Entre autres, Galbraith sniffs that Piketty’s policy views “reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal.”

See also Dean Baker’s critique, “Capital in the 21 Century: Still Mired in the 19th,” on the Huff Post Business blog (March 9th).

For a slew of other reviews of Piketty’s book (by e.g. Brad DeLong, Doug Henwood, John Cassidy…), go to this post on the CEPR website.

I had a blog post three years ago in which I made reference to a book Piketty co-authored (with Camille Landais and Emmanuel Saez) that detailed a progressive proposal on how to reform the (impossibly complex and perverse) French tax code. Among the intended recipients of the plan were PS presidential candidates, who would be in a position to take it up in the event one of them were elected in 2012. So has François Hollande adopted the Piketty et al plan as his own? Yeah, sure.

UPDATE: Columbia University Ph.D. student Timothy Shenk has a lengthy essay in The Nation (May 5th issue), “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality.” The lede: Capitalism’s new critics take on an economics run amok.

2nd UPDATE: Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (conservative)—who asked the final question in the Tax Policy Center forum linked to above—has a critique of Piketty in Forbes (April 17th), “Whither The Bottom 90 Percent, Thomas Piketty?” He thus begins: “While not quite inducing Beatlemania, French economist Thomas Piketty’s visit this week to America has inspired the Washington analog of teenage frenzy.” This looks to be the first in a series of pieces Winship will be publishing in Forbes on Piketty’s book.

3rd UPDATE: Robert Solow, 1987 Nobel Prize in economics laureate, has a review essay on the book in TNR (April 22nd), in which he says that “Thomas Piketty Is Right.”

4th UPDATE: Piketty’s book is presently Amazon.com’s nº1 best-seller. Amazing. À propos, Rana Foroohar, a Time magazine editor of economics and business, explains why “this best-selling book is freaking out the super-wealthy.” (April 23rd)

5th UPDATE: Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, who teaches at George Mason University—a well-known repaire of public choice theorists—, has a review of Piketty’s book in Foreign Affairs (May-June issue), “Capital Punishment: Why a Global Tax on Wealth Won’t End Inequality.”

6th UPDATE: TNR’s Marc Tracy has a piece (April 24th) on “Piketty’s ‘Capital’: A Hit That Was, Wasn’t, Then Was Again.” The lede: How the French tome has rocked the tiny Harvard University Press.

7th UPDATE: U.Va. political scientist Deborah Boucoyannis has a post on The Monkey Cage blog (April 22nd) arguing that “Adam Smith is not the antidote to Thomas Piketty.”

8th UPDATE: UC-Berkeley’s Brad DeLong, writing on The Equitablog (April 23rd), offers his take on Piketty’s book. His conclusion: “To sum up: a very good book, a very, as Solow says, serious book. It has certainly moved me from thinking that the odds that two generations hence we will have a much more unequal and plutocratic society were 2-1 against to thinking that they are 3-1 for…”

9th UPDATE: Here’s Martin Wolf’s review of the book in the FT (April 15th), which I missed. Voilà Wolf’s conclusion: “For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realisation, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it. In a society dominated by wealth, money will buy power. Inequality cannot be eliminated. It is inevitable and to a degree even desirable. But, as the Greeks argued, there needs to be moderation in all things. We are not seeing moderate rises in inequality. We should take notice.” Amen.

10th UPDATE: Duke University law and political theory prof Jedediah Purdy has a review essay of Piketty’s book in the Los Angeles Review of Books (April 24th), “To Have and Have Not.”

11th UPDATE: Paul Krugman’s column in the April 25th NYT focuses on “The Piketty Panic” on the American right.

12th UPDATE: Ross Douthat, a columnist I normally don’t bother reading, has a post (April 25th) on his NYT blog that attracted my attention on account of the title, “Piketty and the petits rentiers,” and in which he makes some valid points.

13th UPDATE: Tim Fernholz, who writes on politics and economics for Quartz—”a digitally native news outlet, born in 2012, for business people in the new global economy”—, has a piece (March 30th) on “Everything wrong with capitalism, as explained by Balzac, ‘House’ and ‘The Aristocats’,” in which he meditates on the dilemma of Rastignac as spelled out in Piketty’s book.

14th UPDATE: Martin Wolf’s latest FT column (April 25th), taking up “the rising tide of anxiety” in reaction to Piketty’s book, argues that “A more equal society will not hinder growth.” The lede: Inequality damages the economy and efforts to remedy it are, on the whole, not harmful. Wolf informs the reader that, two months ago, “the staff of the International Monetary Fund…in a note entitled Redistribution, Inequality and Growth…came to clear conclusions: societies that start off more unequal tend to redistribute more; lower net inequality (post-interventions) drives faster and more durable growth; and redistribution is generally benign in its impact on growth, with negative effects only when taken to extremes.” Further down Wolf writes that “It is not only possible, but valuable, to marry open and dynamic market economies to the sense of shared purpose and achievement brought by tolerable degrees of inequality. Moreover, less inequality is likely to make economies work better by increasing the ability of the entire population to participate, on more equal terms. An important condition for this, in turn, is that politics not be unduly beholden to wealth.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

15th UPDATE: Financial journalist and blogger Felix Salmon has a post on the Reuters blog (April 25th), “The Piketty pessimist,” in which, entre autres, he links to Chrystia Freeland’s April 20th review in Politico, “The book every plutocrat should read: Thomas Piketty’s new tome just might save the super-rich from themselves,” and former World Bank economist Branko Milanović’s 20-page “The return of ‘patrimonial capitalism’: review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century,” from last October.

16th UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer, writing in The Daily Beast (April 26th), incisively explains how right-wing columnist James Poulos “gets Piketty–and Tocqueville–wrong.”

17th UPDATE: Garett Jones, who teaches econ at George Mason U., has a critique of Piketty (April 26th), “Living with Inequality,” on the Über-libertarian website Reason.com. The lede: Has Thomas Piketty really found “the central contradiction of capitalism”?

18th UPDATE: Here’s yet another argument for Piketty’s global wealth tax.

19th UPDATE: The NYT’s David Leonhardt writes in the NYT Magazine (May 2nd) that “Inequality has been going on forever…but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.” He says that “For all of the clarity of Piketty’s historical analysis, I emerged from the book not quite grasping the mechanics of rising inequality. What is it about market economies that typically cause the assets and incomes of the rich to rise more rapidly than those of everyone else? So I called Piketty at his office in Paris, and he agreed to walk me through it.” And Piketty does.

20th UPDATE: TNR’s Isaac Chotiner has an “Interview with the left’s rock star economist” (May 5th), in which the economist in question, Thomas Piketty, says “I don’t care for Marx.” Dis donc. At the end of the interview is a 42-minute video discussion with Piketty in Huffington Post Politics, led by Ryan Grim and former Wall Street banker Alexis Goldstein.

21st UPDATE: TNR’s John B. Judis follows up from Chotiner’s Piketty interview with a piece (May 6th) informing the reader that “Thomas Piketty Is Pulling Your Leg.” The lede: He clearly read Karl Marx. But don’t call him a Marxist.

22nd UPDATE: Mike Konczal, who blogs at Rortybomb, has a review essay (April 29th) in the Boston Review on “Studying the Rich: Thomas Piketty and his Critics.”

23rd UPDATE: Writing in the NYT’s The Upshot blog (May 9th), Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities examines a conservative/libertarian critique of Piketty, concluding that “Piketty’s Arguments Still Hold Up, After Taxes.”

24th UPDATE: Salon.com columnist Thomas Frank—of What’s the Matter with Kansas? fame—has a piece (May 11th) explaining “The problem with Thomas Piketty: ‘Capital’ destroys right-wing lies, but there’s one solution it forgets.” The lede: After “Capital,” we’ll never talk income inequality or meritocratic myths the same way. But we must talk unions.

25th UPDATE: Economists Odran Bonnet, Pierre-Henri Bono, Guillaume Chapelle and Etienne Wasmer—affiliated with Sciences Po-Paris’s Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’évaluation des politiques publiques (LIEPP)—published a working paper on April 17th (in French and with English translation), “Does housing capital contribute to inequality? A comment on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,” in which they contradict Piketty’s thesis. The paper was mentioned in a post (April 29th) on the NYT’s The Upshot blog by libertarian economists Tyler Cowen and Veronique de Rugy, “Why Piketty’s Book Is a Bigger Deal in America Than in France.”

26th UPDATE: Thomas B. Edsall has a column (May 14th) in the NYT on “Thomas Piketty and His Critics.” Among the critics he mentions—and whose reviews he links to—are Kenneth Rogoff and Clive Crook.

27th UPDATE: The Spring 2014 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas has a review of Piketty’s book by Lawrence Summers, “The Inequality Puzzle.” The lede: Thomas Piketty’s tour de force analysis doesn’t get everything right, but it’s certainly gotten us pondering the right questions.

28th UPDATE: Dani Rodrik, writing in Social Europe Journal (May 16th), weighs in on “Piketty and the Zeitgeist.” Money quote: “Perhaps more than the argument itself, what makes Capital in the Twenty-First Century a great read is the sense of witnessing a superb mind grapple with the big questions of our time. Piketty’s emphasis on the political nature of the distribution of income; his subtle back-and-forth between the general laws of capitalism and the role played by contingency; and his willingness to offer bold (if, to many, impractical) remedies to save capitalism from itself are as refreshing as they are rare for an economist.”

29th UPDATE: Jeff Madrick, writing on the Triple Crisis blog (May 20th), asks “Is the Piketty enthusiasm bubble subsiding?

30th UPDATE: Uh oh, the FT reports (May 23rd) that the “Piketty findings [are] undercut by errors.”

31st UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a post (May 24th) on his NYT blog on the “[g]reat buzz in the blogosphere over Chris Giles’s [FT] attack on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,” in which he asks “Is Piketty all wrong?” The short answer: a little bit but not really. In the post, Krugman links to two posts on the NYT’s The Upshot blog that also take on Chris Giles’s attack, one by University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, who says that the “new critique of Piketty has its own shortcomings,” the other by Neil Irwin, who asks “Did Thomas Piketty get his math wrong?

32nd UPDATE: The Economist’s Free Exchange blog has a post (May 24th) on the Piketty data error brouhaha, asking is there “A Piketty problem?” The short answer: Insofar as there is one it does not “support many of the allegations made by the FT, or the conclusion that the book’s argument is wrong.” The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim informs us that “The economists FT relied on for its Thomas Piketty takedown don’t buy it” (May 27th). And Channel 4 News economics editor Paul Mason writes in The Guardian that “Thomas Piketty’s real challenge was to the FT’s Rolex types.” The lede: If the FT’s attack on the radical economist’s ‘rising inequality’ thesis is right, then all the gross designer bling in its How To Spend It section can be morally justified.

33rd UPDATE: More pushback against the Chris Giles FT attack. Mike Konczal at Rortybomb says “The FT Gets Piketty’s Capital Argument Wrong” (May 24th).

thomas piketty_capital in the twenty first century

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Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Maxppp)

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, European Parliament, Strasbourg (Maxppp)

There has been a torrent of tributes of late to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who has announced that he will not be running for reelection to the European Parliament next month, signaling, in effect, his retirement from electoral politics. I am, needless to say, a big fan of Dany’s, adhering to his political positions 93% of the time and to his values, world-view, and spirit a full 100%. He’s great, c’est tout ce que je peux dire à son sujet (for those on the hard left who despise him—who call him a sell-out, or worse—, they can just go bugger off). Cohn-Bendit has been a fixture in the European Parliament for the past twenty years—elected with the German Die Grünen in 1994 and 2004, with Les Verts/EELV in 1999 and 2009 (his heading the French lists causing their scores to spike)—, the veritable conscience of that body, and a fierce defender of the European project. Le Monde, in an online piece on Wednesday on DCB’s two decades as MEP, linked to videos of some of his more memorable interventions in recent years during plenary sessions in Strasbourg. They’re great. As the LM piece will eventually disappear behind the paywall, here are the vids:

Dany giving his farewell speech on Wednesday.

Dany reprimanding Martin Schulz in 2010 for voting to approve the Barroso Commission—and telling him ta gueule! i.e. STFU, while he was at it (no hard feelings from Schulz, who is a good guy himself).

Dany verbally pummeling Victor Orbán in 2012 and to his face.

Dany giving President Hollande a hard time in 2013, and addressing him in the familiar form.

Dany letting Jean-Marie Le Pen have it in 2011, after the latter’s scandalous reaction to the Utoya massacre in Norway.

Dany in 2012 telling the Earl of Dartmouth—UKIP MEP—a few home truths (and in English).

Daniel Cohn-Bendit is sui generis. As I’ve already said twice, he’s great. Brussels and Strasbourg will be diminished without him.

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[update below]

Pascal Riché has an important article in Rue89 on the growing debate in France over quitting the euro and the arguments for and against, and which he advises people to familiarize themselves with—”Entraînez-vous au débat qui déchirera vos dîners dans quelques semaines” he says—, as the debate will no doubt rise to a fever pitch during the election campaign for the European Parliament (May 25th in France). Riché notes that, until recently, most French critics of the ECB’s monetary policy and the SGP nonetheless argued that the euro was a net plus for France and that exiting from it was unthinkable. The only ones arguing otherwise—that France should and must quit the euro—have been the Front National, souverainistes like Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, extreme left groupuscules, and a handful of economists (the usual suspects on this subject, e.g. Jean-Jacques Rosa, Jacques Sapir). But Riché now observes that the arguments for leaving the euro are going mainstream, noting in particular the revirement on the question by the high-profile Keynesian economist Bernard Maris, an irreducible partisan of Europe—he voted ‘oui’ in both the TEU and ECT referendums—, but who has regretfully come to the conclusion that France has no hope of increasing economic growth and lowering unemployment so long as it remains in the single currency dominated as it by Germany. I was indeed surprised to hear Maris—of whom I am a fan—make this argument last Friday in his weekly debate on France Inter with the libéral/free-market economics journalist Dominique Seux, and equally surprised to hear Seux’s tepid counter-argument, in which he conceded many of Maris’s points (listen here). And this morning on France Inter I listened to invited guest Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who argued for six minutes straight why the euro has been disastrous for the French economy and that the only salvation for France is to exit from it. Some of Dupont-Aignan’s points were exaggerated or simplistic but he is exceptionally well-spoken and his argumentation is coherent (listen here); and it will certainly be convincing to many citizens who are otherwise not right-wing Eurosceptics or nostalgics for a Gaullist golden age.

IMHO the arguments for staying in the euro are still stronger than those for leaving—the consequences of which could indeed be calamitous—but my convictions on this are becoming shaky. It is, however, clear that the single currency was an error—and that having it run according to German conditions was a double error. I cannot imagine for a second that President Hollande or any of his credible successors would ever make such a fateful decision to leave the euro. But if the euro remains overvalued and France continues to privilege deficit reduction over economic growth, then the economic and social situation in this country is going to get worse, and with political and social consequences one can only imagine.

À suivre.

UPDATE: French News Online informs me—in the comments below—that they had a story back on Feb. 7th on how “The French want out of the euro.” In other words, FNO scooped me and by a long shot. J’en prends acte.

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Simon Worou, Saint-Juliette-sur-Viaur (Photo La Dépêche.fr/DDM J.-L. P.)

Simon Worou, Saint-Juliette-sur-Viaur (Photo: La Dépêche/DDM J.-L. P.)

The France 2 news last night had a report on the newly elected mayor of Saint-Juliette-sur-Viaur (population: 577) in the Aveyron—way down in the Midi-Pyrénées—, the 43-year-old Simon Worou, who hails from Togo. This village is about as France profonde as one can get. Worou—a technicien supérieur by profession in nearby Rodez, the prefecture of the Aveyron—arrived in France in the mid ’90s to train with the French air force, landed in the village soon after, married a local girl—of farmer parents and whose grandparents had never seen a black person in their lives—, took French nationality, and—not insignificantly in that part of the country—joined the local rugby team. He encountered a fair amount of racism, as mentioned in the France 2 report (and here and here), but integrated into the life of the village and became an upstanding member of the community. And now he’s the mayor, his list winning 62% of the vote in the first round of last month’s municipal elections.

As it happens, Worou is not France’s first mayor of Togolese origin, that distinction being held by the better known Kofi Yamgnane, who was mayor of the Breton village of Saint-Coulitz (Finistère) for 12 years from 1989 and served as a junior minister in the governments of Edith Cresson and Pierre Bérégevoy (1991-93).

Somehow I have a hard time imagining a recent immigrant from, say, Ghana or Nigeria settling in a village in Kansas or Montana and being elected mayor…

Isn’t France a great country?

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Ilo Ilo & A Simple Life

Ilo Ilo Movie Poster

This is a gem of a film from Singapore I saw last September, when it opened in Paris, and that a stateside friend informs me is currently playing in the US (he saw it and liked it). The film—29-year-old Anthony Chen’s directorial debut and for which he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last year (and to a 15-minute standing ovation)—is set in Singapore during the 1997 financial crisis and centers on a middle-class couple going through a rough patch—the office employee husband (actor Chen Tian Zen) having lost his job, which increases the already existing tensions in their relationship—and who hire a live-in Filipina housekeeper and nanny, named Terry (actress Angeli Bayani), to tend to their turbulent, headstrong 10-year-old son, Jiale (played by the remarkable Koh Jia Ler, in his first role), while his working mother (actress Yeo Yann Yann) sees through her pregnancy. The parents cannot cope with the bratty, undisciplined Jiale, and who torments Terry when she joins their household. But Terry is patient with him and the two eventually bond—and which arouses the jealously of Jiale’s mother, who was already cool toward her. As the couple’s financial difficulties mount they decide they can’t afford to keep Terry—and despite the important, stabilizing role she plays in Jiale’s life—, so she returns to the Philippines.

The film, as Kenneth Turan put it in his (stellar) review in the L.A. Times

quietly demonstrates that in the right hands [of director Anthony Chen] even the familiar stuff of everyday life can move us deeply. (…) Created in a sensitive, neo-realistic style, “Ilo Ilo” deals with how emotional connections are made and frayed, with the different ways individuals become important to us and how that dynamic plays out in the lives of children who are essentially powerless over their personal situations. (…) The great joy of “Ilo Ilo” is that, aided by naturalistic acting by all concerned…everything is allowed to happen believably in its own space and time, pulling us gradually but deeply into these people’s lives. It is difficult to overstate how real and touching all this feels and how much it ends up affecting us.

Yes, absolutely. The story was inspired by the director’s own childhood experience, of his family’s live-in Filipina maid until he was 12-years-old and to whom he was attached. She was an important person in his early life—he called her Aunt Terry—but the family lost touch but with her, remembering only that she came from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines (thus film’s international title; the Chinese title translates as “mother and father are not home”). Reviews of the pic have been tops across the board, in both the US—e.g. see Stephen Holden’s in the NYT—and in France. The trailer may be seen on the film’s website.

Similar to ‘Ilo Ilo’ was a film from Hong Kong I also saw last year, ‘A Simple Life’ (en France: ‘Une vie simple’), by director Ann Hui, about a 40ish film producer named Roger (actor Andy Lau) and his lifelong domestic, Ah Tao (actress Deanie Ip), who has served four generations of Roger’s upper middle class family over six decades. Roger, who’s a bachelor, is the only one left in the house, as his siblings have long married and moved out, his father has passed away, and his mother lives abroad, so Ah Tao tends exclusively to him, cooking his meals and all. But she’s in her late 60s and suffers a stroke, so obviously has to stop working. Roger wants to hire a caregiver for her at home but she insists on going to a nursing home, so he accedes to that. She’s been Roger’s family’s domestic all his life—and most of hers—and has become an integral member of the family—and to whom he is closer than he is to his own mother. And the situations are now reversed, with him now taking care of and tending to her.

I loved this movie, as did the friend with whom I saw it (it made my Top 10 list of 2013). It is so moving and touching, well-acted and just all around excellent. The relationship of Ah Tao to Roger and his family is at the center of the film but it also depicts, more generally, a world that is disappearing, of middle class families in Hong Kong—and other societies—and the domestics who worked for them, who were engaged by the families as children and served them for a lifetime. In Hong Kong, poor families who sent their children to be domestics with well-to-do families often named them “Chun” or “Tao,” to the point where these names came to be associated with domestics. There’s a great scene in the movie where Ah Tao, before she moves into the nursing home, is interviewing a job applicant to replace her. She informs the young woman of what will be expected of her, of how she is to tend to Roger—fussing over him, giving him massages, and all—, to which the applicant responds to the effect of “I’m not going to do that shit! Fuck that!” and then gets up and walks out. Lower class women in today’s Hong Kong are no longer available for that kind of work (as in Western societies, where housekeepers and nannies are invariably immigrants). As it happens, the film is based on the real life story of its producer, Roger Lee. Reviews were tops in France and in the US (see, in particular, this 4-star review by the late Roger Ebert). Trailer is here.


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patrick seale

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

He died yesterday. At 84, from brain cancer. Patrick Seale was one of the premier Middle East journalists of the past five decades. I was, as I wrote in a post exactly two years ago, a decades-long admirer of his work, despite his decades-long apologetics for the Syrian Ba’athist regime and disagreement with a number of his views on and interpretations of Middle East geopolitics. His 1965 classic The Struggle for Syria: A Study in Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958 is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the Middle East (it’s unfortunately out of print; I liked this one so much that I read it twice, and then bought a copy when Yale University Press briefly brought it back in print in the late ’80s). And his weighty biography of Hafez al-Assad, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, is also up there with the best (this one is still in print). His massive biography of Riad el-Solh I haven’t read. Un de ces jours…

Though I admired his work I probably wouldn’t be writing this post if I hadn’t known Patrick personally. We first met in 2008, here in Paris, where he lived for many years. He invited me to his well-appointed flat in the 16th arrondissement and I invited him in turn to speak in a graduate-level class I was teaching on the modern Middle East. The students greatly appreciated his talk, so they told me, and found him engaging and amiable, which he was.

Seale was naturally best known for his writing and commentary on the Middle East but less so for that on France. À propos, he was a co-author of a book on the May 1968 events that I consider to be the best on the subject in English, and to which I have devoted a blog post.

The Lebanese journalist Michael Young, learning of Seale’s terminal illness, had a fine—though not entirely uncritical—tribute to him a week ago, that one may read here.

UPDATE: Historian Bruce Maddy-Weitzman posted this comment on my FB page

Young’s review pointed to an important point – Seale’s increasing penchant, as time went on, to emphasize conspiracy theories to explain events. One of the worst examples is in the Asad biography, where he explains the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war as a case of a brilliant Israeli deception by manufacturing a crisis to lure Nasser into Sinai so that his army could be smashed and Israel could grab territory. It was such a brilliant ruse, he said, that even the Israeli public believed that it was in mortal danger. This was the classic explanation in the Arab world after the war about what had happend – Arab governments have no agency and no responsibility for what happens.

It was indeed the case that Seale had a penchant for conspiracy theorizing, at least in regards to Israel. E.g. Michael Young mentions Seale’s suggestion that Abu Nidal may have been an Israeli agent, which, to put it mildly, didn’t make a lot of sense—and which no serious observer of the Middle East took seriously. À propos, Martin Kramer related an anecdote to me several years ago of Seale’s visit to Jerusalem circa 1995, during which Kramer asked Seale if he really, honestly believed what he wrote in his 1992 book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire, about Abu Nidal doing Israel’s bidding, to which Seale smiled and shrugged, indicating that he either didn’t take his speculation too seriously himself or had no evidence whatever to back up it—apart from what Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), his principal informant for the book, told him—, so wouldn’t insist. In 2008 I asked Seale himself about some of what he wrote in the Abu Nidal book but he had forgotten the details.

A particularly vicious, mean-spirited, mendacious “obituary” of Seale posted on a blog called Syria Promise has been making the rounds since yesterday, in which it is claimed, among other things, that Seale knew no Arabic. This is bullshit. Seale’s books on Syria each contain six pages of bibliographic references in Arabic. There is simply no way he could have written those books—and particularly The Struggle for Syria—without a good command of Arabic (reading at least). And he spent the first 15 years of his life in Syria—where, it stands to reason, he would have acquired at least some knowledge of the language—and was a student of Albert Hourani’s at Oxford, under whose stewardship he would have no doubt perfected his linguistic skills (on this, see the obits in Al-Arabiya and The Guardian). As for this Syria Promise blog, it has but one post—the nasty one on Seale—, indicating that it was created specifically for this purpose. And the blog’s author gives no hint as to his or her identity. What an abject, cowardly S.O.B.

2nd UPDATE: Martin Kramer has a remembrance in Commentary of “Patrick Seale in Israel.” As it happens, the anecdote I recounted above was a little off on the date and place.

3rd UPDATE: Adam Shatz has a remembrance of Patrick Seale, published in MERIP. (May 1st)

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Just after the June 2012 legislative elections I had a post on “deputies of diversity“: of the six new Maghrebi/Muslim/African-origin deputies elected to the National Assembly—all PS—, the first-ever to issue from post-colonial immigrant communities. One of the noteworthy stories of last month’s municipal elections—but which went absolutely, totally unreported in the national media, including in newspapers like Le Monde (in their hard copy, at least)—was the first-ever election of a mayor of Maghrebi/Muslim origin in a municipality of over 30,000 inhabitants in metropolitan France: Azzédine Taïbi, age 49 and of Algerian immigrant parents, who was elected mayor of Stains—a commune in the heart of the Seine-Saint-Denis (le neuf-trois)—on the PCF-headed Front de Gauche list. This is not an insignificant event IMO, but which the media did not bother to report—and with Taïbi and his party engaging in no publicity on it, as if the first-ever election of a mayor of Maghrebi/Muslim origin in metropolitan France were such a banal event—which it is not—as not to be worthy of particular mention (except in online only dispatches).

One should mention, for the record, the election last month of Algerian-origin Samia Ghali as mayor of Marseille’s 8th sector, though this only counts somewhat, as mayors of Marseille sectors, which group two arrondissements each, are, in effect, sub-mayors and with limited powers (like mayors of Paris arrondissements). And when it comes to “diversity” mayors, I do not count Rachida Dati, who was re-elected mayor of Paris’s upper bourgeois 7th arrondissement (Eiffel Tower, Invalides, Rodin Museum…). Pour mémoire, in the 2008 municipal elections Mme Dati was—at President Sarkozy’s instructions—parachuted into the 7th—where, needless to say, she had no roots whatever—as head of the UMP list; and as the 7th is as safe for the right/UMP as one can get, there was not a chance she was going to lose.

In smaller communes, the Muslim/Mauritanian-origin Marieme Tamata-Varin was elected mayor of Yèbles (pop. 700) in the Seine-et-Marne and fils de harki Mohand Hamoumou was re-elected mayor of Volvic (pop. 4,000), of mineral water fame, in the Puy-de-Dôme (pour l’info, the published version of Hamoumou’s doctoral thesis—his directrice de thèse having been the prominent sociologist Dominique Schnapper—was one of the first academic studies of the Harkis—and which I thought was quite good when I read it some two decades back—though I recall him advancing the absurdly exaggerated figure of 150,000 Harkis killed by the FLN after Algeria’s independence).

All in all, the number of conseillers municipaux of non-European immigrant origin, according to La Gazette.fr, went from 1,069 to 2,343 in this election, i.e. 6.7% of the total. That is not an insignificant increase. L’intégration est en marche.

One rising “diversity” politician of note is Karim Zéribi, an EELV MEP from Marseille, whom I’ve been hearing about off and on since the late ’90s, when he was a chevènementiste—he’s made the rounds of the parties of the left—and up-and-coming Marseillais politician of Maghrebi (Algerian) origin, though who has yet to acquire a national reputation. Two nights ago he was interviewed sur le plateau on the Europe Hebdo news magazine of LCP/Public Sénat (French C-SPAN)—watch here (I love his Midi de la France accent)—on the negotiations underway between the EU and USA over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership/Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TTIP/TAFTA), which Zéribi argues would be terrible for Europe. He was good. And quite certainly correct in his critique of the process, as there is no way that the US government (and Congress) will ever agree to such a deal if it does not enhance the position of US corporate interests, which are in contradiction with those of European consumers and states on numerous points (for more on this all-important issue, see this article by the redoubtable Lori Wallach—whom I’ve previously discussed—in the December 2013 Le Monde Diplomatique; et en français ici). One can only wish Zéribi well in his campaign against the TTIP/TAFTA in the European parliament and hope that he gains stature in the coming years.


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Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo

That’s the title (in English) of a good 80 minute documentary, “Populisme, l’Europe en danger,” that aired last night on ARTE’s weekly news magazine, Thema. It takes up four cases, the first—and the most disquieting, IMO— being Beppe Grillo and his Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) in Italy (which I had a post on a couple of years ago, comparing it to the 1950s Poujadist movement in France). I find the M5S disquieting in view of its electoral strength—25% in the 2012 legislative elections, and whose support is apparently holding steady in the polls—and the real problems this is posing to the Italian political system given the big bloc of seats it has in both chambers of parliament, the dictatorial manner in which Grillo runs the movement, and the manifest anti-democratic—if not downright fascistic—undercurrent in his discourse and general world-view. The parallel with Mussolini was indeed suggested toward the end of the segment.

The second report is on the French Front National, with a focus on its municipal election campaign in Forbach (Moselle), a dying industrial town in the Lorraine and which the FN, via its high-profile mayoral candidate there—the énarque and party vice-president Florian Philippot—, had high hopes of winning (but didn’t). One interesting bit of information in the segment concerns the FN’s decision not to endorse or formally participate in the big anti-gay marriage movement of last spring, despite this being supported by the near totality of its traditional voter base (and with FN voters no doubt taking part in the demos in large numbers; for my one post on the French gay marriage issue, go here). The reason: Marine Le Pen did not want to jeopardize her budding alliance with Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

A report on Wilders follows the one on the FN. He and his party, the PVV—which speaks for some 10-15% of the Dutch electorate—, are a new kind of right-wing populist movement: liberal/libertarian on societal issues (notably on sexuality), economically free-market (though this is being watered down), and aiming its fire at Islam. Wilders’s Islamophobia—a neologism I don’t like but which is apt in his case—is well known and hardly needs explication, except to mention that this has enabled Wilders to avoid formally stigmatizing Muslims qua Muslims or to speak about immigration more generally. A clever sleight of hand. The ARTE report says that Wilders could eventually become prime minister, which I doubt. His latest dérapage probably hasn’t enhanced his prospects here, that’s for sure.

The final report is from Hungary, on the neo-Naziish Jobbik—which received a shocking 20.5% of the vote in last Sunday’s legislative election—and, above all, Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz, which took 44.5% (a drop of 8% from the 2010 election), though with 67% of the national assembly seats. The dérive autoritaire in Hungary has been written about extensively—e.g. see the 5-part series by Princeton University’s Kim Lane Scheppele, published in February on Paul Krugman’s blog. That the European Union has failed to take decisive action against Hungary is an absolute scandal. Then again, the reason for this inaction—as the report makes fairly clear—may have to do with the critical support offered to Orbán inside the EU’s institutions, his Fidesz being a member of the European Parliament’s current majority party, the European People’s Party (EPP), and whose other constituents include the German CDU, the French UMP, and the Spanish PP—not to mention European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s home party, the Portuguese PSD.

This underscores the importance of next month’s elections to the European Parliament, of depriving the EPP of a majority and preventing the establishment of a parliamentary group by an alliance of far right-wing populist parties led by Le Pen and Wilders.

The documentary may be viewed on ARTE’s website here through next Tuesday.

Marine Le Pen & Geert Wilders, The Hague, November 13 2013

Marine Le Pen & Geert Wilders, The Hague, November 13 2013

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France 3’s monthly magazine Histoire Immédiate had two documentaries Monday evening on François Hollande, his presidency, and French public opinion, and that are well worth the watch. Here’s the synopsis of the first one, “Que se passe-t-il dans la tête de François Hollande?,” produced and narrated by Franz-Olivier Giesbert

François Hollande est une énigme. Est-il l’homme qu’il faut à la France? Après son élection il avait annoncé que tout allait changer. Rien ne s’est passé comme prévu: le changement n’est que parcellaire et le pays continue de s’enfoncer dans la crise. Alors que la popularité du Président sombre, il garde le sourire. Pour tenter de comprendre ce qui explique cet optimisme, Franz-Olivier Giesbert part à la rencontre de ses proches et leur demande qui est vraiment cet homme que les Français ont élu. Avec eux, il passe en revue son parcours politique, sa vie privée, son action à l’Elysée et brosse un portrait inédit.

The documentary, which runs 1 hour 25 minutes, may be watched on France 3’s website here until next Monday.

And here’s the synopsis of the second reportage, “François Hollande et nous”

François Hollande bat tous les records d’impopularité pour un président sous la Ve République. Comment en est-il arrivé là? Nicolas Sarkozy s’est usé à trop gouverner, François Hollande s’use-t-il à ne pas gouverner assez? Y a-t-il une fatalité, pour un président de la République française, à revenir à un niveau de popularité égal à son score au premier tour des élections présidentielles après quelques mois d’exercice? Aujourd’hui, François Hollande est en dessous de ce seuil. Quelles catégories de population a-t-il perdues? Est-ce lié à sa personnalité ou à sa politique? Sondeurs, observateurs, politologues et spécialistes de la communication donnent leur avis.

This one (55 minutes) may be seen here, also until next Monday.

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Pro-Putin demonstration, Moscow, March 10 2014  (Photo: Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images)

Pro-Putin demonstration, Moscow, March 10 2014
(Photo: Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images)

National chauvinism edition.

Angus Roxburgh, former BBC Moscow correspondent, has a disquieting “Letter from Moscow” in the New Statesman (April 1st), in which he describes how the mood there is turning increasingly nasty. The lede: In the wake of the Ukraine crisis a rampant chauvinism has been unleashed, while sanctions on Russia have created the kind of atmosphere dictators love.

Le Monde Moscow correspondent Marie Jégo has an equally disquieting dispatch on “Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine” (issue dated April 2nd), which is fanning the flames of national chauvinism in that country. N.B. the last two paragraphs

Parce qu’elle est intervenue dans la foulée des Jeux de Sotchi, l’opération spéciale des forces russes en Crimée a été accueillie par les Russes comme la victoire de leur équipe de football favorite, aux cris de « La Crimée est à nous » et « Jamais nous ne lâcherons les nôtres ».

Expédiée en dix-neuf jours – les troupes russes sont intervenues le 28 février, la Crimée est devenue « sujet » de la Fédération le 18 mars – l’annexion de la presqu’île a déchaîné l’enthousiasme du public. Selon le Centre d’étude de l’opinion publique (VTsIOM), 90 % des Russes l’approuvent. Dans la foulée, la popularité de Vladimir Poutine s’élève à plus de 80 % d’opinions favorables, contre 60 % en janvier.

Le petit écran alterne l’alarmisme et l’euphorie. Toutes les chaînes publiques – Rossia 1, Rossia 2, Rossia 24 – ou privées – NTV, propriété de Gazprom, Ren-TV et la 5e chaîne, du milliardaire et ami de Vladimir Poutine Iouri Kovaltchouk – font la part belle à la pensée unique. La victoire de l’armée russe en Crimée est encensée tandis que l’Ukraine est dépeinte comme un « territoire » à la dérive, rançonnée par des bandes criminelles, la faute (more…)

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Dallas TX, August 20 2013

Dallas, August 20 2013

So says Theda Skocpol of Harvard University, who’s one of the smartest social scientists around, in an essay in TPM Café, in which she tells Republicans that they “need to suck it up and learn to love Obamacare,” as there’s no way that they’ll be able to repeal the law, now or ever. She thus begins

A big U.S. social insurance program is enacted into law – only to face delays and fierce controversies. Regulations are imposed on businesses and taxes collected well before citizens get sizable benefits. Right-wingers fight for repeal or evisceration, and many on the left are also disgruntled. Outright failure remains possible for years after enactment.

Obamacare? No, we’re talking about the early life of the program called Social Security, now hugely popular and regarded as virtually untouchable politically.

Social Security was enacted in 1935, but no one got a check until the first small benefit was issued in 1940. Scheduled revenues vital to the program’s viability were repeatedly delayed, and conservatives and leftists tried to scuttle it altogether. Not until the mid-1950s did Eisenhower-era Republicans finally accept Social Security; and it took until the early 1970s for generous benefits to make it widely popular.

Compared to this long story, Affordable Care is advancing at warp speed. Sure, Republicans are still fighting a rear-guard war for “repeal.” And an impatient media blows every tiny glitch into Armageddon. Political reporters have a vested interest in the notion that Obamacare is still up for grabs if Republicans take control of the Senate next November.

But let’s look at the unfolding realities, starting with the health insurance facts.

Read the rest of the essay here.

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[update below]

Voilà my reaction à chaud to Manuel Valls’s government. First, on the appointment of Valls as Prime Minister. It was a logical choice for Hollande IMO. After Sunday’s debacle there was no way he could keep Jean-Marc Ayrault at Matignon. Ayrault is a good man but is almost a carbon copy of Hollande—both politically and his persona—and had become inaudible, both with the public and within his own government. No PM in the Fifth Republic has ever seen his stature so diminished (except maybe in the case of the one her, Edith Cresson, but who was ejected by President Mitterrand after serving only nine months). The way the institutions of the Fifth Republic function, the PM is supposed to be the President of the Republic’s firewall, the one who takes the heat and hit in public opinion polls while the president pulls the strings. It’s a screwy system but that’s the way it is. But Ayrault was not fulfilling this function. François Fillon didn’t either as Nicolas Sarkozy’s PM but Fillon was far more popular than Sarko—in the Fifth Republic it’s normally supposed to be the other way around—, such that the latter couldn’t fire him, even if he wished he could. Ayrault’s polls numbers have been slightly higher than Hollande’s but were still very low. So he had to go. It’s too bad he was so unceremoniously pushed out, as, with the exception of Mme Cresson, he’s the PM who lasted the shortest period of time at Matignon before being asked to resign by the president (Chirac, as Giscard d’Estaing’s first PM, also served only two years but he voluntarily quit; he wanted out).

On replacing Ayrault, I had thought that maybe Hollande would ask Laurent Fabius, as he’s a heavyweight, the two are politically on the same page, and he’s finally shed his decades-long unpopularity with the public (the sang contaminé affair is such ancient history that it’s doubtful anyone cares about it anymore, if one even remembers or knows about it). But it was clear that Fabius was not interested in returning to Matignon. He likes the Quai d’Orsay, where he’s doing a good job in the estimation of all, and, as the elder statesman, has nothing to gain at this point in his political career by taking the thankless job of PM. On Monday morning France Inter political editorialist Thomas Legrand spoke of Bertrand Delanoë as a possibility, but that seemed unlikely, as his Parisian “bobo” image would likely not go over well with alienated left voters outside the Île-de-France. Martine Aubry was obviously out of the question (as she and Hollande can’t stand one another and are absolutely not on the same page when it comes to economic policy). So Valls, who was intensely lobbying for the job, was the inevitable choice. And he’s probably the best one possible for Hollande right now, as he entirely shares Hollande’s social-libéralisme—including the pacte de responsabilité—and whose personal style—outspoken, borderline in-your-face—will guarantee that he’ll be politically front and center during his tenure at Matignon. He’ll be a much stronger media presence than Hollande, which won’t be a bad thing for the latter. If Valls’s poll numbers stay high, it will likely pull up Hollande’s as well; and if the calvaire of Matignon pulls him down, that will put paid to his presidential ambitions, which won’t disappoint Hollande. Serge Soudray, an editor at the journal ContreLigne, had a good commentary yesterday praising Hollande’s decision to name Valls (h/t Art Goldhammer). One thing’s for sure, which is that we’ll be hearing a lot more about Georges Clemenceau—Valls’s role model and inspiration, and probably the most interesting politician of the Third Republic—, and particularly with the approaching centennial of World War I.

On the EELV’s refusal to participate in Valls’s government: how pathetic and immature. The écolos, who came out of the municipal elections reinforced, are going to throw it away in a sterile ni-ni position of both opposing and supporting the government, whose success they nonetheless depend on. The EELV needs the PS more than vice-versa, particularly if it wants to have even a single deputy in the National Assembly. If the PS decides not to deal with the EELV in the next legislative elections and to run candidates in every circonscription, the écolos will likely end up with nothing. As for the gauche of the PS, which cannot stand Valls—the PS left considers him to be more on the right than the left—, he’s made sure to include them in a significant way in his government. Here’s the government that was named this morning (in protocol order):

Laurent Fabius — Foreign Affairs and International Development: Obviously. He’s been doing a fine job at the Quai d’Orsay. No reason whatever to move him somewhere else.

Ségolène Royal – Ecology/Sustainable Development/Energy: It was clear that she was going to be named to a high-level ministry, though not this one—and where she will have the rank of Ministre d’Etat—, which was supposed to go to the EELV. I’m impressed with her ability to rebound politically after humiliating defeats, e.g. her score in the 2011 PS primary and the 2012 legislative election fiasco in La Rochelle (the one in which Valérie Trierweiler famously tweeted). I thought Ségo was finished politically after the last one. But she’s relentless. In point of fact, she’s very smart and has matured considerably since the 2007 presidential race. And her commentary Sunday night on the Socialists’s defeat was particularly good (watch here).

Benoît Hamon – Education/Higher Education/Research: The chef de file of the PS left-wing gets this super ministry—replacing Vincent Peillon and Geneviève Fioraso, who got the boot—, and with a million fonctionnaires under his authority, who form the PS’s core constituency but are showing signs of disaffection with the party. If the PS loses the public school teachers, it’s done for. The syndicats des enseignants will be happy. As for the necessary reform of the educational system…

Christiane Taubira — Justice/Garde des Sceaux: I thought Delanoë would be named to this and with Taubira moved elsewhere (culture maybe), partly because her bilan as Garde des Sceaux is considered mixed. But she kept it. Will wait for the analyses of this one. Perhaps it’s a message to Mme Taubira’s many detractors on the hard right—who really hate her—to go suck on it.

Michel Sapin — Finance/Public Accounts: Hollande’s longtime ally, policy wonk, and entirely on board with the pacte de responsabilité. He’ll be the interlocutor with Brussels and other European finance ministers.

Arnaud Montebourg — Economy/”Productive Recovery”/Digital Technology: This may be called the Ministère de l’Economie etc but it is, in fact, a super ministry of industry (and housed at Bercy, where Montebourg will cohabit with Sapin). It was clear that Pierre Moscovici was going to be dumped but with Montebourg kept on and in a high-profile position, not only as he’s on the left-wing of the party—whose acquiescence Valls needs—but also because he’s come to be quite appreciated by the CEOs of French industry. He’s become the business-friendly champion of Made in France. His rhetoric has evolved over the past two years. He’s now more of an asset to Hollande than a pain. And he’s well-spoken and good on television.

Marisol Touraine – Social Affairs/Health: No change.

François Rebsamen — Labor/Employment/Social Dialogue: PS heavyweight, mayor of Dijon (reelected), close to Ségolène Royal. It’s been well-known for years that he covets the Ministry of Interior but he and Valls don’t like one another, so the latter nixed that. He’ll be the one to deal with the unions as the pacte de responsabilité is implemented. Bon courage.

Jean-Yves Le Drian — Defense: No change. Hollande—with whom he is close—and Valls wanted him at Interior but he said no. He likes Defense. And he’s been good in that position.

Bernard Cazeneuve – Interior: A second-tier party figure, fabusien, considered solid and serious. Replaced Jérôme Cahuzac at Budget en catastrophe last year. His appointment to the Place Beauvau looks to be a faute de mieux for Hollande and Valls—and he almost had to be appointed to some position in the government, as otherwise he’d probably try to get his National Assembly seat back in a by-election, which he—and the PS—would most certainly lose; and the PS cannot afford to lose any seats at this point. The interior minister is usually a high media-profile figure but he’s not likely to match Valls on that score.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem – Women’s Rights/Urban Policy/Youth/Sports: Increased responsibilities for a star of the last government (though one wonders what these portfolios have to do with one another). She’s won’t be government spokeswoman anymore, though (which is okay, as that just’s a langue de bois position anyway).

Marylise Lebranchu — Decentralization/Reform of the State and the Civil Service: She goes back to Lionel Jospin’s gauche plurielle government, so has been around for a while. Is close to Martine Aubry.

Aurélie Filippetti – Culture/Communication: No change. Her record over the past two years has been mixed but it would have been tough to boot her from the government given that she won reelection in Metz (in 2nd place on the list) on Sunday.

Stéphane Le Foll — Agriculture/Food Industry/Forests + Government Spokesman: Same ministry but with enlarged attributes. Close to Hollande. He’ll be in the news a lot as the new govt spokesman.

Sylvia Pinel — Housing/”Equality of Territories”: The one PRG member of the government (Christiane Taubira merely being allied with the PRG). She was in the last one but with a low profile, i.e. one never heard about her. Her appointment here looks to be faute de mieux, as PRG chief Jean-Michel Baylet was expected to enter the government but has suddenly run into legal problems having to do with an affair involving calls for tenders from a decade ago.

George Pau-Langevin — Overseas (Departments and Territories): The obligatory minister from the DOM-TOM (she’s from Guadeloupe). And it had to be a woman, to maintain parity.

N.B. All but two of the members of the government—Royal and Rebsamen—were in the last one (and, pour mémoire, my reaction à chaud to that one is here). The Secretaries of State will be named in the coming days.

UPDATE: The Secretaries of State—which are second rank governmental posts—were announced today (April 9th):

Jean-Marie Le Guen — Relations with Parliament (under PM Manuel Valls): A former strausskahnien du premier plan. Political base is Paris’s 13th arrondissement (where I lived in the mid-late 1990s, so used to see him around; I heard him speak a couple of times in local settings and thought he was pretty smart).

Harlem Désir — European Affairs (under Laurent Fabius): Totally pathetic, unserious choice, manifestly made by Hollande and Valls to get him out of the Rue de Solférino (and where he hardly shined, c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire). He’s been a member of the European parliament since 1999, though has mainly worked there on development and globalization issues. And like many other French MEPs, he was slated for the European parliament by his party not out of a particular interest in European issues but because he failed to win a national mandate.

Fleur Pellerin — Foreign Trade/Tourism/French citizens abroad (under Fabius): New portfolios for her. She was appreciated in the last government. So good choice. FYI, she was adopted as a child from South Korea.

Annick Girardin — Development/Francophonie (under Fabius): PRG member from Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.

Frédéric Cuvillier – Transportation/the Sea/Fisheries (under Ségolène Royal): He had this post in the last government. Is a former mayor/deputy from Boulogne-sur-Mer, so presumably knows his portfolios.

Geneviève Fioraso — Higher Education/Research (under Benoît Hamon): Her post in the last government. University professors and research scholars—some of them, at least—absolutely do not like her.

Christian Eckert — Budget (under Michel Sapin): Became an expert in the domain as deputy in the National Assembly.

Valérie Fourneyron — Commerce/Artisanat/Consumption/Economie sociale et solidaire (under Arnaud Montebourg): New portfolios for a Secy of State in the last government.

Axelle Lemaire — Digital Technology (under Montebourg): She’s lived in London for most of the past twelve years. Was an aide to Denis MacShane in the House of Commons.

Kader Arif — Veterans/”Memory” (under Jean-Yves Le Drian): Same post as in the last government. Is a fils de harki. I’m looking forward to finding out what his “memory” responsibilities will entail.

André Vallini — Territorial Reform (under Marylise Lebranchu): An important portfolio in view of PM Valls’s announced intention to halve the number of regions and merge the departmental and regional councils. This is a big deal. Vallini is close to Hollande and whose profession is the law. He is no lightweight. Nor is he a genius. As it happens, I devoted an entire blog post to him three years back, at the height of the DSK affair. What I had to say about him was not positive, i.e. I shredded the S.O.B.

Laurence Rossignol — Family/the Elderly/”Autonomy” (under Marisol Touraine): A feminist activist. Also known as one not to have her langue dans la poche, i.e. she gives people who irritate her a piece of her mind.

Ségolène Neuville — Handicapped Persons/”Struggle against exclusion” (under Touraine): A medical doctor by profession. Has only been in politics since 2012.

Thierry Braillard — Sports (under Najat Vallaud-Belkacem): In the PRG. The only Secy of State Mme Vallaud-Belkacem will have to help her out in her “broom wagon” ministry.

For the record, President Hollande has named his BFF Jean-Pierre Jouyet as Secretary-General of the Presidency of the Republic, i.e. chief-of-staff of the Elysée. Jouyet, a classmate of Hollande’s in ENA’s famous promotion Voltaire, was, pour mémoire, a Secy of State for European Affairs (2007-08) under President Sarkozy—one of Sarko’s prises de guerre from the left—, during which time Hollande was PS first secretary, i.e. head of the opposition party. Jouyet was considered by Socialists to be a sort of traitor. Mais ça c’est du passé…

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