Archive for April, 2014

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).

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—il a mangé à presque tous les râteliers de gauche—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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