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Archive for October, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

magic-in-the-moonlight-woody-allen

Saw this the other day. I did not have high expectations, in view of its mediocre score on Metacritic.com—I didn’t read the reviews themselves, as I never read reviews of Woody Allen films, before or after seeing them (French reviews of it are better, though when it comes to Woody Allen films, I pay no attention to them either)—and the less-than-compelling trailer (which I saw at least four times). But as I see everything by Woody Allen—it’s a yearly ritual, now four-plus decades old—I was obviously not going to miss this one. The verdict: It’s good! I enjoyed it. It’s a good romantic comedy, which holds together, has something larger to say, i.e. a message, and keeps one engaged from beginning to end. It’s an enjoyable film. I left the theater feeling good and satisfied. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

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The Tunisian election

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

What a pleasant surprise. I had assumed that Ennahda would come in first place, as it has been my operating assumption for the past 25 or so years that the Islamists will always come in first place in any genuinely free and fair general election in an Arab country. It looks like I may be behind the curve, or maybe need to rethink my assumptions. Félicitations au peuple tunisien! La Tunisie a sauvé l’honneur du monde arabe (et pas pour la première fois). If only the Egyptian military had patiently waited for the next election there, so that the Muslim Brotherhood could bite the dust legitimately and without violence (or at least a minimum of it). Or if Bashar al-Assad had sought dialogue with the Syrian opposition in spring 2011…

As for analyses and commentary, I thought this one by Bernard Guetta—this morning on France Inter—on “the three lessons of Tunisian democracy” was pretty good

Et maintenant, les ennuis commencent. Nidaa Tounes, la grande coalition des laïcs tunisiens l’a largement emporté, avant-hier, sur les islamistes d’Ennahda mais, faute d’avoir obtenu la majorité absolue à la nouvelle Assemblée nationale, elle devra se trouver des partenaires avec lesquels gouverner et n’a que deux choix devant elle.

Soit Nida Tounes – l’Appel de la Tunisie – cherche à s’agréger de petites formations et entre alors dans des marchandages sans fin qui ne mèneront qu’à l’instabilité permanente soit elle respire un grand coup et accepte de former le gouvernement d’union nationale que lui proposent les islamistes.

Cette décision révolterait beaucoup des laïcs dont la constante et si courageuse mobilisation avait forcé Ennahda, majoritaire aux élections de 2011, à finalement accepter une Constitution démocratique puis la formation d’un gouvernement de technocrates chargé d’organiser les législatives de dimanche. Cette décision ne serait pas non plus sans risques car elle impliquerait une répartition des grands postes de l’appareil d’Etat dans lequel les islamistes continueraient ainsi de s’installer alors même que tous leurs cadres ne partagent pas, et loin de là, la modération de leur direction.

Cette union nationale serait tout, sauf évidente pour les laïcs mais, d’un autre côté, rien ne serait plus dangereux pour eux que de laisser les islamistes se refaire et se radicaliser dans l’opposition alors que la situation économique est si mauvaise, que des mesures douloureuses s’imposent et que le mécontentement social ne pourra que s’accroître. Les ennuis commencent mais « Vive la Tunisie ! », car ce petit pays sans autres ressources que son intelligence collective vient de nous rappeler à trois réalité d’importance.

La première est que rien n’est plus infondé que ces théories tellement répandues sur l’incompatibilité de l’islam et de la démocratie. La Tunisie est musulmane, tout ce qu’il y a de plus musulmane, mais non seulement elle sait ce que sont la liberté, la tolérance et la démocratie mais elle sait aussi les défendre.

La deuxième réalité à laquelle rappelle son évolution depuis janvier 2011 et que l’adjectif « islamiste » ne veut plus rien dire tant les forces politiques qu’il qualifie sont différentes et même divergentes, tant il n’y a rien de commun entre les illuminés sanguinaires de l’Etat islamique, les conservateurs musulmans au pouvoir en Turquie, les Frères musulmans égyptiens et, maintenant, Ennahda dont les dirigeants veulent ancrer dans la vie politique un parti conservateur, clérical et thatchérien mais nullement jihadiste.

Quant à la troisième réalité que nous rappelle la Tunisie elle est que la Syrie aurait parfaitement pu suivre la même voie qu’elle parce qu’elle avait des élites tout aussi larges, éclairées et démocrates que les siennes. Le drame est que ces élites, on les a laissé massacrer par une dictature sanguinaire et que le monde en paie désormais le prix qui a pour nom « l’Etat islamique », l’armée de barbares que l’on sait.

This post-election interview in Mediapart with Choukri Hamd, who teaches political science at the Université Paris-Dauphine, is also worth the read.

UPDATE: Tunis-based Oxford doctoral student Monica Marks has a commentary in The Guardian (October 29th) in which she argues that “The Tunisian election result isn’t simply a victory for secularism over Islamism: The battle between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda is more complex than enlightened secularists versus backwards Islamists.”

2nd UPDATE: Laryssa Chomiak, director of CEMAT in Tunis, has a commentary on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog (October 29th) on “The richness of Tunisia’s new politics.” And Hussien Ibish, writing in NOW, celebrates “Tunisia’s triumph,” saying that “As much of the rest of the Arab world sinks into chaos, Tunisia shows there is real hope for the future.”

3rd UPDATE: Well-known neocon author and commentator Max Boot visited Tunisia, for the first time it seems, as a member of the International Republican Institute’s election observer mission. He was suitably impressed with the country—American and Brit pundits are invariably impressed with Tunisia, be it a dictatorship or struggling democracy—, though was disappointed with the absence of McDonald’s and Starbucks franchises in the dumpy seaside town near the Algerian border where he was based. His observations, “Tunisia Stands Alone: A peaceful election in the birthplace of the ‘Arab Spring’,” are in the November 10th issue of TWS.

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Gone Girl

gone-girl-poster-france

Saw this last weekend. It’s a hit here, with long lines at the cinemas and stellar reviews by critics and Allociné spectateurs alike. With US reviews mostly very good as well and having liked other films I’d seen by the director, David Fincher (e.g. ‘The Social Network’ and ‘Zodiac’, though not ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’), I figured this one would be a safe bet. The verdict: It’s certainly entertaining and holds one’s attention for the entire 2 hours 20 minutes but is overrated. It does not merit the praise that has been bestowed on it. The pic is, as NY Post critic Lou Lumenick aptly put it in his mixed review (one of the handful), “empty and ultimately unsatisfying.” First—spoilers to come!—, the marriage of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) was not credible. They may have been physically attracted to one another and had mind-blowing sex but, apart from that, their relationship was a big nothing (and his initial pick up banter when they first met at the cocktail reception was 100% Hollywood cliché). They were an uninteresting, one-dimensional couple, despite both being professional writers at prestigious New York magazines. Secondly, on Amy willingly leaving her life in NYC to accompany Nick back to his bumfuck Missouri hometown where she would then be bored out of her mind, and despite her being the one in the couple who had the money and fame—who wore the pants, as it were: I’m sorry but this was simply not believable. Thirdly, Amy’s diabolical caper—which is what the movie is all about—was preposterous. One would think she’d have found it so much easier to simply divorce the wanker, take her money (she did have a prenup, as one learns), and move back to New York, rather than concoct a crazy Rube Goldberg scheme in which something could obviously go wrong (though had she taken the simpler way out, there would have been no movie). Okay, so she was a psycho, but still… And the bedroom scene at the luxurious hideaway villa, where she dispatches her creepy high school ex à la Norman Bates, drenches herself with blood, and which is not washed off at the hospital… Ouf! Fourthly, on Nick’s affair with his ditzy student—Nick teaching a writing course on the side at the local community college—, i.e. the college prof bonking a hottie half his age from one of his classes: As I’ve written elsewhere (here, scroll down), this only happens in movies. Fifthly, the ending is both unsatisfying and puzzling, raising the question as to what it’s supposed to mean and how to interpret (possible answer: wait for the sequel, ‘Gone Girl 2’).

Now there were a few good things about the pic. E.g. the supporting cast was first-rate, particularly Nick’s sister (Carrie Coon) and the detective (Kim Dickens) (though I thought Affleck and Pike were merely okay). The media circus around Amy’s disappearance was also great satire of the us et coutumes of American cable TV news. And, as I’ve already said, the pic held one’s attention malgré tout. But that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. It is a film that may be seen, but that may also be skipped.

Here’s brief mention of other American films seen over the past few months.

A Most Wanted Man: I’ll see any geopolitical thriller about radical Islamists and Western intelligence agencies that gets halfway decent reviews—as this one did—, and particularly if it stars Philip Seymour Hoffman (his very last film). And if it has a Chechen-Russian angle to boot, that makes it that much more interesting. This one—directed by the Dutchman Anton Corbijn, entirely set in Hamburg, and which is actually a US-German-British production—was entertaining enough but I gave it no thought after leaving the theater. A week later I had to go on to the Internet to recall its name and what it was about (and I do not have premature Alzheimer’s). In other words, the pic was, for me at least, not memorable. In an exchange on social media, a friend who saw it remarked on how cinematic adaptations of John Le Carré’s novels tend not to work too well. I agreed. And this one is a case in point.

most-wanted-man-poster

Night Moves: This indy pic, by Kelly Reichardt—who directed the fine ‘Meek’s Cutoff‘—, opened in France a full month before it did in the US, which sometimes happens. It’s about a community of baba cool, ecologically militant, urban transplanted organic farmers in Oregon, a few of whom become radicalized in their opposition to the construction of a dam in their area, decide to carry out an act of eco-terrorism, and how it all goes very wrong. Which all goes to show that baba cool écolos are not cut out to be terrorists, as they absolutely do not want to physically harm anybody. It’s a well-done, meticulously paced thriller and with solid performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard. Recommended. Trailer is here.

night-moves-movie-poster

Short Term 12: This indy pic, set in an L.A. group home for troubled teenagers, is based on the personal experiences of director Destin Daniel Cretton, who worked in such a home himself. The protag, named Grace (Brie Larson), is in her mid 20s, works full-time with the kids, has an outwardly strong personality and imposes her authority, but meets her match with a troubled, turbulent 16-year-old, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who joins the home. As it turns out, Grace had traumatic family experiences similar to those of Jayden’s and which, behind her facade of solidity, rendered her as psychologically fragile as the teenagers in her charge and complicated her romantic relationship with colleague Mason (John Gallagher Jr). It’s a pretty good movie and which received top reviews in both the US and France. It may be seen. Trailer is here.

short-term-12-poster

Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch’s latest. I was a fan of his in his early years (‘Stranger than Paradise’, ‘Down by Law’) but have found him increasingly uneven with time (though I did like ‘Dead Man’ and ‘Broken Flowers’). I would have normally avoided this one, as it’s a vampire film, a genre that I have absolutely zero interest in—if not a downright anti-interest. But I decided I really should see it and for a reason that may strike others as being silly, which is that much of it was shot in Tangier, a city in which I spent two weeks last year and greatly like. I wanted the thrill of seeing on the big screen streets in Tangier I’ve walked on. And as it’s Jarmusch, I figured that it would be offbeat in an interesting way and contain some kind of message or meditation on something. So with some trepidation, I expended two hours of my time and checked it out. The verdict: As of this date it is the worst, most insufferable film I’ve seen this year. Now I won’t say that it’s bad in an objective sense; it was, in view of my tastes and sensibilities, simply bad for me. And also for my wife, who whispered to me after an hour that she had had quite enough and was leaving. I should have accompanied her but decided to sit through it to the end, to subject myself to another hour of cinematic torture—and which was absolutely not compensated for by the few scenes of the Tangier medina, and which were all at night to boot (as were those of Detroit—its bombed out sections—, where it was also set; the entire film was at night; as for its message or meditation, bof; if one is interested in that, see here). But my and wife’s sentiments were clearly not shared by too many others in the packed salle at the UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles multiplex, as there were no other walkouts. And the film did decently at the box office and to top reviews by critics and Allociné spectateurs alike. Chacun son goût. Really.

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Obama is a Republican…

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That’s what Bruce Bartlett says, in an essay on The American Conservative website, specifying that Barack Obama is “the heir to Richard Nixon, not Saul Alinsky.” Bartlett, pour mémoire, is a former GOP leading light who has become disillusioned with the party (which, on Twitter, he refers to as “the wanker party”). He explains

In my opinion, Obama has governed as a moderate conservative—essentially as what used to be called a liberal Republican before all such people disappeared from the GOP. He has been conservative to exactly the same degree that Richard Nixon basically governed as a moderate liberal, something no conservative would deny today. (Ultra-leftist Noam Chomsky recently called Nixon “the last liberal president.”)

Bartlett then sets out to prove his argument. Here’s what he has to say on the subject of health care reform

Contrary to rants that Obama’s 2010 health reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), is the most socialistic legislation in American history, the reality is that it is virtually textbook Republican health policy, with a pedigree from the Heritage Foundation and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, among others.

It’s important to remember that historically the left-Democratic approach to healthcare reform was always based on a fully government-run system such as Medicare or Medicaid. During debate on health reform in 2009, this approach was called “single payer,” with the government being the single payer. One benefit of this approach is cost control: the government could use its monopsony buying power to force down prices just as Walmart does with its suppliers.

Conservatives wanted to avoid too much government control and were adamantly opposed to single-payer. But they recognized that certain problems required more than a pure free-market solution. One problem in particular is covering people with pre-existing conditions, one of the most popular provisions in ACA. The difficulty is that people may wait until they get sick before buying insurance and then expect full coverage for their conditions. Obviously, this free-rider problem would bankrupt the health-insurance system unless there was a fix.

The conservative solution was the individual mandate—forcing people to buy private health insurance, with subsidies for the poor. This approach was first put forward by Heritage Foundation economist Stuart Butler in a 1989 paper, “A Framework for Reform,” published in a Heritage Foundation book, A National Health System for America. In it, Butler said the number one element of a conservative health system was this: “Every resident of the U.S. must, by law, be enrolled in an adequate health care plan to cover major health costs.” He went on to say:

Under this arrangement, all households would be required to protect themselves from major medical costs by purchasing health insurance or enrolling in a prepaid health plan. The degree of financial protection can be debated, but the principle of mandatory family protection is central to a universal health care system in America.

In 1991, prominent conservative health economist Mark V. Pauley also endorsed the individual mandate as central to healthcare reform. In an article in the journal Health Affairs, Pauley said:

All citizens should be required to obtain a basic level of health insurance. Not having health insurance imposes a risk of delaying medical care; it also may impose costs on others, because we as a society provide care to the uninsured. … Permitting individuals to remain uninsured results in inefficient use of medical care, inequity in the incidence of costs of uncompensated care, and tax-related distortions.

In 2004, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) endorsed an individual mandate in a speech to the National Press Club. “I believe higher-income Americans today do have a societal and personal responsibility to cover in some way themselves and their children,” he said. Even libertarian Ron Bailey, writing in Reason, conceded the necessity of a mandate in a November 2004 article titled, “Mandatory Health Insurance Now!” Said Bailey: “Why shouldn’t we require people who now get health care at the expense of the rest of us pay for their coverage themselves? … Mandatory health insurance would not be unlike the laws that require drivers to purchase auto insurance or pay into state-run risk pools.”

Among those enamored with the emerging conservative health reform based on an individual mandate was Mitt Romney, who was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002. In 2004, he put forward a state health reform plan to which he later added an individual mandate. As Romney explained in June 2005, “No more ‘free riding,’ if you will, where an individual says: ‘I’m not going to pay, even though I can afford it. I’m not going to get insurance, even though I can afford it. I’m instead going to just show up and make the taxpayers pay for me’.”

The following month, Romney emphasized his point: “We can’t have as a nation 40 million people—or, in my state, half a million—saying, ‘I don’t have insurance, and if I get sick, I want someone else to pay’.”

In 2006, Governor Romney signed the Massachusetts health reform into law, including the individual mandate. Defending his legislation in a Wall Street Journal article, he said:

I proposed that everyone must either purchase a product of their choice or demonstrate that they can pay for their own health care. It’s a personal responsibility principle.

Some of my libertarian friends balk at what looks like an individual mandate. But remember, someone has to pay for the health care that must, by law, be provided: Either the individual pays or the taxpayers pay. A free ride on government is not libertarian.

As late as 2008, Robert Moffitt of the Heritage Foundation was still defending the individual mandate as reasonable, non-ideological and nonpartisan in an article for the Harvard Health Policy Review.

So what changed just a year later, when Obama put forward a health-reform plan that was almost a carbon copy of those previously endorsed by the Heritage Foundation, Mitt Romney, and other Republicans? The only thing is that it was now supported by a Democratic president that Republicans vowed to fight on every single issue, according to Robert Draper’s book Do Not Ask What Good We Do.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod later admitted that Romney’s Massachusetts plan was the “template” for Obama’s plan. “That work inspired our own health plan,” he said in 2011. But no one in the White House said so back in 2009. I once asked a senior Obama aide why. His answer was that once Republicans refused to negotiate on health reform and Obama had to win only with Democratic votes, it would have been counterproductive, politically, to point out the Obama plan’s Republican roots.

The left wing of the House Democratic caucus was dubious enough about Obama’s plan as it was, preferring a single-payer plan. Thus it was necessary for Obama to portray his plan as more liberal than it really was to get the Democratic votes needed for passage, which of course played right into the Republicans’ hands. But the reality is that ACA remains a very modest reform based on Republican and conservative ideas.

If any Republicans are reading this and disagree with Bartlett on the health care issue, I’d like to hear their objections.

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deathofklinghoffer

[update below]

The New York Met’s performance of the opera has gotten numerous Jews and others in the pro-Israel camp all worked up and bent out of shape, even though almost all of those who are protesting the opera’s staging—on account of its putative justifying of terrorism and backhanded antisemtism—haven’t actually seen it. Adam Shatz did see a dress rehearsal of the opera at the Met last weekend, however, and, in a review posted on the LRB blog, has pronounced it to be very good, hardly antisemitic, and that in no way apologizes for terrorism. As far as I’m concerned, if Adam says it is so, that means it is so.

UPDATE: Paul Berman has an essay in Tablet magazine, “Klinghoffer at the Met,” that is worth reading.

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The tragedy of the Congo

Congo David Van Reybrouck

Adam Shatz, who writes excellently on every topic he chooses to write on, has a fine review essay in the latest London Review of Books—at which he is a contributing editor—of prolific Belgian author David Van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, a 600+ page tome that sold over 300,000 copies in its original Dutch version—which is a lot given the number of Dutch-readers in this world—and has won numerous prizes, including two in France, whose French publisher refers to it as “Le livre du Congo, un essai total écrit comme un roman” (and which is akin to the assessment of one Dutch reviewer, who deemed it “More gripping than a novel. The style is casual, yet captivating.”). Adam doesn’t quite describe Van Reybrouck’s book in these terms, presenting it rather as the latest contribution—and an ambitious one—to the already extensive and accomplished literature on the tragic history of that country.

Among the many Congolese tragedies was the short-lived rule and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Belgian/CIA/et al plot against whom Adam naturally discusses in his essay. À propos, the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs had an article by Stephen R. Weissman entitled “What Really Happened in Congo: The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu.” Weissman, a former Staff Director of the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Africa—and who likely knows the subject of US-Congolese relations better than anyone—, has examined recently declassified documents—Church Commission, State Department—and parliamentary reports from Belgium, which “[paint] a far darker picture [of the role played by the US government in the Congo] than even the critics imagined.” As it happens, the incoming Kennedy administration was considering a reassessment of US policy toward the Congo, leading the CIA station chief in Léopoldville—who was intimately implicated in the plot against Lumumba—to keep his superiors in Washington out of the loop until the Belgians and their Congolese allies carried out the murder.

On the subject of Lumumba, for those who don’t feel like reading about him—and even for those who do—, there’s the 2000 movie, ‘Lumumba‘, by Haitian director Raoul Peck, which I rate as one of the best biopics ever made (or, I should say, that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many). The film, which was shot on location in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, is historically accurate, at least insofar as I understand the history of Lumumba’s life and times (and the scene of the meeting where the decision is made to liquidate him is likely close to the reality of how it happened).

A more recent Congolese film is ‘Viva Riva!’, which I wrote on 2½ years back (and included mention of my own visit there in 2008). This one is fun, entertaining, and not at all political.

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OMG-Ebola-still-Doktor Zoom-Wonkette

[update below] [2nd update below]

Voilà the tagline of a spot-on post by Wonkette blogger Doktor Zoom, “What stupid pointless Ebola freakouts are we having today?” It begins

Now that the first group of people to be exposed to Thomas Eric Duncan — including his fiancée and other members of his family in Dallas — have made it through their 21-day quarantine period without developing the disease themselves, you might think that maybe people might be calming down just a little bit, maybe. But then, maybe you are not a panic-mongering moron, so you may not be typical, you un-American weirdo. Maybe you’re not rushing out to buy flimsy “protective” gear or Vitamin C (or “colloidal silver” to turn your skin blue), but plenty of people are — or at the very least, scammers hope so. And it’s never a bad time to have a good old-fashioned panic over every last rumor and sneeze, like the nice people in Mississippi who pulled their children out of the local middle school when they learned that the principal had recently visited Zambia, which doesn’t even have any Ebola diagnoses, but is very definitely in Africa. Or the timid souls of Strong, Maine, who insisted on turning their town’s name into a possible Twilight Zone locale when they convinced the school board to place an elementary-school teacher on a 21-day leave because he’d been to an educational conference in Dallas. Those monsters should be coming down Maple Street any minute now…

And then there’s this freak-out story from New Jersey, where

The start of school for two students at Howard Yocum Elementary School is being delayed 21 days, Fox 29 reports, because the children recently arrived to the U.S. from Rwanda. Which is in east Africa. Which puts those students approximately 2,600 miles away from the closest West African country with Ebola cases — a distance roughly equivalent to that between Seattle, Washington, and Philadelphia…

And this one, about the good citizens in Beeville, Texas, who

are worried about what they claim is a potential risk of Ebola after 4 new students from West Africa [from Ghana and Nigeria, the latter having had eight Ebola deaths, out of a population of 175 million], enrolled in schools there just this past week.

And now we learn that the Ebola hysteria is shifting the dynamics of the North Carolina senate race and in favor of GOP candidate Thom Tillis, who, in a rally the other day,

sent a deep sigh and a shudder rolling through the crowd of Republican activists with just one word: ­“Ebola.”

Contrast this with France, where there is no particular panic over Ebola, or even great concern, with the exception of Air France personnel working the daily Paris-Conakry flight (yes, Air France is still flying to Guinea; pour l’info, there are 79 flights a week to Paris from destinations in West Africa, compared to 37 to the entire United States—and there has never in history been a direct flight between the US and Guinea or Sierra Leone, and none to Liberia since the 1980s).

Question: Could somebody please explain to me why Americans, in addition to being stupid dumbfucks so ill-informed, are such pussies so fearful? Just asking.

UPDATE: As we learn via MoJo, there are still Americans made of stern stuff

Peter Pattakos spent 20 minutes Saturday in an Akron bridal shop, getting fitted for a tux for his friend’s wedding. Thursday, his friend sent a text message, telling him that Ebola patient Amber Joy Vinson had been in the store around the same time.

[…]

Pattakos, 36, a Cleveland attorney who lives in Bath Township, called the health department, which told him to call back if he exhibits any Ebola symptoms. He called a doctor, who told him not to worry.

“I didn’t exchange any bodily fluids with anyone, so I’m not worried about it,” he said. “I’m much more likely to be mistakenly killed by a police officer in this country than to be killed by Ebola, even if you were in the same bridal shop.”

Tout à fait.

2nd UPDATE: The Onion has an informative map 🙂 “Tracking Ebola in the US.”

Aasif Mandvi_Ebola

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Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

The latest issue of Le Canard Enchaîné reports that Nicolas Sarkozy has referred to Bruno Le Maire, his main rival in the upcoming UMP primary, as a “connard,” among other noms d’oiseau (which include “ordure,” best translated as “asshole”). Speaking of others—his political adversaries and allies alike—in insulting, denigrating terms is par for the course for Sarkozy. He does it all the time and with just about everybody, as we’ve learned on countless occasions over the years via the indispensable Le Canard Enchaîné and other sources. This is yet further confirmation, if confirmation were still needed, that Sarkozy is, as I called him in my post of nine days ago, the worst person in the top tier of French politics. He is the worst on account of his antipathetic persona and way of doing politics, which is characterized, entre autres, by rank opportunism and an utter lack of principles. The man will say and do just about anything if he deems it politically expedient, and trash talk everyone in his way.

When it comes to policy and what he accomplished during his five years in office, the bilan is naturally negative—if it had been otherwise, he would have been reelected—, though his foreign policy is generally given a pass, notably on account of his mediation, as president of the European Council, of an end to the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. But Sarkozy’s foreign policy was, in fact, as calamitous as his policies on the home front, as the well-known political scientist Jean-François Bayart has reminded us in an op-ed in Le Monde three weeks ago, “Les dégâts d’une diplomatie désinvolte,” in which Bayart asserts that Sarkozy’s foreign policy was the worst of the 5th Republic. Period. The série noire is lengthy. The high (or maybe low) points: sucking up to Muammar Qadhafi and then doing a 180°—in trademark Sarkozy fashion—in declaring war on him four years later and on fallacious pretexts; supporting the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia to the bitter end; promoting Bashar al-Assad and honoring him with a state visit to France; taking a harder line toward Iran than even the US, which undermined French interests in Iran but not the Iranian regime; poisoning relations with Turkey for no good reason (a subject I have covered extensively on this blog); poisoning relations with Mexico over a judicial affair (involving a private French citizen) that a president of the French Republic had no business getting involved in; et j’en passe. For those who cannot get behind Le Monde’s paywall, Bayart’s piece may be read in its entirely here.

On Libya in 2011, I so happened to support the US-French-British military action to terminate the wretched Qadhafi regime with extreme prejudice—and do not regret my position one iota despite how things have turned out there since—and for my own reasons, which may or may not have overlapped with those of the leaders of intervening powers. In regard to Sarkozy’s reasons for waging war, it seems that these were multiple—among others, avenging the fiasco of the Paris state visit of 2007 and Qadhafi making Sarko look like a fool, making up for supporting Ben Ali—but it also seems, and almost without doubt, that it was Bernard-Henri Lévy who persuaded Sarkozy to do it. BHL, who dropped by the Elysée for a visit, was the driving force in a major French foreign policy decision, which was not subject to serious internal debate at the summit of the French state and took the then foreign minister, Alain Juppé, by surprise. This alone totally disqualifies Nicolas Sarkozy from ever getting near the Elysée palace again.

Another pièce au dossier on Sarkozy’s unfitness to be President of the Republic, and that pertains to foreign policy, is his rapprochement with Dominique de Villepin, which Arthur Goldhammer finds one of the stranger moments in recent French political life. Indeed. These two men really hate one another. Or, one should say, hated (past tense). How to explain the 180° about face on the part of both men and Villepin’s support for the presidential ambitions of his erstwhile nemesis? The response to this may be found in an article by Serge Raffy in the September 25th issue of Le Nouvel Observateur, “Villepin, le nouvel ami.” Money quote

L’improbable lune de miel entre les deux hommes a une explication simple: le Qatar. Le petit et si influent émirat leur voue une passion immodérée depuis près de dix ans. Dominique de Villepin, désormais avocat international, tire l’essentiel de ses revenus du fonds d’investissement Qatar Investment Authority. C’est de ce même fonds que Nicolas Sarkozy espérait un soutien financier pour se lancer dans une nouvelle vie de brasseur d’affaires. Villepin, très discret sur les dossiers qu’il traite dans son cabinet, s’est rapproché de Sarkozy, il y a quelques mois, par la médiation tenace de l’homme d’affaires Alexandre Djouhri, connu pour ses relations privilégiées avec les monarchies du Golfe…

So it’s Qatar. And, of course, its money (ça va de soi). That patch of desert that owes its accidental existence as a country to a geological scandal. And whose awarding of the 2022 World Cup happened in part thanks to behind-the-scenes lobbying by Sarkozy. Quelle pourriture. No wonder voters are defecting to the Front National. The Nouvel Obs article is not online but maybe I’ll transcribe the whole thing in the comments section.

It’s not looking too good for Sarko at the moment, with the latest IPSOS/Le Point baromètre showing a sharp drop in his numbers and Juppé now overtaking him even among UMP members. My conviction that Sarko will bite the dust even before the 2016 primary is reinforced. Readers who have differed with me on this may want to reconsider their position.

UPDATE: Bloviator extraordinaire Bernard Kouchner published a book last month, in which he asserts that Nicolas Sarkozy was loathed by the French people because of his Jewish origins. As Kouchner put it

Nicolas Sarkozy wasn’t cherished; he was detested also because he was the son of a Hungarian and the grandson of a Jew.

On RMC two days ago Kouchner reiterated his words on Sarkozy, adding that France is a “racist” country…

The only thing one can say here is that Kouchner made this up. He invented it in his head. He could not empirically substantiate his assertion if his life depended on it. His conviction also begs the question as to why the French elected Sarkozy to the presidency in the first place back in ’07—and by a decisive margin—if they so hated him for his part Jewish origins. And how he remains popular with the hardcore right-wing UMP base, which is not the most philosemitic segment of French society.

I am not a fan of Kouchner’s, having seen him speak three times and been less than overwhelmed. He gives long-winded gasbags a bad name. With his above mentioned assertion on Sarkozy and the French people, I’m now even less of a fan.

Larrons en foire

Larrons en foire

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In Defense of Obama

US President Barack Obama gives a thumbs

Paul Krugman thus makes the case in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, in which he explains how “Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.” No less. And Krugman, pour mémoire, has spent a good part of the past seven years critiquing Obama, when not beating up on him. But being a smart and fair person, he gives credit where credit is due. And, as usual, Krugman convinces.

One little thing. Krugman speaks about “polls showing that Obama does, indeed, have an approval rating that is very low by historical standards.” Obama’s current job approval rating, according to RCP’s aggregate, is 42.9%. At no point in his presidency has it dropped below 40%. I’m sorry but that’s not bad at all. By contrast, Bush 43 spent almost all of the last three years of his presidency below 40% and by the end of it was in the mid 20s. Bush lost part of his base. Obama has not lost his. If François Hollande had Obama’s current poll numbers—which he can only dream of—, his presidency would likely be deemed a smashing success…

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rtr3axns

This is the title of an important, must read analysis of the French economy by Simon Tilford, Deputy-Director of the Centre for European Reform in London—the leading think tank focusing specifically on the European Union—, posted September 24th on CER’s website. Tilford’s analysis thus begins

The French government’s announcement in early September that France would fail to bring its deficit below 3 per cent of GDP until 2017 was met with the usual mixture of frustration and resignation. Many eurozone policy-makers see France’s refusal to play by the fiscal rules and its inability to reform its economy as the biggest threat to the eurozone’s stability. The list of allegations is pretty comprehensive: a bloated state, a lack of competitiveness, intractable structural problems and a mulish refusal to reform or to acknowledge that globalisation has left France living on borrowed time.

Some of these criticisms have merit, but as a whole they form little more than a caricature. France has some supply-side problems: very high non-wage labour costs deter employment; and parts of the service sector urgently need an injection of competition. But these are secondary to those of its problems that stem from self-defeating austerity and chronically weak domestic demand elsewhere in the eurozone. Without change to the latter France could yet come to justify the ‘sick man of Europe’ tag so beloved of journalists.

Further down Tilford says

To recap, the French economy is in trouble. It has barely grown for the last two years and unemployment is stuck at near record levels. But France has performed pretty well in a eurozone context. It stacks up favourably not only compared with the currency union’s periphery but also with the likes of the Netherlands and Finland. France’s supply-side problems are no doubt significant, but do not justify its status as some kind of hopeless case. They are certainly not as serious as those faced by Italy, and arguably no worse overall than those of Germany and the UK, although they are in different areas. Nor will France’s economic prospects be improved by adhering to the European Commission’s calls for austerity, wage restraint and labour market reforms which, if heeded, would exacerbate unemployment.

And he concludes

The French government should certainly push ahead with structural reforms of its economy, but not necessarily those prescribed by the European Commission. When demand is very weak and firms do not need to hire workers, reducing social protection and wages increases unemployment rather than reducing it, and depresses consumption. However, France should reduce the burden of taxation from labour and transfer more of it to wealth, property and carbon consumption. And it should open up the country’s non-tradable services sector to greater competition. But even structural reforms of this kind will do little to increase economic growth without a change to fiscal policy, aggressive measures by the ECB to reflate the eurozone economy as a whole and concerted action by the German government to rebalance Germany’s economy.

France is not the ‘sick man of Europe’, but it is certainly ailing thanks to the medicine prescribed by Brussels and Berlin. The French government needs to step up its resistance. Indeed, perhaps the most serious charge that can be laid at France’s door is that it has meekly gone along with a eurozone policy doctrine that has done so much damage to the French economy rather than corralling opposition to it and forcing through a change in direction.

As an 1800 word article can’t cover all the bases, there were a few problems in the French economy Tilford didn’t mention, e.g. underinvestment by French enterprises in R&D (only 1.4% of GDP), a relative paucity of SMEs—which are a strength of the German economy and a source of innovation there—, and inefficiencies in the distribution system (i.e. superfluous layers of middlemen taking their cut, resulting in a price structure that is higher than it should be, and certainly more so than in Germany).  But Tilford’s Krugman-like analysis is very good and salutary nonetheless. Read the whole thing here.

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Nicolas Sarkozy in Lambersart (Nord), September 25th (photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP)

Nicolas Sarkozy in Lambersart (Nord), September 25th (photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP)

Arthur Goldhammer had a blog post last Thursday on the coming bataille royale between Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé—over who will be the UMP’s presidential candidate in 2017—and that provoked a lively exchange in the comments thread, with contributions by myself and regular readers of both Art’s and my blog (for the record, I differ with Mitch Guthman, who believes Marine Le Pen will win in ’17—Mitch and I have already been around the track on this—, and am in entire agreement with Massilian). Art writes that his French friends assume that the left has no chance whatever in ’17, will be eliminated in the first round and with Marine Le Pen advancing to the second, but that as she cannot possibly win, the next Président de la République will logically be the candidate of the UMP (or whatever the UMP renames itself, if Sarkozy gets his way on this), thereby turning the UMP primary—that will be held sometime in 2016—into the veritable presidential election. This is indeed the assumption of the majority in this country who at all follow politics, myself included. France Inter’s Thomas Legrand, whose daily political editorials are as incisive a commentary on French politics as one will get, said so himself on Thursday morning. If there are any Socialists out there who really truly believe that François Hollande—or a PS replacement candidate, should Hollande throw in the towel (a hypothesis not to be excluded)—has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in ’17, I’d like to know their names. PS Pollyannas, should they exist, will certainly not have been comforted by the headline in Le Monde dated Saturday: “Croissance, chômage, déficits: la France n’a pas encore touché le fond”… i.e. the economic situation in this lovely country has not yet hit bottom, i.e. we ain’t seen nothin yet… If a governing party in an advanced democracy has ever been reelected in such a context, I am not aware of it.

So the next President of the Republic will most certainly issue from the UMP. And as Sarkozy has confirmed more than once over the past ten days, the UMP’s presidential candidate will be designated in a primary open to all voters, not just card-carrying UMP members (and with eventual candidates not being limited to the UMP). One may thereby presume that the primary will be organized in the same manner as was the one held by the PS in October 2011: open to all registered voters who sign a statement at the polling station pledging that they adhere to the values of the right and center—the wording of this will be interesting (the charter signed by voters participating in the 2011 PS primary is here)—and who contribute a minimum of €1 (for my posts on the 2011 primary, see here and here). The participation in this one is sure to be significant, no doubt higher than the 2.8 million who voted in the PS primary. As well over 90% of participating voters of the right and center will not be UMP members, the outcome of the November 29th vote for party president—which Sarkozy looks sure to win haut la main—will provide no indication whatever as to what will happen in 2016.

As I’ve been saying since the question was first broached in 2012, I do not believe for a minute that Sarkozy will succeed in his comeback. He’s the same old Sarko: febrile, frenetic, feverishly pulling demagogic, off-the-wall, half-baked, and/or unserious proposals out of a hat one after the other, and with his trademark croque-mort look (black suit/black tie), bullying journalists when questioned ever so politely, and trash talking and denigrating en off just about everyone outside his inner circle of sycophants (and even those inside that circle). And then there’s his posture of victimization and Berlusconian attacks on the judicial system and its magistrates, which speaks volumes as to the low regard in which he holds the institutions of the republic and French democracy. He’s the same dog doing the same tricks, that we saw countless times during his calamitous five years in the Elysée (for my treatise on Sarkozy, posted on the eve of the presidential 2nd round in 2012, go here). Sarkozy’s public appearances since his formal return to the political arena two weeks ago—the Sep. 21st France 2 interview sur le plateau (for which he was scandalously given 45 minutes of free air time on a chaîne de service public and for which all television set owners pay the redevence) and the subsequent rallies in Lambersart and Saint-Julien-les-Villas—have demonstrated yet again that he is the worst person in the first tier of the French political class (which does not include Marine Le Pen, at least not yet). And that the UMP base, with its pathetic, Bonapartist culte du chef, has been so desperately awaiting his comeback is, for its part, yet another demonstration of the deliquescence of French politics more generally (the left is hardly in better shape than the right but that’s another matter). Triste France.

Re Sarkozy’s demagogic and/or cockamamie proposals of the past two weeks—tossed out like so many bones to the increasingly hard right UMP base—, I will cite just two. The first: Replacing “lifetime employment” for fonctionnaires with five-year contracts (with the police and school teachers exempted, so Sarko says). One wonders if Sarkozy has given any thought to this nutty idea or just cooked it up as he was going along (or maybe heard about some such practice elsewhere while on one of his $100K speaking gigs). Now it is the case that short-term contracts (usually five years) have become the norm in a number of international organizations, but these mainly concern young, highly educated professionals, who know they will move on to lucrative employment—including in the upper civil services of their home countries—once the contracts with the prestigious organizations (World Bank, OECD, etc) are up and the young professionals’ international epistemic networks have been constituted. Such is, however, not likely to obtain for most fonctionnaires of the French state outside the grands corps. And, BTW, will the latter also be concerned by Sarkozy’s measure? Will members of the Conseil d’Etat, Cour des Comptes, Corps Préfectoral etc all be put on five-year contracts? And will the contracts be one shot or renewable? If the former, the French civil service will be gutted, as few outside the (soon to be ex-) grand corps who have any options on the job market—who are not desperate for a job right now, immediately—will sign such a fixed term contract. One end result will be a mass outsourcing of the missions of the state, including its regalian ones, to the private sector, which is one of the most pernicious developments in advanced democracies over the past two decades (on the privatization of the state, see here and here). Another result—and particularly if the contracts are renewable—will be a patronage/spoils system à la française and on a scale larger than anything witnessed in Chicago at the height of the Daley père machine era. In all likelihood, though, such a scheme, which is sure to generate considerable opposition (an understatement), will not see the light of the day in the ghastly event that Sarkozy returns to power in ’17, as once back in the Elysée—and confronted with an unfavorable rapport de force on the question—he’ll forget about it.

A second demagogic proposal: Generalizing the recourse to the referendum and for a whole range of policy issues, including one that would constitutionally proscribe public spending that exceeds 50% of GDP (recalling proposals by the American right for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, which were so ridiculous and disconnected from reality that even the proponents of this loopy idea seem to have dropped it). The French Bonapartist right—incarnated in modern times by the Gaullists and their successors—has always been plebiscitarian but Sarkozy’s proposal, if acted upon, would take this to a whole new level, with one result being a dangerous undermining of the institutions of representative democracy and a reinforcement of the already outsized power of the President of the Republic hors cohabitation, as he would determine when and over what issues the referendum would be organized, either directly or via his handpicked prime minister (as for the constitutional provision of the initiative partagée, this is too cumbersome to work, and particularly in the time frame Sarkozy has in mind). Moreover, Sarkozy is proposing that referenda on policy be held the same day as the first round of the legislative elections, which, in the current calendar, happens less than five weeks after the newly (re)elected President of the Republic takes office. Not only is this proposal thoroughly preposterous but is also constitutionally impossible—if I understand the Fifth Republic constitution’s Article 11 correctly—, as the National Assembly would not be in session when the President or his newly appointed government proposed the referenda, which the Assembly would have to be in order to debate the question as Article 11 mandates. But constitutionally possible or not, Sarkozy will surely not follow through on his harebrained proposal if he finds himself in a position to make it. Sarko may be a lot of things but he’s not stupid, and he knows that Presidents of the Republic must be extremely careful with the instrument of the referendum, lest it blow up in their faces by irate voters (and many voters will be extremely irate in the unthinkable event that Sarkozy is elected in ’17).

It looks like Sarkozy, whose poll numbers are in the black only with UMP voters, has not provoked a bandwagon effect—au contraire—, as the latest IFOP-JDD poll shows him dropping seven points with UMP sympathizers over the ten days following his tonitruant return to the political arena and six points with voters overall. Citizens are clearly perceiving that the new Sarko is the same as the old Sarko. The latest popularity polls and baromètres will be published in the coming two weeks and are not likely to bear good news for the ex-Président de la République. À propos, one shudders to imagine what posture he’s concocting on the immigration and nationality issue. Given the general mood of his base on this, it will likely not differ significantly from the neo-frontiste turn of the latter years of his presidential term. Patrick Buisson without Buisson. The mere prospect of a second round square-off between Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen—the two most polarizing figures in French politics and both with negative poll numbers far higher than their positive ones—will be so appalling to so many voters, including on the center and moderate right, that voters of the left may well participate in the UMP primary and en masse to prevent the nightmarish Sarkozy-Le Pen 2nd round scenario from coming to pass.

And then there are the affairs. Not even Chirac in the 1990s was dragging as many casseroles as Sarkozy is today. And as today’s Le Monde headlines, Sarkozy is now directly threatened in the Bygmalion affair, i.e. the investigating magistrates are closing in on him. If he is mis en examen in this—and there could well be other indictments down the road (Karachi, Qadhafi-Takieddine…)—and the procedure does not result in a non-lieu before it goes to trial, it’s hard to imagine Sarkozy even being able to head the UMP, let alone run in the 2016 primary. Bygmalion is a big deal and with practically no one in the UMP taking seriously Sarkozy’s denials that he was unaware of what was going on during the campaign (and while it is possible that Sarkozy told his lieutenants to do what they had to do to raise and spend money, and to cover his own tracks on it, he is still legally responsible in the end). So je persiste et je signe: for all the reasons mentioned above, Sarkozy will not go the distance to 2017.

That leaves Alain Juppé as the only credible UMP candidate. As one is aware—and which I mentioned last month—he is the most popular politician in the country at the present time and only one of three whose overall poll numbers are more positive than negative. Juppé’s comeback with public opinion is striking. He has indeed quashed the image of arrogance and antipathie earned during his short-lived term at the Matignon (1995-97), which ended in failure with the right’s stunning defeat in the élections anticipées that brought the Gauche plurielle to power. One remembers how respected Juppé was when Chirac appointed him PM—even moderate left voters were well-disposed and wished him well—and how he blew it during the grèves of Nov.-Dec. 1995. Now I happened to think that the plan Juppé that unleashed the grèves was pretty good—and other forward-thinking persons on the left thought likewise—but his arrogant méthode was unacceptable, causing the capital of sympathy he had entered office with to all but vanish. He was the imperious énarque-normalien, le meilleur de la classe, who viewed most others, at minimum, as less intelligent than he, when not downright stupid (and for the anecdote, two people I knew back in those days who dealt with Juppé confirmed his froideur). But his traversée du désert following the humiliating repudiation of 1997—and then with his judicial conviction in 2004 as Chirac’s fall guy in the Mairie de Paris corruption trials—manifestly humbled him. And the politique de proximité he has practiced during his 17 years as mayor of Bordeaux—where he is hugely appreciated—has humanized him. I was not a fan of his during his period as PM but changed my view in precisely October 1999, when a cercle de réflexion that Juppé created, called France Moderne, published a 60-page report on immigration in France and the reality of discrimination, which I read at the time and found excellent. The report—which was unsigned but probably written, in part or in whole, by Juppé himself—repudiated the entire approach, indeed world-view, of the right toward the immigration issue at that time. It was a remarkable document indeed (as it seems to have disappeared from the web—I have a hard copy somewhere—I have pasted in the comments section Le Monde’s article from the time announcing the report’s publication). After reading it, I started to look at Juppé more favorably. In fairness, it should be said that Sarkozy also had interesting things to say on the immigration issue in the early ’00s, but, being Sarkozy, he radically altered his discourse when political expedience so dictated. Juppé has not changed his tune on the issue.

When it comes to mastery of policy, Juppé is second to none in the political class (he’s not an Inspecteur de Finance for nothing), and his positions are fairly consistent. He does not, unlike his principal UMP rival of the moment, change his positions 180° on a dime or lurch wildly from one thing to another. He is firmly anchored on the neo-Gaullist moderate right. Juppé is solid and serious. And he is an homme d’Etat and a republican, which no one would deny. Nicolas Sarkozy is not an homme d’Etat and it is not certain that he is a republican. And one is not going to get demagoguery from Juppé or outlandish proposals that he would not be able to implement. E.g. on the economy, Juppé advocates abolishing the ISF, gutting the RTT, and raising the retirement age to 65; these are clearly positions of the right but mainstream and not totally unreasonable. Last Thursday night Juppé was the guest on France 2’s Des Paroles et des Actes, where he was grilled for 2½ hours by a succession of journalists, politicos, and citizens (one of the politicos being the 24-year-old FN deputy Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who was surprisingly impressive on form: articulate and far less antipathique than her aunt, and certainly her grandfather). What to say, Juppé was Juppé. He was good, even though I won’t say I agreed with him down the line (I remain well to his left). He drew a big TV audience—to be expected given the current political context—and the instant poll at the end of the program showed a leap in his favorable numbers. And importantly, he showed himself to be the anti-Sarkozy and in almost every respect.

As for the other announced candidates for the UMP presidential primary, François Fillon and Xavier Bertrand, they will strive to be heard. Fillon was looking good and solid after the 2012 elections but did damage to his image in the guerre à outrance with Jean-François Copé for the presidency of the UMP. And politically speaking, his moderate, social Gaullist image was seriously undermined when in 2012, out of the blue, he spoke of readopting the provisions of the 1993 Loi Pasqua (abrogated by the left in 1998) in regard to French nationality acquisition. Fillon’s erstwhile social Gaullism is now definitely in the past, with his très libéral discourse on the economy (calling for, entre autres, the elimination of no less than 600,000 posts in the fonction publique). As for Bertrand, il fait de la figuration, au moins pour le moment. Both are likely waiting/hoping for Sarkozy to drown in his affaires and be forced out of the race, after which they will present themselves as the more conservative alternative to Juppé (and as Juppé is not too appreciated on the UMP hard right—where he’s seen as a sort of RINO à la française—, the political space for them will be there). In any case, the choice on the French right for ’17 could not be more clear, that’s for sure.

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen & Alain Juppé, France 2/Des Paroles et des Actes, October 2nd

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen & Alain Juppé, France 2/Des Paroles et des Actes, October 2nd

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