Archive for April, 2015

The Armenian genocide


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To mark the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide, I’m linking to two articles—and two only—that I’ve read on the subject of late. One is the remarkable essay in the January 5th issue of The New Yorker by staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian, “A Century of Silence,” in which he writes about the historical memory of the genocide in southeastern Turkey—and how it is being recovered—through the prism of his family’s own history. At 14,000 words the essay requires a certain time commitment but is well worth it.

The other piece, in the April 20th issue of TWS, is by Boston College political science prof Dominic Green, “A great calamity: One century since the Turkish genocide of the Armenians,” in which he reviews “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Green writes

This year is the centenary of the Armenian Genocide; the commemoration falls on April 24. On that day in 1915, the Ottoman government arrested hundreds of prominent Armenians in Istanbul. This April 24, when memorial ceremonies are held in Armenia and in the cities of the Armenian diaspora, the Turkish government will be congratulating itself with diversionary celebrations of the Gallipoli campaign. The centenary has raised the diplomatic temperature and precipitated many books. Ronald Suny’s is the best of them: Balanced, scholarly, and harrowing, it should be read by all serious students of modern history.

I’ll certainly read it à l’occasion.

I should also mention Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s new feature-length film, ‘The Cut’, which has the Armenian genocide as its focus. Akin is a fine filmmaker, having directed the excellent Head-On and the very good The Edge of Heaven, though his Soul Kitchen wasn’t too memorable IMO. This one is his biggest budget and most ambitious film. It begins in 1915 in Mardin, in southeastern Anatolia—near the present-day Syrian border—where a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian, played by the French actor Tahir Rahim, lives a happy life with his wife and daughters, ages 10-12 or thereabouts, when Ottoman soldiers storm Armenian homes in the middle of the night and send their inhabitants packing. Nazaret is separated from his wife and daughters, the latter sent on the death march to the south while he’s impressed into a work gang, all of whose members have their throats summarily slashed when the soldiers are done with them. But Nazaret’s press-ganged Kurdish executioner can’t bring himself to commit the deed, going through the motions and sparing Nazaret’s life, but cutting his vocal cords nonetheless, definitively depriving him of speech. This part of the film, which depicts the genocide as it must have unfolded—with the round-ups, robbing and rape of those on the death march, massacres and mass starvation—is well-done and quite powerful, though one is provided with little information as to why it’s all happening. Turks and Kurds will wince at the way they’re portrayed, even if a small handful are shown to have acted honorably and/or with humanity. Nazaret ends up in Aleppo and, with the war over, learns that his wife had died but the daughters hadn’t, that they’d been married to rich Armenian businessmen living in Cuba. So he sets off on his journey to find them—and this is the rest of the film—taking a boat to Havana, where, communicating via writing and hand gestures, he learned that they had moved on to Minneapolis, Minnesota. So smuggling himself to Florida, he makes his way to the Twin Cities, where he is informed that the daughters are now somewhere in North Dakota. Fucking North Dakota. So that’s where he goes and where his journey ends, some seven years after he was separated from his family. As for whether or not the ending is happy, sorry but no spoilers.

This part of the film doesn’t work. What started out as an epic saga on the Armenian genocide—a subject on which there are precious few cinematic treatments—ended up as a story about a father looking for his lost family—and, with the film’s 2¼-hour running time, a long story indeed. And having the protag lose his voice was an unnecessary contrivance. Technically the film is impressive—it was shot in five countries (Jordan, Malta, Germany, Cuba, and Canada) on three continents—but otherwise it’s a disappointment. A blown opportunity. In the version shown in France the Armenian characters speak Armenian (Rahim and others being dubbed) but I read afterward that they speak English in the main version for the international market. If the one I saw had been this, I’d have given the pic the thumbs down from the get go. Hollywood press critics who saw the film at the Venice festival had the same reaction to it as did I (e.g. here, here, and here). French critics were also on the same wavelength (though Allociné spectateurs were far more positive; for once I go against the vox populi). Armenian trailer w/French s/t is here, English one is here.

UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has an op-ed in the NYT (April 23rd) on “The cost of Turkey’s genocide denial.”

2nd UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has another piece, this an excerpt in TDB (April 24th) from his new book (see above), “Yes, the slaughter of Armenians was genocide.” The lede: “The Turkish government may not want to admit it, but the murder and removal of millions of Armenians was genocide.”

3rd UPDATE: Sabancı University political science professor Ayşe Kadıoğlu has a most interesting essay in OpenDemocracy (April 24th), “Skeletons in the Turkish closet: remembering the Armenian Genocide.” The lede: “Just like the skeletons that were discovered in Diyarbakır in 2012 nearly 100 years after they were buried, Turkey’s past is haunting its future and demanding that we remember the tragic events of the Armenian Genocide.”

4th UPDATE: Le Monde dated April 23rd has an eight-page supplement on the “Génocide des Arméniens,” in which there’s a full-page interview with Boğaziçi University historian Edhem Eldem, who was one of the organizers of the groundbreaking 2005 Istanbul conference on the Armenian genocide, the first ever held in Turkey on the subject. In view of the century-long brainwashing of Turks as to what to happened to the Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and the hyper-nationalism in Turkey—which is constitutive of the Turkish national identity—he is not optimistic that the Turkish state will recognize the fact of the genocide in the foreseeable future.

5th UPDATE: The website Public Books has a review essay (May 1st) on Ronald Grigor Suny’s book by Christine Philliou, Associate Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish History at Columbia University, “The Armenian genocide and the politics of knowledge.”


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My friend Claire Berlinski has a post on the Ricochet blog, “Mass grave in the Mediterranean,” in which she favorably refers to Adam Garfinkle’s writings, on The American Interest website, on the Obama administration’s Libya intervention. Garfinkle was a strong opponent of the intervention and is feeling vindicated on account of his apparent clairvoyance as to how things would turn out there. I have a few issues with his POV, though, which I wrote to Claire in an email. But instead of sending the mail, I’m posting it here on AWAV instead, where others (e.g. Bob B.) can eventually weigh in:

On the Libya intervention, Adam Garfinkle has the satisfaction of saying he was right from the beginning—it’s always gratifying to be able to do that—but Libya was, in fact, a roll of the dice. Or a coin flip (a better metaphor). It was a 50-50 proposition (in terms of arguments for intervention vs. against). I wrote this four years ago almost to the day (here) and would write it again today.

There are a few things Garfinkle doesn’t consider, or maybe downplays (as I’m maxed out on my quota of free American Interest articles, I can’t go back and verify what precisely he said at the time or since). First, the Obama administration was divided on the wisdom of intervening in Libya but its hand was forced by Sarkozy and Cameron (in the same way as Clinton’s was by Chirac and Blair in Kosovo). But as it was clear that it would merely be a bombing campaign—no ground troops—the decision was relatively easy (and particularly as there was no objection from Russia or the Arab states, Algeria excepted; Qadhafi’s utter isolation in the Arab world, including in Arab public opinion, was striking; so the US had nothing to worry about in that department).

Second, there already was an insurgency/civil war underway and that would have worsened had the US not intervened. It is entirely possible—even likely—that the situation we’re witnessing in Libya today would have happened anyway (and with many more Libyans having been killed in the process). In other words, the US intervention may have merely hastened a possibly inevitable outcome.

Third, there is no reason to believe that Libya would be an island of stability today had Qadhafi prevailed in the civil war—with the inevitable massacres and exactions—for the simple reason that Qadhafi had always been a source of instability. A comparison with Iraq is useful here. Qadhafi’s regime was, in fact, far worse than Saddam Hussein’s; the internal repression and brutality of the two regimes were on a par—they were equally bad in both—but Qadhafi meddled in the affairs of other countries—in the Maghreb and West Africa—and generally wreaked havoc in a way that Saddam did not (with two big exceptions, of course, in 1980 and 1990, when he grossly miscalculated). And Qadhafi was a sponsor of international terrorism—targeting Americans and Europeans—in a way Saddam’s regime never was. No act of terrorism in Europe from the mid 1970s onward can be traced back to Baghdad (unlike to Tripoli, Tehran, or Damascus). So there is no a priori reason to assume that we would not be witnessing the current migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean if Qadhafi were still in power.

N.B. The disaster in Libya is due to the collapse of the Libyan state. But the collapse of the Libyan state was not brought about by the US intervention or events set in motion by this. It was brought about by Qadhafi. Qadhafi wrecked what existed of a state in Libya. Qadhafi patrimonialized the Libyan state—concentrating total power in the hands of his immediate family—to an extent unseen in an Arab country outside the Gulf. Ba’athist Iraq had a state. Qadhafi’s Libya did not. There was a small window in 2012 during which it could have been reconstituted (e.g. here). Unfortunately it didn’t work out.

One last thing. Garfinkle, in his post from this February, alludes to the mess in Mali and Nigeria as an unintended, but implicitly inevitable, consequence of the US invention. But did Garfinkle warn about this back in 2011? Did anyone? If so, I’d like the reference.

UPDATE: See the essay in Vox (April 5, 2016) by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, “Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure; they’re wrong.”

2nd UPDATE: Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, who directs the Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’École Militaire in Paris and has been an adviser to the French foreign ministry, has a must-read article in the Summer 2016 issue of The Washington Quarterly, “Ten Myths About the 2011 Intervention in Libya.”

3rd UPDATE: Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Micah Zenko has a piece in Foreign Policy (March 22, 2017) entitled “The big lie about the Libyan war: The Obama administration said it was just trying to protect civilians. Its actions reveal it was looking for regime change.” Which is what I thought from the very outset.

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Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Marking the occasion, Le Monde’s Friday issue has a full-page article by one of the paper’s international editors, Adrien Le Gal, “Voyage chez Pol Pot,” in which it is recalled how the Khmer Rouge victory was applauded by numerous Western leftist activists, tiersmondiste intellectuals, and engagé journalists—including, Le Gal specifies, at Le Monde itself. The subject of the article is precisely those Western apologists, delegations of whom were invited by the Khmer Rouge to visit “Democratic Kampuchea” in 1978—in groups of three or four at a time—the first Westerners to set foot in Cambodia in three years. Le Gal tracked down some of those visitors, to solicit their assessments with four decades hindsight. Most regret their views of the time, though a few remain unrepentant (one being the Swedish gauchiste writer Jan Myrdal, son of the illustrious Gunnar & Alva). One of the more vocal Khmer Rouge apologists in the English-speaking world was the British academic Malcolm Caldwell, who was killed in Phnom Penh in late 1978 in mysterious circumstances. French historian Henri Locard—who has authored a recent book on the Khmer Rouge—told Le Gal that he is quite sure Caldwell’s killing was an accident, that he was hit by a stray bullet fired by a Khmer Rouge guard in an altercation that had nothing to do with Caldwell. Interesting.

For the anecdote, I was one of those who applauded the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, apologized for them for a couple of years, and did not wish to read the horrific refugee accounts that appeared in publications like Reader’s Digest (which, as Susan Sontag informed an unappreciative New York audience several years later, got it more right on communism than did The Nation). In April 1975 I was a college freshman and self-proclaimed Maoist (a political posture I had adopted four years earlier—as a 10th grader—after reading Edgar Snow’s Red China Today). In 1976, during my sophomore year, I wrote a term paper, for an interdisciplinary course on East Asia, explaining and defending the Khmer Rouge’s evacuation of the population of Phnom Penh to the countryside. My principal source was a just-published monograph by Khmer Rouge Über-apologists Gareth Porter and George C. Hildebrand, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. The professor’s remark at the end of my paper was “Excellent!” (letter grades did not exist at my college but if they had, I would have gotten an A for sure; I probably still have the paper, buried in a box somewhere). The très engagé Porter—who’s still around and kicking—held a doctorate in Southeast Asian studies from Cornell—the top university in that field—and was thus no hack, has sort of half-apologized for his Khmer Rouge apologetics (though he’s kind of defensive about it). Other leftists of the period, who had nothing in particular to say about the Khmer Rouge while it ruled, suddenly started to denounce it, and to give credit to all the horror stories, after Vietnam’s January 1979 invasion and occupation of Cambodia. The Vietnamese invasion gave them cover. It was Vietnamese Communists good/Khmer Rouge bad (like the good Lenin vs. the bad Stalin). I am reminded of the spectacle of holier-than-thou leftists, at a public debate on US foreign policy at New York’s Public Theater in the winter of 1981, taking to task panel member Richard Holbrooke—who had just finished his stint as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs—for the Carter administration not having recognized the Vietnamese client regime in Phnom Penh and having backhandedly aligned the US position on Cambodia with that of China, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign patron…

There have been several cinematic treatments of the Khmer Rouge’s ubuesque, totalitarian regime, its enslavement of the entire Cambodian population, and the auto-genocide it embarked on (the first time in human history a ruling cabal set out to exterminate the majority of its own population). Everyone has seen Roland Joffé’s 1983 The Killing Fields. Last December Régis Wargnier’s Le Temps des aveux (English title: The Gate) opened in France. This tells the story of ethnologist François Bizot as recounted in his 2001 prize-winning book Le Portail, published in English under the title The Gate. In his book Bizot, a leading French academic specialist of Cambodian civilization who, since 1965, had been living in a village near Siam Reap—where he married a Cambodian—tells of his abduction by the Khmer Rouge at a guerrilla checkpoint in 1971. Imprisoned in an open-air jungle camp in Khmer Rouge-held territory, Bizot was shackled, mistreated, brutally interrogated, and accused of being a CIA agent, which meant execution. During his captivity, he witnessed the extreme cruelty of the Khmer Rouge, where people were led off to be shot or clubbed to death for the most minor of infractions—infractions decreed by the Khmer Rouge that almost no one could avoid committing at some point or another. But Bizot, played in the film by Raphaël Personnaz, managed to convince his otherwise pitiless interrogator, Kang Kek Ieu, a.k.a. Comrade Duch—played by writer and translator Kompheak Phoeung—that he was indeed merely a scholar researching ancient Buddhist manuscripts. When Bizot appeared before the Khmer Rouge leadership—the Angka, with Pol Pot presiding—to be judged, he was acquitted. Duch, no doubt at some risk to himself, had managed to convince his Angka colleagues of Bizot’s innocence. The scene of the revolutionary tribunal reminded me of the similar one in the film Timbuktu, which I had seen a few days earlier, of the formal commitment to law and legal procedure by men who know nothing whatever about law and are utterly arbitrary in their decisions.

So Bizot owed his life to Duch, a cruel man—a sort of Cambodian Eichmann—who, it would later be revealed, had had many thousands tortured and murdered. After three months of captivity, Bizot was freed, with instructions that he deliver an envelope to the French embassy in Phnom Penh. The envelope contained the text of the Khmer Rouge’s ideological and political treatise, which spelled out precisely what it planned to do once it had conquered the country. The auto-genocide was all in there. The treatise, it seems, was filed away untranslated at the Quai d’Orsay. No one read it before 1975.

Bizot declined to leave Cambodia after his experience—his family and work were there—and was in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived in April ’75.  He sought protection with his family at the French embassy, along with all resident foreigners and many terrified Cambodians. This sequence of the film is well-done, though Wargnier does take a few liberties with the historical record, e.g. in showing Duch as the Khmer Rouge official at the embassy gate (when, in fact, he wasn’t there). Olivier Gourmet plays the consul Jean Dyrac, who was the senior French diplomat in the country (France having formally broken diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Lon Nol’s 1970 coup d’Etat). Here Wargnier, relaying Bizot’s account, corrects the portrayal in ‘The Killing Fields’—Sydney Schanberg’s, in effect—of the French diplomats in Phnom Penh having behaved cynically, indeed immorally, in pushing Cambodians associated with the fallen regime out of the embassy grounds and to certain death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Bizot asserts that such did not happen, at least not in the way Schanberg claimed it did; the consul and his staff were faced with an almost impossible situation, as the Khmer Rouge did not respect the extraterritoriality of the embassy grounds, couldn’t have cared less about any Vienna Convention, and were ready to storm it at any moment. There was nothing the French could have done to save the Cambodians at the embassy who didn’t hold a foreign passport (see here; also here).

Bizot, with hastily made French passports for his family, left on the convoy to Thailand (though his wife didn’t make it past the border guards; she survived the Khmer Rouge but their marriage did not). The film then jumps to 2003, with Bizot back in Cambodia and where he meets with Duch, now in detention and awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. And the trial finally happened six years later, which Bizot wrote about in this 2009 NYT op-ed. I thought the film was quite good. It’s engrossing, well-acted, and effectively conveys the evil of the Khmer Rouge (and it was entirely filmed in Cambodia). And Bizot’s story is exceptional. The one full US review, in THR, is here (it’s positive, though I totally disagree with the final paragraph, on the film’s supposed “one failing”). It will surely open in the US at some point. Trailer is here.

After Wargnier’s film, I simply had to check out others on the subject. So over the subsequent two weeks I saw two documentaries on DVD by Paris-based filmmaker—and co-producer of ‘The Gate’—Rithy Panh (not to be confused with the photojournalist Dith Pran, whose story was at the center of Roland Joffé’s film). The first one was the 2003 S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, about the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, a.k.a. S21, in Phnom Penh, of which Duch was the director for most of the Khmer Rouge’s years in power and where some 17,000 persons were interned, interrogated, tortured, and executed. Prison interrogators and guards coolly described to Rithy Panh how they went about their work. It’s an amazing documentary. An absolute must-see (trailer is here). Tuol Sleng is now a museum and memorial of the Khmer Rouge’s auto-genocide.

The other Rithy Panh documentary seen was The Missing Picture (L’Image manquante, curieusement pas encore sorti en France), which won the Un Certain Regard top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and was one of the five pics nominated for the 2014 best foreign film Oscar. In this one Rithy Panh tells the story of his own experience under the Khmer Rouge, of his deportation from Phnom Penh at age 11, the slave labor in the countryside, and death by starvation of members of his family. One particularity of the Khmer Rouge era is the near total absence of images. Mug shots at Tuol Sleng and a few black-and-white propaganda films excepted, there are practically no photos or other images of Cambodia of the period. Like the Nazis and their extermination camps, the Angka did not wish to record what they were doing for future posterity. So to make up for the absence of images, Rithy Panh used miniature clay figurines to tell his story. It’s an original film and powerful. Like his ‘S21’, it’s a must-see. Hollywood press reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.

These are but two of the several documentaries Rithy Panh has made on the Khmer Rouge, one of which is entirely focused on Comrade Duch. This I’ll see at some point. He’s also published his memoir (written with Christophe Bataille), L’élimination, which has been translated into English. As with the Holocaust and other episodes of genocide and mass evil, there will never be too many books or films on this subject.



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Killed by police


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Killed by Police.net: This website, established in May 2013, documents, via news reports—as there are no official statistics on the question—all persons killed in the United States by the police, whatever the reason. In 2014, an average of 92 persons per month were killed by the police somewhere in the US. From May through December 2013, the average monthly number was 96. Some of those killed were allegedly armed—and “allegedly” must be underscored here—a few of whom allegedly shot at the police first. But reading the news dispatches at random, it is clear that most of those who were allegedly armed did not initiate fire. The cops shot first. And then there were all those shot and killed who were not armed—and who were, of course, disproportionately black.

Contrast this with France, where some 10 to 15 persons a year are killed by the police. That’s a year, not per month. From 2000 to 2014—over a 15-year period—a total of 127 persons were killed by the police in France. N.B. These figures are not official—as with the US, there are no official statistics in France on the question—but were collected by left-wing associations—which have no wish to minimize police brutality, it may be mentioned.

On this score, France is actually a violent country compared to Great Britain, where, in 2013, zero persons were killed by police gunfire. In 2012, one person was killed by a bobby in all of GB.

Statistically speaking, one is 25 times more likely to be killed by a cop in America than in France. And 100 times more likely than in Britain.

There’s something very wrong with America: With the American police and in American society (all those guns).

On the April 4th murder of citizen Walter Scott by police officer Michael Slager in North Charleston SC, I will recommend just two articles of the many I’ve read. One is “Seeing Walter Scott,” by Cardozo School of Law professor Ekow N. Yankah, in The New Yorker (April 12th). This one is particularly good.

The other is “When cops cry wolf,” by Frank Serpico, a man who knows of what he speaks, in Politico Magazine (April 10th). The lede: “Police have been setting up suspects with false testimony for decades. Is anyone going to believe them now when they tell the truth?”

While I’m at it, here is something I just came across in WaPo: “Cop accused of brutally torturing black suspects costs Chicago $5.5 million.” Wow, I had no idea. A Paul Aussaresses wannabe with the gégène and in my home town, and while I lived there…

And here’s a Special Investigation in the upcoming May-June issue of Mother Jones, “What does gun violence really cost?” Cost America, that is.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times informs its readers (April 9th) that “Nearly 9% of Americans are angry, impulsive – and have a gun…” The article reports on a study—carried out by a team of researchers from Columbia, Duke, and Harvard—just published in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law. It begins

Tread lightly, Americans: Nearly 9% of people in the United States have outbursts of anger, break or smash things, or get into physical fights — and have access to a firearm, a new study says. What’s more, 1.5% of people who have these anger issues carry their guns outside the home.

This means that some 430,000 potentially dangerous Americans are legally armed and may be roaming about at any given moment.

BTW, did anyone see the video clips of Wayne LaPierre’s keynote speech the other day at the NRA’s annual meeting? These people make the French Front National look like centrists.

2nd UPDATE: Vox has a spot on post (April 9th) by its race, law, and politics reporter Jenée Desmond-Harris on “Why it’s finally catching on that ‘What about black-on-black crime?’ doesn’t make sense.”

3rd UPDATE: Vanity Fair editor Kia Makarechi has an article (July 14, 2016) on “What the data really says about police and racial bias.” The lede: “Eighteen academic studies, legal rulings, and media investigations shed light on the issue roiling America.”

4th UPDATE: See the essay (September 16, 2016) by political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., who thinks outside the box and is never not interesting, on “How racial disparity does not help make sense of patterns of police violence.”

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IS fighters, Anbar province, Iraq

IS fighters, Anbar province, Iraq

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Politico Magazine has an interesting article (dated April 7th) by Emma Sky, “How Obama abandoned democracy in Iraq,” which is adapted from her new book, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. Sky, who’s British and presently a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, was the representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk in 2003-04 and political adviser in 2007-10 to US Gen. Ray Odierno, commanding general of the Multi-National Force–Iraq, so knows something about the subject and has much to say on it (and she speaks Arabic, which gives her extra cred). Sky—who says she opposed the 2003 invasion—essentially blames Iraq’s downward spiral from 2010 onward on the Obama administration—and particularly VP Joseph Biden and the US ambassadors in Baghdad (appointed by President Obama)—of their backing the wrong horse after the Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2010, i.e. supporting Nouri al-Maliki over Iyad Allawi. If the Obama administration had backed the right horse (Allawi), things in Iraq may have turned out very differently, Sky strongly implies. Subtext: If Obama had played it otherwise the Islamic State may have never seen the light of day and Iraq would possibly be a stable, democracy-consolidating polity at peace, and with Iranian influence kept to a minimum.

If Sky is right, then Obama botched this one big time, that’s for sure. Her argument is to be given due consideration but I’m not buying it. Ambassadors—even US ones—are simply not major actors in the domestic politics of any given country and at any given moment, and particularly in a country as consequential and complicated as Iraq—where ambassadors, for security reasons, hardly ever leave their embassies—and the utterances of a foreign leader on a lightning visit simply do not alter the course of history. But though I am skeptical of Sky’s argument, I have nonetheless put her book on my to-read list (expressing my best of intentions as to eventually reading it).

On the Islamic State—about which I read daily—the most interesting piece I’ve come across in the past few days is The Washington Post’s enquête (April 4th) by the paper’s Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly, “The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein’s.” Reporting from Turkey, Sly interviewed a former Syrian IS chieftain going by the name Abu Hamza, who

underscore[d] the pervasive role played by members of Iraq’s former Baathist army in an organization more typically associated with flamboyant foreign jihadists and the gruesome videos in which they star. (…) “All the decision makers are Iraqi, and most of them are former Iraqi officers. The Iraqi officers are in command, and they make the tactics and the battle plans,” he said. “But the Iraqis themselves don’t fight. They put the foreign fighters on the front lines.”

On the extreme cruelty of IS, this has an Iraqi Ba’athist pedigree

The raw cruelty of Hussein’s Baathist regime, the disbandment of the Iraqi army after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the subsequent insurgency and the marginalization of Sunni Iraqis by the Shiite-dominated government all are intertwined with the Islamic State’s ascent, said Hassan Hassan, a Dubai-based analyst and co-author of the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” (…)

At first glance, the secularist dogma of Hussein’s tyrannical Baath Party seems at odds with the Islamic State’s harsh interpretation of the Islamic laws it purports to uphold.

But the two creeds broadly overlap in several regards, especially their reliance on fear to secure the submission of the people under the group’s rule. Two decades ago, the elaborate and cruel forms of torture perpetrated by Hussein dominated the discourse about Iraq, much as the Islamic State’s harsh punishments do today. (…)

In the last two years of Hussein’s rule, a campaign of beheadings, mainly targeting women suspected of prostitution and carried out by his elite Fedayeen unit, killed more than 200 people, human rights groups reported at the time.

The brutality deployed by the Islamic State today recalls the bloodthirstiness of some of those Fedayeen, said Hassan. Promotional videos from the Hussein era include scenes resembling those broadcast today by the Islamic State, showing the Fedayeen training, marching in black masks, practicing the art of decapitation and in one instance eating a live dog. (…)

On the US role in unwittingly facilitating the current situation:

The de-Baathification law promulgated by L.­ Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American ruler in 2003, has long been identified as one of the contributors to the original insurgency. At a stroke, 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were barred from government employment, denied pensions — and also allowed to keep their guns.

The U.S. military failed in the early years to recognize the role the disbanded Baathist officers would eventually come to play in the extremist group, eclipsing the foreign fighters whom American officials preferred to blame, said Col. Joel Rayburn, a senior fellow at the National Defense University who served as an adviser to top generals in Iraq and describes the links between Baathists and the Islamic State in his book, “Iraq After America.” (…)

It was under the watch of the current Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that the recruitment of former Baathist officers became a deliberate strategy, according to analysts and former officers. (…)

The ex-Baathists could be lured away, if they were offered alternatives and hope for the future, [a former general who commanded Iraqi troops during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003] said.

“The Americans bear the biggest responsibility. When they dismantled the army what did they expect those men to do?” he asked. “They were out in the cold with nothing to do and there was only one way out for them to put food on the table.”

When U.S. officials demobilized the Baathist army, “they didn’t de-Baathify people’s minds, they just took away their jobs,” he said.

If one didn’t see it, the NYT’s Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt had a must-read enquête last August 11th on how “U.S. actions in Iraq fueled [the] rise of [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi],” to which may be added The Guardian’s Martin Chulov’s equally must-read December 11th report, “ISIS: The inside story.” The lede: “One of the Islamic State’s senior commanders reveals exclusive details of the terror group’s origins inside an Iraqi prison – right under the noses of their American jailers.”

Also worth the read is J.J. Goldberg’s commentary in the JDF (April 6th) on “How Bibi and Bush made a mess of the Middle East.” The lede: “Misplaced focus on Saddam’s Iraq tore region apart.”

ADDENDUM: Some ten days ago I attended a talk by Pierre-Jean Luizard, France’s leading academic specialist of modern Iraq, who has just published a book on IS, Le piège Daech: L’État islamique ou le retour de l’Histoire. He made a number of points in his dense, learned exposé, of which three may be mentioned: 1. The Americans bear considerable responsibility for the current calamity in Iraq, as they set out to confessionalize the Iraqi political system during the year the Coalition Provisional Authority ruled the country. But—and I’m extrapolating from Luizard’s analysis here—it was a near certainty that the imposition of a Lebanese-style system in Iraq would have deleterious consequences, as it would inexorably lead to a bid for hegemony by the Shi’ites and alienate the Sunnis, who had ruled the lands of Mesopotamia for centuries. If a confessional/consociational-type system is going to work—and this is my point, not Luizard’s—it has to be negotiated by the legitimate, recognized elites of the confessional groups themselves—as was the 1943 Lebanese National Pact—and all the groups have to be minorities.  2. IS is indeed heavily comprised of former Iraqi Ba’athists. The Saddam Hussein legacy is manifest. IS is the present-day political expression of Iraq’s Sunnis. The Shia-dominated Iraqi army will not be able to regain control of Mosul and other cities controlled by IS. If they manage to do so, massacres of Sunnis and/or mass pillaging of Sunni property will inevitably ensue—as witnessed in Tikrit earlier this week—as will permanent insurrection against the Iraqi state. In short, Iraq, as we have known it, is finished.  3. The US and its allies have neither the strategy nor the means to defeat IS. Bombing IS will change nothing, as there is no alternative force to take IS’s place—except, in Iraq, the Iraqi state as presently constituted (see point 2). As for Syria, Luizard stressed that the Ba’athist regime in Damascus will never again control Raqqa (not that it even seeks to). So, in short, the situation in Iraq (and Syria) is extremely bleak. Luizard ended on a very pessimistic note.

UPDATE: The Foreign Policy website has an appalling account (April 9th) by Qusai Zakarya—the nom de plume of Kassem Eid, a youthful Syrian-Palestinian activist—on “The starving of Yarmouk, then the capture.” The lede: “The Islamic State’s attack on the besieged Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus is highly suspicious. It could only have happened with Assad’s complicity.” Having visited Yarmouk five years ago and where I met kind, friendly people (here), what’s happening there has a particular resonance with me.

2nd UPDATE: Orthopedic surgeon Samer Attar, who volunteered in field hospitals with the Syrian-American Medical Society in Aleppo in August 2013 and April 2014, has an “Aleppo Diary” in the WSJ (April 12th) on “The carnage from Syrian barrel bombs.” Barrel bombs: If there’s one single thing that summarizes the evil of the Syrian Ba’athist regime, it’s this.

3rd UPDATE: Spiegel Online International has a lengthy, must-read report (April 18th) on the Saddam regime/IS link, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State.” The lede: “An Iraqi officer planned Islamic State’s takeover in Syria and SPIEGEL has been given exclusive access to his papers. They portray an organization that, while seemingly driven by religious fanaticism, is actually coldly calculating.”

4th UPDATE: The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who was the NYT’s Baghdad correspondent from 2003 to ’06, has a commentary (May 15th), “Did George W. Bush create ISIS?,” in which he revists decisions made early on in the Iraq war, notably the one to dissolve the Iraqi army, which Filkins calls “probably the single most catastrophic decision of the American venture in Iraq,” and from which the Sunni insurgency was launched. Ergo, Bush was at least partly responsible for the eventual rise of the Islamic State. But Filkins also points a finger in Obama’s direction, opining that “it seems possible that, if Obama had pushed [Nuri al-]Maliki harder, the United States could have retained a small force of soldiers [in Iraq] in noncombat roles.” Sure. As if the mere presence of a few US military personnel would have scared the IS away from seizing Mosul and everything else it has. Allez. And Filkins oddly neglects to mention the refusal of the Iraqi parliament to approve the SOFA, which gave the US no choice but to leave that blessed country to its own devices. So on this particular point, not convinced!

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

I had hoped to get this post up earlier this week but better late than never. There were no big surprises in Sunday’s 2nd round (for my quick take on the 1st round, go here). As one knows, it was a smashing victory for the UMP-UDI (as expected) and a severe defeat for the Socialists and the rest of the left (though it could have been worse). As for the FN, the result was en demi-teinte. Marine Le Pen & Co had hoped to take two departments, the Vaucluse and l’Aisne, but took neither, and the 31 cantons the frontistes won overall was short of their expectations. But the FN’s national score—25% in the 1st round, 22% in the 2nd— confirmed its enracinement at the local level and, as the commentators and pundits are putting it, France’s new political tripolar reality. Tripartisme is the new watchword in French politics.

A few comments on the three poles coming out of the election.

The UMP: The headline in Tuesday’s Le Monde Tuesday reads “Nicolas Sarkozy conforté,” i.e. Sarkozy has been reinforced by the election result. Perhaps, though the election was not about him and it is most unlikely that the excellent result for his party was due to anything in particular he did or said. Given the unpopularity of President Hollande and the Socialists, the UMP was going to benefit no matter what, in the same way as the PS did in regional and local elections when the UMP was in power in the 2002-12 period. And the new binôme system was tailor-made for the UMP—merci aux socialistes!—as it rendered almost effortless the constitution of tickets with the UDI, thus sealing the right and center alliance for this election. As for notable things Sarkozy said during the campaign, there was mainly his declaration supporting the UMP mayor of Chalon-sur-Saône on ending substitute meals when pork is served in school cafeterias (meals that had been offered in cafeterias without debate or controversy for decades). For good measure, Sarko reiterated his endorsement of a law banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves by students in universities. With his peremptory pronouncements on these non-issues—fabricated de toute pièce in the ambient climate of anti-Muslim bigotry—Sarkozy demonstrated once again that he is the worst person in the top-tier of French politics, utterly devoid of principles, shame, or republican values. In a live call-in studio interview on RTL the Tuesday before last, Sarkozy was politely challenged on the school menu question by a listener named Hisham. Sarko’s response was to lecture citizen Hisham on laïcité (as if the 1905 law or even the most militant conception of laïcité de combat speaks to the burning question of school lunch menus). He was so patronizing and odious that I turned off the radio. I couldn’t bear to listen to him, as I cannot bear to watch him on television.

Sarkozy’s grotesquely opportunistic, demagogic fishing expedition in Front National waters was too much even for his colleagues in the UMP leadership, not only the honest republicans among them—Alain Juppé, François Fillon, Bruno Le Maire—who immediately spoke out against Sarko’s declaration, but also those politically close to him, e.g. Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, a sarkozyste historique, very right-wing himself, and whose city is equally right-wing, but who, in implicitly critiquing his friend, asserted that there would be no question of ending substitute school meals in his city (Muslims are numerous in Nice and Estrosi is not going to gratuitously pick a nasty fight with them). Rachida Dati, who owes her political existence to Sarkozy, also backhandedly rejected her erstwhile patron’s declaration, calling it a “non-subject” that could only “divide” and “fracture” French society. For his part, former Sarkozy speechwriter Henri Guaino—the “left hemisphere” of Sarkozy’s political brain at the Elysée—was biting in his reaction to his former boss and those in the UMP base who agreed with him on the pork issue, deploring the “stoking of the flames of anger” and rhetorically asking what image the UMP would give “if it whipped up one sector of the population against another, of non-Muslims against Muslims” (which, pour mémoire, was precisely Sarkozy’s presidential M.O. under Guaino’s watch). And even new FN municipal governments—e.g. in Fréjus and Cogolin—said that school cafeterias under their authority would continue to serve substitute meals.

But Sarkozy, whose political instincts were reformatted by Patrick Buisson—the “right hemisphere” of his presidential brain—couldn’t care less what his associates—most of whom he badmouths behind their backs anyway—think. What he knows is that a sizable portion of the UMP base—if not the majority—is far to the right and shares the same preoccupations and world-views as does the FN on immigration and national identity. The boundary separating the UMP’s Tea-Partyized right flank and the FN is increasingly blurred. So in order to persuade his voters not to defect to Le Pen, he’s going to talk like Le Pen. He already started doing this during the 2007 campaign and doubled down from 2010 on. But on the question of making electoral deals with the FN, or possibly entering into coalitions in elected assemblies, Sarkozy—along with the rest of the UMP leadership—has been intransigent: there will be no pacts whatever with the frontistes. While the barrier separating the two parties is becoming increasingly porous, the UMP’s firewall against dealing with the FN, even at the local level, will not be breached. This is not a matter of  ideology or high-minded principle—though there are indeed irreconcilable differences between the two parties on certain issues, notably Europe—but rather a pragmatic choice by the UMP for survival. The FN can only grow at the UMP’s expense and become the nº1 party of the right—and thus the natural alternative to the Socialists, which is, of course, Marine Le Pen’s goal—if it supplants the UMP. If the UMP deals with the FN in any way, the firewall will cede and with an inevitable torrent of defections from the former toward the latter, not only of voters but also of élus at the local level. Marine Le Pen & Co would be the sole beneficiary of any electoral pact with the UMP (as was the PS during the years of the Programme Commun with the PCF). So the hostility of Sarkozy and the rest of the UMP leadership to the FN is driven less by ideology than a rational instinct for survival.

In my post on the UMP six months ago, I categorically stated that I did not believe for a minute that Sarkozy would succeed in his comeback and impose himself as the UMP’s candidate in ’17. I still hold to this. We’ll have to see what effect, if any, Sunday’s outcome will have on his poll numbers but, for the moment, they’re not good. In the latest IPSOS baromètre—the best poll out there measuring the popularity of politicians IMO—Sarkozy is at 35% positive and 60% negative. And outside the hardcore UMP base, large majorities of those polled over the past three years—including non-UMP right voters and centrists—have consistently said they don’t want to hear about another Sarkozy presidency. And though he’s the champion of the UMP base, a sizable portion of party members do not want him, as was revealed by Bruno Le Maire’s unexpectedly high 30% score in the internal party election last November 29th. Sarkozy, ceding to the insistence of the majority in the UMP’s Bureau Politique, had already accepted à contrecœur the principle of a presidential primary open to all voters of the right and center (and not just card-carrying UMP members). The alliance with the UDI in the departmental elections—and with Sarko’s buddy-buddy campaign appearances with UDI president Jean-Christophe Lagarde—made an open primary a done deal (it will be held in November 2016 and with much the same organization as the 2011 PS primary). If centrists and UMP non-sarkozyistes coalesce around Alain Juppé’s candidacy, Juppé will beat Sarko—period—and particularly if their respective poll numbers stay about where they are today (Juppé, who remains the most popular French politician, is at 52% positive/33% negative in the March IPSOS baromètre). As one knows from presidential primaries in the US—plus the French Socialists’s in 2011—the primordial consideration for the majority of primary voters is winning the election, of having the strongest possible candidate to beat the opponent. Exceptional moments excepted, everything else is secondary.

The primary will hardly be a cakewalk for Juppé, though, as the immigration and national identity questions are sure to be central and on which Sarkozy is more in tune with the Tea-Partyized UMP base—a base that increasingly rejects Juppé, seeing him as a centrist, even a crypto-gauchiste (on economic issues the proclaimed UMP candidates are all playing the same broken record—baisse-des-impôts-baisse-des-charges-moins-de-fonctionnaires-réculer-l’âge-de-la-retraite-blah-blah—which everyone’s heard thousands of times, stokes the enthusiasm of no audience, and shifts no votes). The only thing for Juppé—who’s as principled a politician as one will find—to do will be to defend classic neo-Gaullist republican values, to stand squarely against the phobia of Islam and Muslims that is infecting public discourse in France. If he does this and in a principled way—again, in invoking republican values—it will work for him, I guarantee it. He’ll attract more votes than he’ll lose. The campaign is sure to be a nasty one, particularly if Sarkozy underhandedly sponsors a centrist candidate (e.g. J-C Lagarde) or coaxes other UMP tenors into the race (Le Maire, NKM…) in order to split the Juppé vote, which he’s entirely capable of doing (though a manifest subterfuge by Sarkozy will render inevitable a centrist/moderate right candidacy in the general election, e.g. François Bayrou or even Juppé himself). Whatever happens, the UMP primary will be of capital importance, as whoever wins it will be the prohibitive favorite in 2017 and with a huge UMP majority in the National Assembly that will follow.

The Socialists: It is hard to overstate the calamity that has befallen the PS. On Sunday the Socialists lost 28 of the 60 departments whose councils they headed and several hundred conseillers départementaux. The bérézina included longtime departmental fiefdoms or electoral bases of PS heavyweights that fell to the UMP: Corrèze (François Hollande), Nord (Martine Aubry), Seine-Maritime (Laurent Fabius), Essonne (Manuel Valls), Saône-et-Loire (Arnaud Montebourg), and Deux-Sèvres (Ségolène Royal), to which one may add the Territoire du Belfort, Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s longtime bastion. And then there was the Bouches-de-Rhône (biggest city: Marseille), run by the Socialists for an unbroken 70 years and which the UMP won. To all this may be added the disastrous municipal elections of March 2014, in which the PS lost 133 of the 371 municipalities of over 9,000 inhabitants that it governed (of 1,018 in the country) and several thousand municipal councillors (h/t Gérard Courtois for these figures). One shudders to contemplate the wipe-out that awaits the PS in December’s regional elections.

This is, quite simply, a catastrophe for the Socialists. As a party where élus have been a core component of the (dues-paying) membership, the loss of these thousands of elected politicos at the local level will seriously undermine not only the PS’s ability to seriously wage future elections but also the party’s finances in the here and now. And the party’s downward spiral risks accelerating, as disaffected and/or demoralized card-carrying militants decline to renew their membership. It is entirely possible that the PS may soon have fewer dues-paying members than the Front National. The PS is in the deepest hole in its modern history, worse than after the 1969 presidential election or the 1993 legislatives. The nadir of 1969 was followed two years later by the Epinay congress, François Mitterrand taking over the party, and a clear plan to win national elections. And Lionel Jospin emerged as l’homme providentiel after the 1993 debacle. There are no hommes (ou femmes) providentiel(le)s in the PS today. François Hollande’s spike in the polls in the wake of Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher was short-lived. Having leapt from 13% approval to 38% in the IPSOS baromètre, he’s now back down to 26%. Barring another national drama, he’s not likely to move significantly upward from here on out. If Hollande nonetheless decides to run for reelection, his chances of suffering a humiliating 1st round elimination are on the order of 98.5%. But if he throws in the towel on ’17—an unambiguous admission on his part of the failure of his presidency—one imagines with difficulty Manuel Valls—the failed president’s PM, thus a failure himself—being the substitute candidate. Martine Aubry is pretty much hors course—her moment has passed—as is Arnaud Montebourg, who’s now trying to make it in the private sector and isn’t really credible as a potential President of the Republic in any case. He’s too much of a gadfly. Ségolène Royal? Je ne crois pas. That leaves Laurent Fabius, who, as the elder statesman, finally respected by the public, and with nothing to lose, could save the Socialists’s honor (I advanced this hypotheses last year), but this is pure speculation on my part. In any case, a PS candidate can only be one of these aforementioned persons.

What also makes the Socialists’s situation worse than in ’69 or ’93 is the impossibility of any broad-based electoral pact on the left, let alone a governing coalition, or of one with the center. The 1970s saw the Programme Commun with the PCF and MRG, and Lionel Jospin’s accession paved the way for the gauche plurielle in the 1997 élections anticipées. There can be no repeat of a gauche plurielle and for reasons that do not require explanation. With the PS now firmly down the social libéral road, the chasm between it and the Front de Gauche will remain unbridgeable, indeed permanent. But the FdG itself is going nowhere. In the 1st round of the departmental elections it took 7% of the vote nationally, which is about what the FdG is worth. It will not and cannot become a French SYRIZA—i.e. the FdG can’t be anything more than what it is—for reasons I explained after the 2012 election on why Jean-Luc Mélenchon failed. If Mélenchon runs in 2017—which he may or may not—he won’t top his 11% score of 2012. And if JLM is not the FdG standard-bearer, then who? Pierre Laurent? Yeah, sure. Perhaps Clémentine Autain? She’d be okay, pour la figuration. As for the écolos, they’re in an even more pathetic state than the FdG, perpetually infantile and unable to decide if they want to participate in government with the PS—and with a couple of ministries—or exist in permanent opposition. And if a couple of écolos (e.g. Jean-Vincent Placé, Barbara Pompili) end up joining the Valls government—possibly in the next week or two—it will likely lead to a split in the already diminutive EELV.

The bottom line is that in order for a PS candidate to win a presidential election, the total stock of 1st round votes of left candidates (including extrême gauche) has to reach 43%. Anything less and the right wins. In the 1st round of the departmental elections the total left vote was 36%. It stands to reason—maybe—that PS voters who’ve sat out elections since 2012—and much of the abstention has been this—will come home, as it were, in the presidential election—if only to vote against Marine Le Pen and, in the ghastly eventuality he’s the UMP candidate, Sarkozy—in which the participation rate is the highest (it was 79.5% in the 2012 1st round). Again, maybe. But when the Minister of the Economy and Finance in a PS government regrets that France did not reform itself in the 1980s as did Great Britain at the time—i.e. during the Margaret Thatcher era—many PS voters will wonder what it is that makes the PS a party of the left (they’ve been wondering for a couple of years now, in fact). The second bottom line: looking into the crystal ball, it will be nothing short of miraculous if the total left vote in ’17 reaches even 40%. Third bottom line: the French left, as we’ve known it, is finished. If the PS does not thoroughly reconstitute itself after the inevitable debacle in ’17, change its name (getting rid of the “socialist,” a 19th-20th century concept now devoid of meaning), and forge an alliance with a reconstituted center, it will be out of power for the foreseeable future.

Front National: As mentioned above, the FN won 31 cantons on Sunday, meaning it will send twice that number of élus to the Conseils Départmentaux. Compared to the Front’s situation before the election—with its one conseiller général in all of France—this is an impressive result—though in view of the 1,073-odd 2nd round races the FN contested, maybe it’s not so impressive. Most of the cantons the FN took are in its strongholds in the northeast—notably the Pas-de-Calais and l’Aisne, where it won six and four, respectively—and the southeast, notably the Vaucluse, Var, and Hérault, taking three in each. One FN victory outside its traditional terre de prédilection worth noting was in Le Nord-Médoc (Gironde), which includes some of the greatest Bordeaux wine-producing communes, e.g. Pauillac (Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour…) and Saint-Estèphe. One may also note that FN binômes received high scores in the eleven communes the Front won in last year’s municipal elections, which may be interpreted as a thumbs up by local voters to the FN’s management of the towns it now runs. The FN will certainly do very well in December’s regional elections, particularly as these use proportional representation—and with a bonus for the list coming in first place, which almost guarantees that the FN will outright win one, two, or even more of the redrawn, enlarged regions.

But this will in no way signify that the FN is en route to national power or that Marine Le Pen has a chance of winning in ’17. At this point it looks probable that she will make it to the 2nd round of the presidential election but, as I explained in some detail seven months ago, she won’t win it. Not a chance. The reasons are several but I will reiterate just three here, the principal one being her doggedly high negatives in the polls. The FN has gone from one historic election result to another over the past three years but this has not markedly affected MLP’s poll numbers. E.g. in the latest IPSOS baromètre, MLP is at 29% positive and 65% negative. These have been more or less her numbers for the past four years (they were worse before 2011). At only two brief moments (in 2013) has her negative rating dipped below 60%. Repeating what I wrote last September, it is quite simply impossible for any candidate to be elected President of the Republic—or, barring some highly unlikely scenario, to any public office—with these poll numbers. And if MLP’s negatives have not significantly dropped over the past year in view of her serial successes and high media presence, there is no a priori reason to think they will in the coming two years.

A second reason MLP and the FN won’t be governing France after ’17 is that no party in the French system can come to power nationally without allies; or, if it somehow succeeds in doing so, cannot govern by itself for any length of time. The UMP needs the centrists, just as the PS needs the PRG, écolos, and whatever other minuscule left formation it can add to its coalition. The FN has no allies and will not have any in ’17. As asserted above, the UMP, thinking of its integrity and survival, will not allow its firewall against the frontistes to be breached, and one does not imagine Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or the moribund Mouvement pour la France throwing in their lot with Marine LP. So once the FN reaches its electoral ceiling—probably in the low-mid 20s in a high participation election (+70%)—it will likely settle into a role akin to that played by the PCF in the 1950s and ’60s: an anti-system party aggregating a fifth of the electorate, with a presence at the local level but excluded from national power (though the FN will never hold a candle to the counter society, dense civil society network, or municipal power base of the PCF in its heyday).

A third reason. The FN’s program is not credible—and not just in the eyes of persons who think like me but in those of the majority of voters. Putting aside the questions of immigration and national identity—which are primordial for the totality of FN supporters, but also for many in the UMP—the FN’s positions are rejected by large majorities of the electorate. E.g. its stance on Europe, notably on quitting the euro—and, consequently, the EU—is endorsed by only a quarter of those responding to the question in public opinion polls. There is no way the French electorate will vote a party into power that has pledged to carry out such a project. And then there’s Marine LP’s economic program, which is being labeled “leftist” but is more of a half-baked Bonapartist étatisme—an old strain on the French right—mixed with the FN’s traditional economic libéralisme adhered to by her father. As Le Canard Enchaîné detailed in its March 11th issue, the FN’s economic proposals are a Santa Claus grab bag of tax cuts, tax increases, mandated pay increases, mandated price decreases, nationalizations, planning, lessened regulations, increased regulations, protectionist barriers but with increased exports… And, naturally, la préférence nationale in employment, social insurance, and everything else. The numbers—the few that are offered—don’t begin to add up. The whole thing is preposterous, unserious, and disconnected from reality. In a presidential debate Marine LP would be shredded into little pieces by Juppé, Sarkozy, Hollande, or anyone else she would face. The program, moreover, is the brainchild of a single member of the FN leadership, the énarque and ex-chevènementiste Florian Philippot, who is close to MLP but not overly appreciated in the party as a whole, as one learned at the FN’s congress last November. The gravity of the FN’s middle class base in the Midi—incarnated in the person of rising star Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, whose rhetoric is more akin to her grandfather’s than her aunt’s—and everywhere else outside declining industrial towns of the northeast remains libéral, closer to the US Republican party on economic questions than to the Front de Gauche.

I have more to say on all this but will reserve it for later. In the meantime, here’s the cover of the latest Charlie Hebdo, which (rhetorically) asks the exact right question.

UPDATE: My blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer has a post on my post, in which he differs with my view on Sarkozy’s vs. Juppé’s prospects in the UMP primary. Art thinks that Sarko has indeed consolidated his position as UMP leader and that only the courts can stop his triumphal march to victory in the primary. Perhaps. I should say here that in hypothesizing on all this, I have violated my own longstanding principle of not speculating on the outcome of elections more than a year before they take place. But I can’t help myself here and, in any case, do think I’m right. Art is correct in reminding us of Sarkozy’s political skills but one must also keep in mind the dislike of Sarko—indeed intense antipathy toward him—not only on the left but also among a not insignificant portion of voters on the right and center. As for crossover voters in the primary, it is possible that some will come from the left—though probably not in the hundreds of thousands—but even more possible they’ll come from the far right, of Marine Le Pen supporters out to scuttle Sarkozy’s candidacy. On verra. In any case, the only thing to do will be to watch the polls. If Sarkozy’s positives are into the 40s in mid-late 2016, I’ll say he wins. But if they remain in the 30s, I say no.

BTW, Art has an op-ed on the departmental elections, published on the Al Jazeera America website, “The far right is redrawing France’s political map.”

2nd UPDATE: Le Monde has an interview, in its April 4th issue, with the well-known academic specialist of the French Socialists, Gérard Grunberg, in which he says that “the left has never been so weak and divided” as it is today. Grunberg, like me, is not optimistic for the future of the PS, or the French left more generally. BTW, I learn from the intro to the interview that the website Telos—that Grunberg is a director of—has been back up and running since January, after having been discontinued in 2013. This is one of the best, most intellectually high quality websites of analysis and reflection on politics and economics that one will find in the French language—and whose political sensibility is precisely my own. I’m glad to see it back.

3rd UPDATE: Art Goldhammer has a pertinent blog post (April 5th) on “The conservatism of the French.”

nº 1184, 01-04-2015

nº 1184, 01-04-2015

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Kamel Daoud (photo credit: Denis Allard/REA)

Kamel Daoud (photo credit: Denis Allard/REA)

[update below] [2nd update below]

Adam Shatz’s portrait of Algerian writer Kamel Daoud—on whom I posted last December—is up on The New York Times website (it will appear in hard copy in this Sunday’s NYT Magazine). It’s an excellent piece—as one would expect from Adam—and is as much about contemporary Algeria as about Daoud himself. It’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in that country but also in the Arab world more generally.

On the subject of Algeria, France 3’s weekly documentary television series, Thalassa—a great program and popular; I’ve been watching it off-and-on for decades—will be entirely consecrated to Algeria this Friday (April 3rd). Anyone with the slightest interest in Algeria will want to watch it. It will be on replay on the program’s website for a week following the broadcast.

UPDATE:The English translation of Kamel Daoud’s book, The Meursault Investigation, has been published by Other Press. (June 3rd)

2nd UPDATE: Here are reviews of the English translation of Daoud’s novel in The New York Times, The Observer, NPR, and The Guardian. And here’s an interview with Daoud by Albert Camus specialist Robert Zaretsky in the Los Angeles Review of Books. (June 30th)

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