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Archive for December, 2015

Best (and worst) movies of 2015

Voilà my annual list of the best and worst movies of the year (for last year’s list, see here). The movies here opened commercially this year or in late Dec. ’14 in France or the US. All have posts on this blog or eventually will. N.B. Several well-reviewed US movies released in the past three months—and that figure on the “best of” lists of US critics—are opening in France after the new year, so I have yet to see them (and I have not seen ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ or ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’).

TOP 10:
Marshland (La Isla Mínima)
Our Little Sister (海街dairy)
Sicario
Son of Saul (Saul fia)
Testament of Youth
The Lesson (Урок)
The Measure of a Man (La loi du marché)
The Rooftops (Les Terrasses السطوح)
The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?)
Titli (तितली)

HONORABLE MENTION:
Aferim!
Bridge of Spies
Casa Grande
Fatima
Fly Away Solo (मसान Masaan)

BEST MOVIE FROM ESTONIA:
In the Crosswind (Risttuules)

BEST MOVIE FROM ICELAND:
Rams (Hrútar)

BEST MOVIE FROM GUATEMALA:
Ixcanul

BEST MOVIE FROM MOROCCO:
Much Loved (الزين اللي فيك)

BEST SHORT MOVIE FROM ALGERIA:
The Days Before (Les jours d’avant قبل الآيام)

BEST SCHLOCKY BUT FUN ACTION MOVIE FROM ALGERIA WITH MIKE TYSON IN A CAMEO ROLE:
Les portes de soleil: Algérie pour toujours

BEST POETIC MEDITATIVE MOVIE FROM ALGERIA ABOUT AN ALGERIAN JOURNALIST NAMED IBN BATTUTA WHO TRAVELS THE ARAB WORLD SEEKING TO UNDERSTAND ARAB REVOLUTIONS:
Zanj Revolution (Révolution Zendj ثورة زنج)

BEST MOCKUMENTARY FROM TUNISIA:
Challat of Tunis (Le challat de Tunis شلاط تونس)

BEST WILD-AND-CRAZY MOVIE FROM ARGENTINA:
Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)

BEST RUSSIAN MOVIE FROM KAZAKHSTAN WITH NOT A WORD OF DIALOGUE:
Test (Испытание)

BEST FRENCH MOVIE FROM TURKEY ABOUT ADOLESCENT GIRLS WHO SAY NO TO PATRIARCHY:
Mustang

BEST MOVIE FROM IRAN THAT HAD TO BE SHOT IN GREECE BECAUSE IT COULD ABSOLUTELY NOT BE SHOT IN IRAN:
Red Rose (گل سرخ)

BEST MOVIE FROM THE CZECH REPUBLIC ON SPORTS DOPING IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA DURING THE COMMUNIST ERA:
Fair Play

BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY ON AN UNFORTUNATELY FAILED PLOT TO ASSASSINATE ADOLF HITLER:
13 Minutes (Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert)

BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY ON GERMANY’S POSTWAR RECKONING WITH THE CRIMES OF ADOLF HITLER:
Labyrinth of Lies (Im Labyrinth des Schweigens)

BEST MOVIE FROM ITALY ON THE TRAGEDY OF AFRICAN MIGRANTS WHO SUCCEED IN MAKING IT ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN TO EUROPE:
Mediterranea

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ON THE TRAGEDY OF AFRICAN MIGRANTS WHO DO NOT SUCCEED IN MAKING IT ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN TO EUROPE:
Hope

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ON THE TRAGEDY OF HOMOPHOBIA:
The Imitation Game

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE OFFERING AN IRONCLAD ARGUMENT FOR WHY A STEEP ESTATE TAX IS NEEDED ON FILTHY RICH PEOPLE:
Foxcatcher

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE WITH JULIANNE MOORE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Still Alice

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH CATHERINE DENEUVE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Standing Tall (La tête haute)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH CATHERINE FROT IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Marguerite

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH ARIANE LABED IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey (Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH OLIVIER GOURMET IN THE LEAD ROLE:
The Night Watchman (Jamais de la vie)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH FABRICE LUCHINI IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Courted (L’Hermine)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH ALBERT DUPONTEL AND CÉCILE DE FRANCE IN THE LEAD ROLES:
En équilibre

BEST MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE GENOCIDAL MASSACRES COMMITTED BY THE KHMER ROUGE REGIME IN CAMBODIA:
The Missing Image (L’Image manquante)

BEST MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE GENOCIDAL MASSACRES COMMITTED BY THE MILITARY REGIME IN INDONESIA:
The Look of Silence

BEST TOTALLY EXCELLENT DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE SAGA OF THE GREATEST ICE HOCKEY TEAM IN HISTORY:
Red Army

BEST ENGAGÉ DOCUMENTARY ABOUT A NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY EMPLOYEE WHO BECAME A WHISTLEBLOWER:
CitizenFour

BEST OVERLY LONG DOCUDRAMA FROM ISRAEL ABOUT THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZHAK RABIN:
Rabin, the Last Day (רבין, היום האחרון)

MOST FORGETTABLE FRENCH MOVIE FROM ISRAEL THAT ENDS WITH THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZHAK RABIN:
Atlit (Rendez-vous à Atlit)

MOST CURIOUS INDIE MOVIE FROM PALESTINE THAT PRACTICALLY NOBODY HAS SEEN:
Love, Theft and Other Entanglements (الحب والسرقة ومشاكل أخرى)

MOST OVERRATED HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ABOUT RACE RELATIONS ON AN AMERICAN UNIVERSITY CAMPUS:
Dear White People

MOST UNFORTUNATELY FLAWED HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ON THE ETHICS OF DRONE WARFARE:
Good Kill

MOST HEARTWARMING COMEDY FROM FRANCE ABOUT A ZANY DEAF FAMILY OF DAIRY FARMERS IN RURAL ANJOU:
The Bélier Family (La Famille Bélier)

BEST MOVIE BY RIDLEY SCOTT:
The Martian

BEST MOVIE BY AVA DUVERNAY:
Selma

BEST MOVIE BY J.C. CHANDOR:
A Most Violent Year

BEST MOVIE BY BILL POHLAD:
Love & Mercy

BEST MOVIE BY JAFAR PANAHI:
Taxi

BEST IMPERFECT MOVIE BY JACQUES AUDIARD:
Dheepan

BEST OKAY MOVIE BY ARNAUD DESPLECHIN:
My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)

MOST UNDERRATED MOVIE BY RUSSELL CROWE:
The Water Diviner

MOST ABSORBING FLAWED MOVIE BY JOACHIM TRIER:
Louder Than Bombs

MOST DISAPPOINTING MOVIE BY FATIH AKIN:
The Cut

MOST INCOMPREHENSIBLE MOVIE BY MIGUEL GOMES:
Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One (As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Inquieto)

MOST REPREHENSIBLE MOVIE BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
American Sniper

MOST MENDACIOUS MOVIE BY ROBERT GUÉDIGUIAN:
Don’t Tell Me the Boy Was Mad (Une histoire de fou)

WORST MOVIE BY PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON:
Inherent Vice

WORST MOVIE BY PHILIPPE GARREL:
In the Shadow of Women (L’ombre des femmes)

WORST MOVIE BY LOUIS GARREL:
Two Friends (Les deux amis)

WORST MOVIE BY MAÏWENN:
Mon roi

WORST MOVIE EVER BY WOODY ALLEN:
Irrational Man

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Hocine Aït Ahmed, R.I.P.

hocine_ait-ahmed

[updates below]

Those who know Algeria need no introduction. For those who don’t know that country too well—its modern history and politics at least—Hocine Aït Ahmed was a major figure in the Algerian national movement of the 1940s and ’50s, one of the nine founding members of the Front de Libération Nationale in 1954, and an actor in the country’s politics in the decades that followed independence in 1962. He was, until his death last Wednesday, the last surviving member of those 1954 chefs historiques and the sole one of the six who survived the war who never held a position of institutional power, even for a day. Aït Ahmed was an opponent of the post-1962 authoritarian regime from the outset, inside Algeria—partly from prison—to 1966, then from exile—in Switzerland and France—until his return in 1989. He was a genuine democrat, advocating and agitating for political and cultural pluralism—and with not a hint of religion in his discourse—well before anyone else issuing from the wartime FLN. And democracy was not a mere slogan for Aït Ahmed; every non-Islamist political or civil society actor wrapped him or herself in the mantle of democracy from 1989 onward, which did not prevent many among them from supporting various dictatorial regimes (e.g. Saddam Hussein)—or the Algerian regime itself when it decided to crack down on legal political parties from 1992 on. Never Aït Ahmed. His Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS)—the party he founded in 1963 (illegal until the advent of multipartyism in 1989)—has long been Algeria’s constituent member of the Socialist International, thereby aligning it with European social democracy, for which liberal democracy is the core value.

I felt a particular affinity for the FFS during my Algeria years (1989-90 and beyond). I interviewed Aït Ahmed in June 1990, spending an hour with him at his office (in El Biar). I was deeply impressed being in his presence—more so than with any other dignitary I’ve ever met, in Algeria or elsewhere—in view of his historical stature. The FFS’s boycott of the June ’90 municipal elections—Algeria’s first-ever free and fair, multiparty contest—didn’t make a lot of sense—Aït Ahmed’s frequent politique de la chaise vide was his principal political shortcoming—but the party did participate in the 1991 legislative elections, winning 7.4% of the national vote and arriving in third place, behind the Islamist FIS (47%) and ruling FLN (23%), confirming its stature as the country’s leading democratic party and preeminent voice of Algeria’s Kabyle Berber population (the FFS’s frère ennemi Berberist party, the RCD, received but 2% of the vote).

Aït Ahmed’s political base was almost exclusively Kabyle (who constitute perhaps 12% of the Algerian population) but Berberism was not central to his public discourse—he rarely made reference to specifically Berber issues—and he was widely respected beyond his Kabyle base. And, to his great credit, he condemned the January 12th 1992 military-dictated cancellation of the 2nd round of the legislative elections, which ended Algeria’s brief period of political liberalization and set in motion the Islamist insurgency—and army counterinsurgency—and wave of terrorism that ravaged the country for the rest of the decade. The FIS was headed for a landslide victory in January ’92, causing the RCD and other self-proclaimed “democrats” to take fright and support the military intervention. But Aït Ahmed, sure of his legitimacy and unwavering base among Kabyles, was ready to live with a FIS-led government—which he didn’t think would be permanent (for my detailed view on this, go here)—with him leading the opposition in the national assembly. The watchword of the big January 2nd ’92 demo in the center of Algiers that he organized, “Neither a police state nor fundamentalist state” (ni Etat policier, ni Etat intégriste), summed up his position. In view of the nightmare Algeria lived through after the fateful cancellation, Aït Ahmed’s stance was vindicated IMHO.

Algiers-based journalist Mélanie Matarese has an obituary of Aït Ahmed in Middle East Eye, “Algeria: the difficult legacy of Hocine Ait Ahmed,” which is a translation of the original French article (link at the end), and journalist Saïd Djaafer has a tribute in Al Huffington Post, “Hocine Aït Ahmed: l’homme qui aimait les militants et les Algériens.” And here’s a seven-minute video interview by Mohammed Harbi, Aït Ahmed’s contemporary in the independence movement and who knew him well.

UPDATE: Le Monde’s issue dated December 26-28 consecrated its entire page 3 to Aït Ahmed, with an obituary, “Hocine Aït Ahmed, l’âme du résistant,” co-written by Paul Balta, the paper’s Algiers correspondent in the 1970s and well-known MENA commentator about town in Paris since then. See also LM’s back page editorial, “Les illusions perdues de la démocratie algérienne.” N.B. President Bouteflika decreed eight days of official mourning for Aït Ahmed, despite the latter’s permanent opposition to Algeria’s post-1962 political order.

2nd UPDATE: Here’s a photo of Aït Ahmed looking over the Jan. 2nd ’92 demo.

Hocine Ait Ahmed_Alger_02011992

3rd UPDATE: Two moments from the December 29th memorial service for Aït Ahmed in Lausanne: The hommage of Kabyle singer Idir and the traditional Kabyle acewiq (chant, by women, at a wake) by Nna Aldjia, the mother of Lounès Matoub.

4th UPDATE: Libération has a tribute, “Aït-Ahmed, ‘un long rêve de liberté et de démocratie n’est plus’,” by José Garçon, the paper’s longtime Algeria reporter and who was personally close to Aït Ahmed.

Algiers, 22 October 1956: Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohamed Boudiaf, Hocine Aït Ahmed, Mostefa Lacheraf, Mohamed Khider (photo: AFP)

Algiers, 22 October 1956: Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohamed Boudiaf,
Hocine Aït Ahmed, Mostefa Lacheraf, Mohamed Khider (photo: AFP)

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Susanne Hoeber Rudolph & Lloyd I. Rudolph

Susanne Hoeber Rudolph & Lloyd I. Rudolph

[update below]

It is with sadness that I learned of the death, on December 23rd, of Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, professor emerita of political science at the University of Chicago, one of my main professors there as a graduate student, and a member of my dissertation committee. Susanne and her husband Lloyd—who survives her—were a pillar of the U. of Chicago’s political science department, where they taught for almost forty years before retiring early in the last decade. They were major political scientists—Susanne was a past president of APSA and the Association for Asian Studies—and among the world’s leading academic specialists of India (politics, history, civilization, everything). Their 1967 The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India is one of the most important books in political science published on that country. They knew India better than anyone one will meet in the academy, spending every fourth year there—Jaipur was their base—throughout their careers.

I speak of Susanne and Lloyd together and in the plural by reflex, as they were lifelong partners in scholarship, as in just about everything else (and they looked, at least by others, to be the perfect married couple); to know one was to know the other and equally. Almost all of their numerous books and countless articles were authored together (one that was widely read outside the academic world was their March 22nd 1993 essay in The New Republic, “Modern Hate: How Ancient Animosities Get Invented,” written at the height of the civil war in the ex-Yugoslavia). Their personalities were different, as were their professorial styles—they did not co-teach courses—but were complementary (and obviously perfectly compatible). And they were such nice people, and so appreciated by their students, colleagues, and everyone else who knew them. And so cultivated; intellectuals of their, breadth, depth, and caliber are rare in my generation, not to mention the younger ones.

The last book the Rudolphs published, in 2014, Destination India: From London Overland to India, is one that will interest those who are not specialists of India or inclined to read a book about it. They tell the story of their 1956 overland trip to India in a Land Rover (she was 26, he 29), starting in Germany and driving through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Paved roads ended soon after crossing the Bosphorus and did not resume until the Grand Trunk Road east of Kabul. Now I have not yet read the book but heard the story in detail from them one evening at their second home in Bernard, Vermont, where I visited them with my wife in 1993. It sounded like an amazing trip indeed.

Jenny Rudolph has a tribute to her mother on the website of the Indian weekly magazine Outlook and Ananya Vajpeyi, of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, has authored the obituary of Susanne in The Hindu.

UPDATE: On January 16th—twenty-four days after Susanne’s death—Lloyd Rudolph passed away. Here’s his obituary in UChicago News.

9780199450558

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1184148_regionales-2015-ce-quil-faut-retenir-du-second-tour-web-tete-021556982303

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

It’s been a week since the 2nd round of the regional elections, the results of which are known to all with a passing interest in French politics: the alliance of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party and UDI/MoDem centrists won seven of the thirteen regions, François Hollande’s Socialists—allied with or supported by the rest of the left—took five, Corsican nationalists scored an upset in one—Corsica obviously—and Marine Le Pen’s Front National was shut out. The FN won nothing, due in part to the 8.5% spike in the participation rate: from 49.9% of registered voters in the 1st round to 58.4% in the 2nd. The increased participation was, personally speaking, readily apparent in my polling station, where I was an assesseur titulaire, with almost a hundred more voters (of 940 registered) showing up for the 2nd round, including an unusually high number—for this kind of election—in their 20s and even late teens (and in view of the result, they didn’t come to vote FN). There have been a few good analyses in English of last Sunday’s outcome, e.g. Pierre Briançon in Politico.eu, Arthur Goldhammer in The American Prospect and the Boston Review, and Hudson Institute research fellow Benjamin Haddad in The American Interest. So as not to repeat what these august commentators have to say—or my own analysis of the political field after last March’s departmental elections—I will make just a few points about France’s three political poles coming out of Sunday’s vote (in their order of finish).

Les Républicains“: This was not a victory for the ex-UMP, loin s’en faut, despite its victory in seven of the new regions—corresponding to 12 of the 22 old ones, compared to a single one in the 2010 elections and a mere two in 2004—as Sarkozy and his acolytes had visions of winning 10 or 11 until the final phase of the campaign. The weekly L’Express—whose editorial line does not lean left—indeed called Sarkozy “the real loser” in its cover story on the election, as LR, entre autres, failed to break 50% in any triangulaire and with its most decisive victories being in the three regions—NPDCP, PACA, and the Grand Est—where the Socialists withdrew or disowned their lists after the 1st round—and thus sacrificing any representation in the regional councils there for the next six years—in the higher interests of  the “front républicain“—a stance expressly rejected by Sarkozy for his own party—to bar the route of the FN. It was striking to see Sarkozy’s droitisation strategy—of mimicking the Front National on the immigration and national identity issues to lure back defecting right-wing voters—and rejection of an anti-FN front républicain with the PS openly disparaged in his own party in the aftermath of the vote, and not only by the usual suspects—e.g. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Jean-Pierre Raffarin—but also the hard right-wing sarkozyste historique Christian Estrosi in PACA and the conservative ex-villepiniste Hervé Mariton. Estrosi’s public critique of his now erstwhile mentor’s neo-frontiste rhetoric—the principal consequence of which has been to inflate the FN’s ranks and votes—was quite something.

Of equal note was Xavier Bertrand’s address in Lille on Sunday night, in which he explicitly thanked voters of the left—and with manifest sincere humility—for his victory over Marine LP in the NPDCP region. I will bet a small sum of money that Bertrand’s poll numbers will spike sharply in the next IPSOS baromètre with those on the left, who greatly appreciated his generous words [UPDATE: Bertrand’s favorable rating did indeed spike, going from 26% in November to 39% in January]. Estrosi did not initially go as far as Bertrand but has made it clear since that he will not forget about the left voters who enabled his victory over Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Had the PS not committed hara-kiri in those two regions, Marine and Marion would likely be presiding the regional councils in Lille and Marseille, point barre. In view of the FN’s large anchor in these regions, Bertrand and Estrosi will be beholden to left voters indefinitely, future elections included. And then there was Sarko’s unceremonious eviction of NKM from the nº2 post in LR’s leadership at Monday’s political bureau meeting—which Alain Juppé and Bruno Le Maire didn’t even bother showing up for—a move criticized by Juppé, Raffarin, and other Sarko detractors in the party.

Sarkozy is not at all convinced, however, that the election result was in any way a repudiation of his hard-right strategy. Au contraire, he sees it as confirmation of this, particularly in view of LR’s victories in France’s two largest and richest regions, the Île-de-France (Paris and its banlieues) and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (capital: Lyon). Valérie Pécresse, who headed the LR-UDI-MoDem list in the ÎDF, did not win by a large margin but her victory was nonetheless sans appel. And it was a particularly gratifying one for her, as Claude Bartolone’s 2nd round Socialist-led list represented the broadest-possible left and ecologist coalition—there were no less than 15 party logos on its campaign flyers—and with the outcome uncertain to the very end. The PS knew the race would be close but was confident it would win it. Pécresse—whom I’ve written about positively in the past, BTW— is moderately conservative and very much her own person—she is not a Sarkozy sycophant—but tacked right in the campaign, emphasizing the insécurité issue (fear of crime and terrorism), excoriating “communautarisme” (a code word for public displays of Muslim identity), and embracing personalities from the anti-gay marriage movement (La manif pour tous) that swept the conservative, practicing Catholic portion of French society in 2013 (and included religious Muslims and Jews), taking by surprise all the parties of the right, including the FN, none of which supported it. And then there was her campaign spokesman—and now chief-of-staff at the Conseil Régional—Geoffroy Didier, co-founder of the ex-UMP’s fanatically sarkozyste, Patrick Buisson-inspired La Droite Forte caucus and who is as far right as one can get in that party without becoming an outright frontiste. So it is entirely normal that Sarkozy would take particular comfort in Pécresse’s victory, as with that of Laurent Wauquiez in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. This one was decisive and somewhat unexpectedly so, as the PS, whose list was led by the incumbent Jean-Jacques Queyranne—a longtime politician in the greater Lyon area—had reason to hope it could win the region via an addition of left voters. Wauquiez is an unabashed hard rightist, whose rhetoric accents economic libéralisme—which plays well with right-wing voters in the southeast (Wauquiez’s base is the Haute-Loire)—denunciation of “l’assistanat“—read: welfare cases and other slackers who would rather receive taxpayer-funded free stuff from government than get a job—and defense of farmers and small-town folk, who provided his margin of victory on Sunday. Sarkozy’s replacement of NKM with Wauquiez as party nº2 was the logical thing to do from his standpoint.

Further reinforcing Sarkozy’s attitude was the poor performance of Virginie Calmels, the LR-UDI-MoDem’s list leader in the Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes, a member of no party until this year who not only lost the region by 12 points to the PS’s Alain Rousset but was bested in Bordeaux itself, where she is a vice-mayor and protégé of Juppé, who’s been the mayor of that city for two decades now. Sarkozyistes exulted over Juppé’s embarrassment (which one could observe on Twitter after the result was announced on Sunday night). And then there was the defeat in Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Centre-Val-de-Loire, and the narrowest of victories in Normandy, the lists in all three regions headed by UDI centrists (specifically from Le Nouveau Centre, one of the UDI’s principal constituents; for the record, the NC is, despite its centrist label, moderately to the right). For LR’s right-wing, this was proof that, electorally speaking, the centrists bring little to the table—and may even be a liability—and that tilting in a centrist direction is not the way to go for LR. Sarkozy defended the alliance with the UDI and MoDem and his offering the centrists the head-of-list slots in the three aforementioned regions, but could only be comforted in his droitisation strategy by the UDI’s counter-performance.

So there is not a chance that Sarkozy will modify his neo-frontiste discourse between now and LR’s primary next November—or after, in the appalling eventuality that he should win it. In this, he will be ardently supported by LR’s hardcore base and the online réacosphère of websites, blogs, and social media, and which has become ever more influential on the right. The incarnation of this is Valeurs Actuelles—US equivalents: National Review, Human Events—which was long a low circulation weekly magazine read by bourgeois reactionaries and ignored by everyone else but whose website is now the most high-profile in that segment of the political spectrum. If one wants to know what French hard-rightists are reading and thinking, that’s where to look.

The bottom line: the cleavage in LR is deep—which I discussed in my pre-2nd round post a week ago—and can only deepen further as the primary campaign dominates the life of the party in the coming year—and during which LR will be transformed into the sole instrument of Sarko and his clan, and all but abandoned by Juppé and the other candidates for the presidential nomination. It’s hard to see how the party can possibly unite around the candidate who wins the primary. In the horrific event that it’s Sarkozy, a centrist or center-right candidacy is certain—most certainly François Bayrou—and who will siphon many moderate LR voters. And if it’s Juppé—or even Le Maire or François Fillon—the LR’s Tea Party base will defect in sizable numbers to the best hard-right candidate on offer, e.g. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or even Marine LP.

The nominee will, however, not be Sarkozy, as I’ve been insisting for over a year now. His political comeback has been a flop, too many people in his own party can’t stand him, and his poll numbers are execrable. Now he did rise seven points in the last IPSOS baromètre—to 38% positive/57% negative—but this was taken in the week following the November 13th terrorist attacks and with almost every politician’s numbers improving; it was as if, in the post-attack national trauma, people felt the need to believe in their elected representatives. But Sarko’s positive rating is destined to tumble back to where it’s been since his return to the partisan arena—20s/low 30s—while Juppé will remain in the 50s, thereby maintaining his status as the most popular political personality in France. And there is no reason why this should change in the coming year barring an unforeseen affaire, as Juppé does not hold national office and therefore has no active bilan over which opinions of him can evolve. He incarnates a center-right sensibility conforming to that of the French median voter and with a steely but calm, steady temperament that reassures rather than disquiets. On this level, the contrast between Juppé and Sarkozy—with his feverish, frenetic, trash-talking persona, constantly blowing his stack in front of his associates (which has been reported countless times over the past decade)—could not be starker.

À propos of all this, France Inter’s political editorialist Thomas Legrand—who is the sharpest, most incisive analyst of French politics in the media—asserted on Friday—correctly, in my view—that France’s next president will be on the center-right. He did not specify who that man or woman would be, though did advance a few names, including Sarkozy and Hollande (most unlikely, IMO). Juppé pretty clearly fits the bill. As for the relative strengths of these three men in the general election, an IFOP/Atlantico poll released December 18th has some interesting numbers: if LR’s candidate is Sarkozy and with Bayrou running, Hollande will overtake Sarko to face off against the first place finisher Marine LP in the 2nd round (it’s likewise if Fillon wins the primary). But if LR’s candidate is Juppé—and with or without Bayrou in the race—he finishes in first place and well ahead of Marine (and whom he will annihilate in the 2nd round). If these IFOP numbers remain steady over the coming year, Sarkozy is toast. Point barre. 100% cooked. There is no chance whatever that right and center primary voters will give the majority to a candidate who looks even iffy for the 2nd round.

The Socialists: The PS is satisfied with last Sunday’s outcome, which is hardly surprising in view of its debacles in the 2014 municipal and European elections and last March’s departmental. But it should not be, as its victories in two of the five regions it won—BFC and CVDL—were narrow and due only to the high scores of the FN. And its loss in the ÎDF was a real setback, as the PS and its allies have governed this region since 1998 and with the city of Paris now safely voting left. And adding to these is the left’s disappearance altogether from the councils in NPDCP—a historic PS/left stronghold—and PACA.

Back to the ÎDF, the loss here laid bare much of what is wrong with the Socialists these days and the precarious situation they find themselves in. First, with Claude Bartolone heading the list. The manner in which he had Jean-Paul Huchon ejected—with the manifest assent of François Hollande, even though Huchon had loyally, if uncharismatically, presided the ÎDF Conseil Regional for the previous 17+ years—was unseemly. Moreover, it’s not as if Bartolone, who happens to be President of the National Assembly—the fourth ranking post in the French state—was seeking a mandate commensurate with his political stature—unless, of course, he was looking to assure his own political future, knowing that his party will be wiped out in the legislative elections in 18 months time. Now “Barto,” as he is known, is said to be greatly appreciated by PS deputies but for those outside the party he is the epitome of a Rue de Solférino apparatchik. There is, objectively speaking, nothing compelling about him as a politician. And then there was his demagoguery in the 2nd round campaign, calling Valérie Pécresse the defender of “Versailles [i.e. reactionaries], Neuilly [i.e. filthy rich people], and the white race…” Personally speaking, I considered voting blanc on account of this low road attack, though finally cast my ballot for Barto, solely to (unsuccessfully) deprive Sarkozy the satisfaction of winning the region.

Secondly in regard to the ÎDF was the PS’s failure to win the region despite the broad left coalition it put together in the 2nd round. As mentioned above, absolutely every constituent on the left save neo-Trotskyist groupuscules (NPA, LO etc) supported the PS-led list. These even included Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche, Mélenchon normally loathing the PS with a passion. Now most of these formations are admittedly not too significant—when not entirely unknown to the general public—but the symbolism was important nonetheless. The fact that a broad left coalition could still not win the ÎDF—and despite LR’s rightist campaign rhetoric and the FN not being a factor—will have implications for the PS’s future calculations—and to which may be added the PS’s victory in Brittany—the list led by Jean-Yves Le Drian breaking 50%—without any support from the rest of the left (Le Drian, finding the écolos’ 2nd round demands for slots on the list to be unreasonable, told them to go f— off). In view of the poor 1st round performance of the Europe Écologie-Les Verts and the Front de Gauche, and the total stock of left votes barely reaching 36%, it is now clearer than ever that the gauche de la gauche is all but useless to the PS in winning elections, at least when it comes to formal accords between partisan formations.

This is not to say that the overall identification with the left is on the decline or that the French left is finished (even though I’ve said as much myself in moments of despair or disgust). The French left is certainly in crisis—unsure of what it believes or wants, and insofar as it knows this, with no idea how to get there—and with its partisan structures in various stages of deliquescence or discredit, but the left identity remains strong. An IFOP poll for L’Humanité back in September revealed some interesting figures on this—and which seem right to me—with 53% of the sample situating itself on the right and 47% on the left (self-identified centrists were likely asked to tilt in one direction or another or with such being determined in follow-up questions). Breaking these down, 28% identified as left, 15% center-left, and 4% extreme-left. On the other side, 25% identified as right, 17% center-right, and 11% extreme-right. These numbers show at least four things. First, they confirm what has been known for most of the past century—and particularly during the Fifth Republic—which is that France leans to the right. There been have moments when the left surged ahead—1936, 1945-46, 1981—but these have been exceptional and short-lived. Second, there has not been a droitisation of French society, whatever Nicolas Sarkozy and other rightists may think: it’s the right that has lurched right—to the hard and extreme—not French voters as a whole. Third, the relatively low stock of left votes in current elections is not due to the defection of left voters to the right but rather their retreat into abstention (and disappointed but politically engaged voters who stop going to the polls can be lured back). Fourth, if one considers the new reality of French politics to be tripartite—PS, LR, FN—one can order the IFOP numbers to reflect three political poles of almost equal voter strength: left/extreme-left, center-left/center-right, and right/extreme-right.

François Hollande, Manuel Valls, and other social-liberals in the PS look to have drawn the inevitable conclusion from both the 2nd round results—in regard to the écolos and rest of the left—and the IFOP numbers, which is that there is no electoral salvation for the PS exclusively on the left. The cleavage within the party—between the social-liberals and those who are not this, who do not, e.g., appreciate Emmanuel Macron—is widening, and that with the FdG being an unbridgeable chasm. If the PS is ever to win another election, it has no choice but to look right for coalition partners with whom it can govern: UDI/MoDem and the center-right formation that issues from the eventual breakup of LR. Valls and others in his corner have been talking since last Sunday about a major “recomposition,” indeed upheaval, in the French political field and this is what they have in mind—and their thoughts have been echoed by moderate LR politicos, notably Raffarin and Bertrand.

Such a recomposition will necessitate the PS changing its name—i.e. shedding the “socialist” label—which Valls and Julien Dray mentioned during the week. The PS’s hack First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis tried to quash the idea and others called it irrelevant but the party will need to do this, as “socialism” simply doesn’t mean anything anymore; or, rather, it refers to a doctrine from another era that no one in the PS—or even PCF—advocates or believes is possible. People are not completely disconnected from reality. Moreover, it was precisely when socialism became the dominant creed on the French left that the latter ceased to cover over half the political spectrum—which it had in the early decades of the Third Republic—through the First World War—when adherence to republicanism and laïcité was what situated one on the left. Rid of the “socialist” label—to which older PS members and left voters are viscerally attached but means nothing to the younger generation—a reconstituted social-liberal party—likely including the PRG and non-EELV écolo groups—would have a wide boulevard to constitute coalitions with the center and a new center-right formation, based on republicanism and economic policies such as those associated with Macron. The consequence of this will no doubt be a split in the PS, with its frondeurs and other gauchistes (Benoît Hamon et al) forming a new party that will ally with a post-Mélenchon FdG, forming the left pole of French politics (and which still represents many people).

This is all post-2017, though—a project for the future—after the PS has been relegated to the opposition and Hollande sent into retirement. And it will necessitate a change in the electoral system, of a dose of proportional representation in legislative elections—of up to half the deputies in the National Assembly being elected on national PR lists—as three poles with roughly equal electorates and coalitions of several small parties cannot happen with the current mode de scrutin. But there is no chance whatever that a post-2017 government of the right will introduce even a modest dose of PR. And though this was one of Hollande’s 2012 campaign pledges, he has now abandoned it.

Yet one more Hollande disappointment… Despite his post-November 13th leap in the polls—which, like that in January, will not last—Hollande has disappointed just about everyone. His presidency has been that: one huge disappointment. If he had pushed through just one big reform and that everyone could feel—and most in an immediately positive way—e.g. reforming France’s impossibly complex, incomprehensible, and unfair tax code—making it less complex, more comprehensible, and fair, such as proposed, e.g., by Thomas Piketty et al—he could have secured his presidency and legacy. As an énarque surrounded by énarques, he understands this dossier and could have taken it on. But his cautious, splitting-the-difference political style would not allow for such audacious action and that risked upsetting various constituencies and interest groups. And then there is his and the Valls government’s wild overreaction to November 13th, with the état d’urgence and talk of amending the constitution on this, so as to allow for, entre autres, the stripping of French nationality of native-born citizens. This latter bit—which is outrageous and unacceptable, not to mention shocking coming from a PS government—will, in view of the outcry on the left, no doubt be dropped but if it’s not, Hollande will definitely not make it to the 2nd round should he be a candidate. Large numbers of left voters will defect to another candidate or abstain. Like Sarkozy, he’ll be toast in ’17.

Front National: I have less to say about the FN than the above-mentioned political poles, as it is, objectively speaking, by far the least important. The FN is a party that has never governed any Frenchman or woman—apart from those in a tiny handful of unfortunate communes that the great majority of French citizens have never set foot in—and which is not about to change. The FN is not a party of alternance and, in its present form, will never be.

A few brief points about this objectively minor political party. First, all the post-1st round talk about the FN being le premier parti de France was, pardon my French, a load of bullshit. A political party that has existed for over forty years but sent a total a five deputies elected in single-member constituencies to the National Assembly, two senators to the Luxembourg palace, elected fewer than twenty mayors of communes of over 3,500 inhabitants in its history, has never controlled a single regional or departmental council, and is influential in not a single civil society association or organization of any significance cannot be considered important. Point barre. For those who differ with me on this—who do think the FN is a consequential party—here’s a question: have you ever been to a major FN event, e.g. a Jean-Marie or Marine Le Pen rally, May 1st Jeanne d’Arc march in Paris, Fête BBR before it was discontinued in 2007? Anyone who has—and I have at least a half-dozen times—will have observed that the FN is a relatively small party, whose hard-core base doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Cf. the PCF, whose national vote is now in the low-mid single digits but which can attract a hundred times more people to its events than the FN can to its.

Second, the FN, as a festering boil on the French body politic, does merit close attention, study, and analysis but, as happens with boils, it was lanced in last Sunday’s 2nd round. The result was proof for the umpteenth time that breaking 50% of the vote in any given constituency is something the FN cannot do. This was the case 20-30 years ago and remains so today. That the FN can’t even come close to winning the PACA region—the most right-wing in the country and where it is solidly implanted—makes the mere notion that it could win a presidential election—in 2017, 2022, or anytime in the foreseeable future—absurd and laughable. The FN won 6.8 million votes last Sunday, which was a historic achievement and nothing to sneeze at. But the sky is not the limit for Marine LP and her party is not likely to go much higher, particularly in high participation contests such as legislative and, above all, presidential elections. E.g. the average of the participation rates in the 2nd round in all the presidential elections since 1965—with the exception of 1969, which was an anomaly (as one of the major parties instructed its millions of faithful voters to stay home)—is 83%. If Marine LP makes it to the 2nd round in 2017, which looks likely, one may bet that the participation rate will reach, maybe even exceed, 85%, i.e. that over 40 million voters will go to the polls on that day. I’m sorry but there is no way—not a snowball’s chance in hell—that 20 million French citizens will vote to send Marine Le Pen to the Élysée palace. Jamais de la vie. Not in 2017, or 2027, or ever.

Third, the reason why the FN cannot break 50% is because it has not changed. Apart from Marine Le Pen striving the rid the party of her father’s hang up about Jews, it’s still the same FN. In this respect, all the talk about the FN having transformed itself from a parti de protestation to a parti d’adhésion is nonsense and rubbish. The FN remains a protest party for which populism is its DNA. And at the core of populism is an across-the-board denunciation of “the establishment”—of the governing elites, mainstream political parties, the media, intelligentsia, educational institutions, etc, etc—which is seen as the enemy and with which compromises are not to be made. Marine LP is said to want to be President of the Republic, that this is her ambition and her goal. It may well be. But she has not elaborated a credible strategy to get there, a centerpiece of which would be to cultivate at least part of “the establishment” and seek out allies within it. Unless she’s a megalomaniacal narcissist, which is possible, one may hypothesize that she doesn’t really want state power after all—as her father never did—as if she were to obtain it, this would immediately make her part of the establishment and impose all sorts of compromises that she would have no idea how to make. And the FN, as the party of the new establishment, would lose its raison d’être, as all populist parties do when they wield executive power.

Fourth, on the question of allies: Florian Philippot spoke between the two rounds of allying with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France, that this is something that the FN should maybe try to do. There seemed to be no takers in the FN leadership for this, even though Dupont-Aignan’s position on Europe is closer to the FN’s than anyone else’s outside the party. But while Dupont-Aignan may be a Europhobe he’s not a facho and would never ally with the frontistes, as he would gain nothing from it but would lose a lot, namely his credibility in “the establishment” (which he does have). Likewise with Philippe de Villiers—now retired from electoral politics—who is way out on the right—more so than Dupont-Aignan—but never showed the slightest interest in allying with the FN and despite movement of cadres between the latter and de Villiers’s now moribund Mouvement pour la France. So the FN’s absence of allies—which it manifestly does not want and that no one wants with it—will continue indefinitely. And without allies or some kind of entrée into “the establishment,” the doors to power will be forever closed to the Le Pens.

One other point about the FN and why it cannot be placed in the same league with LR, the PS, UDI, MoDem, the FdG or any of the other “establishment” parties or blocs. The FN is the private preserve of the Le Pen family. It is a Le Pen family enterprise. Without a Le Pen at the head of the FN, the FN does not exist. If Marine and Marion were to suddenly leave this earth—as Jean-Marie certainly will sooner rather than later—there would be no one to take their place. The FN would fragment into several pieces. The French extreme right would cease to speak with a single, dominant voice. And it would thereby disappear as a significant electoral force.

UPDATE: If one didn’t see it, Sarah Palin had a column in Breitbart.com, dated December 13th, praising Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and her aunt Marine. The Wassila Wacko thus begins: “I have a political crush, but one I couldn’t vote for today – because she ran for office in France.” The “she” is Marion M-LP. Read it and behold. As I’ve tirelessly insisted for years, the conservative wing of the GOP = Front National.

2nd UPDATE: A faithful reader—my mother—emailed me the following comment about the above: “I did…read the article supposedly authored by Sarah Palin. I use that qualifying phrase because I believe someone wrote it for her. It is too literate and well-written to be hers, and she has allies out there to support her as a public personality.” My mother is no doubt correct. I was struck that Palin—whom I rather doubt reads French—would know enough about Marion M-LP & Co. to write about them, let alone be interested in doing so.

3rd UPDATE: Two post-election polls are out, by ELABE and Odoxa, that show a reinforcement of Alain Juppé’s position and a collapse of Nicolas Sarkozy’s. The gap between the two men is wider than ever. As for François Hollande, he’s headed south.

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Regionales-2015-tous-les-resultats-du-premier-tour-de-scrutin

Tomorrow is round two. I have a number of things to say on last Sunday’s round one result, which I’ll reserve for a longer analysis after the definitive outcome. In the meantime, a few points on the strictly electoral, horse race side of tomorrow’s vote.

First, it is impossible to predict what is going to happen. The Front National could well win three of the new enlarged regions where it finished first by a wide margin—Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie (NPDCP, where Marine Le Pen heads the list), Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA, the contours of which have not been enlarged; the head of list being Marion Maréchal-Le Pen), and Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine (Grand Est; led by Marine LP’s right-hand man Florian Philippot)—and theoretically take up to six, if one adds the other three regions where it finished ahead of the Socialist and Les Républicains party lists: Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées (LRMP; led by Marine LP’s live-in companion Louis Aliot), Centre-Val-de-Loire (CVDL; Philippe Loiseau), and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté (BFC; Sophie Montel).

In view of the FN’s historic 1st round score—28.4% in metropolitan France and 6.1 million votes, which is quite simply amazing given the 50% abstention rate—and first place finish nationally, it stands to reason that it should win at least something. But the Frontistes could possibly end up with nothing at all. Two polls out in the past three days—from TNS-Sofres and ELABE—have Xavier Bertrand and Christian Estrosi—who head the LR lists in NPDCP and PACA, respectively—decisively beating Marine LP and Marion M-LP, and with LR’s Philippe Richert in the Grand Est overtaking Philippot, and despite the PS’s Jean-Pierre Masseret there disobeying instructions of Socialist HQ in Paris to withdraw his list in the 2nd round and support LR against the FN; so though there will be a triangulaire, which would normally render the vote a done deal for the FN—with its 10% lead over LR—the outcome is uncertain. The track record of election polls is admittedly not excellent these days—cf. Israel, UK, Turkey—and the advance of Marine LP and Marion M-LP over their LR runner-ups is considerable (14-15%). For Bertrand and Estrosi to beat the Le Pens, the great majority of orphaned left voters—terrified by the prospect of an FN victory— would have to vote for these two high-profile right-wingers—and, in the Grand Est, to defect from the now dissident Socialist Massaret to LR’s Richert. On verra. If I were a PS voter in PACA, folding the ballot of the odiously hard-right, sarkozyste historique Estrosi into the envelope and dropping it in the ballot box would possibly be too painful to bear, though concentrating the mind on Marion M-LP, who, behind that soft-spoken persona and pretty face, is an intolerant, ideological extremist to the right of her aunt, could persuade me to bear the pain (as for Bertrand in NPDCP, he’s okay as far as LR personalities go, so no problem voting for him to knock off Marine LP).

In any case, the FN-LR duels in NPDCP and PACA are of critical importance for the future of the FN—and of French politics. Almost every contest the FN has won in a non-proportional representation election to date has been in triangulaires, i.e. with a plurality of the vote. Attaining an absolute majority in any given constituency has been beyond the FN’s ability (in legislative elections it’s happened only twice, both in the late 1980s). In the 2nd round of last March’s departmental elections, the FN won only three of the 535 duels it waged. If the FN crosses the 50% threshold tomorrow in two important regions—and with candidates named Le Pen—it will be a huge event: a stunning victory for the FN, rendering it more credible in the eyes of many voters as a party of alternance, and sending Marine LP’s 2017 ambitions into orbit.

The second point, on the PS, which took a mediocre 23.5% of the national vote: The Socialists look sure to win Brittany (defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian—who is highly regarded these days—heading the list) and are well positioned in Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes (ALPC; Alain Rousset) but could lose everywhere else. Then again, the Socialists could win up to eight or nine—or even ten—regions if the stars perfectly align, i.e. if there is a flawless transfer of voters of the 1st round lists of Europe Écologie-Les Verts and Front de Gauche—which did poorly, netting 6.8% and 4.2% of the national vote respectively—a few of the lists having merged with the PS for the 2nd round but with most eliminated outright (for the stock of left votes, see the map below). For écolo and FdG voters, the question is how many will put aside their detestation of the PS—of François Hollande, Manuel Valls, Emmanuel Macron et al—to bar the route of the FN or defeat the LR of the hated Nicolas Sarkozy (particularly in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, where the LR list leader is the reactionary Laurent Wauquiez). One may be cautiously optimistic that republican reflexes will prevail for gauche de la gauche voters, who will hold their noses and vote PS—and particularly in a region like LRMP, with the specter of Louis Aliot presiding the regional council in Toulouse too appalling to contemplate.

In the improbable event that the left loses LRMP to the FN, this will be a body blow to the PS that could ultimately prove fatal. The ex-Midi-Pyrénées region is a historic stronghold of the republican left and where the FN has, until recently, been insignificant. If the PS loses there tomorrow, this will be added to the disastrous performance of its lists in NPDCP and PACA last Sunday—and then the decision to withdraw them from the 2nd round altogether—which has been devastating for the party and its adherents in those regions. The Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and Bouches-de-Rhône were the principal bastions of the French Socialists throughout the 20th century, and while the latter has been trending rightward for over two decades now—and with the local PS in a state of advanced deliquescence—the former two departments have remained strong for the party. The disappearance of all PS representation in the regional councils in Lille and Marseille—and with the hundreds of salaried posts that go with this—is just so terrible for the party—and for the French left in general. PS militants and sympathizers in the two regions are shattered by what has happened. Unless the PS overperforms tomorrow, I don’t see how it can ultimately survive all this as a party in its current form. I’ll come back to this thought at a later date.

On the level of base political calculation, however, the decision of the PS to withdraw the two lists—which was announced by party First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis but certainly taken by President Hollande—can only work to the party’s benefit and regardless of tomorrow’s outcome. E.g. if Bertrand and Estrosi defeat the two Le Pens, then the Socialists can claim credit, as the LR victory will be owed to the PS’s republican reflexes in committing hara-kiri to stop the FN, but with Sarkozy’s LR having refused to do likewise for the PS. And Bertrand and Estrosi will, in principle at least, have to acknowledge their gratitude to left voters and promise not to forget about them over the coming six years. But if the Le Pens end up winning the duels, it will be seen as a catastrophic defeat for LR and, above all, Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s authority as president of his party will be severely undermined—probably fatally—and his credibility as a candidate for 2017 in tatters.

This leads to the third point, on LR, which did not do well last Sunday, taking 27.1% of the metropolitan vote—but in merged lists with the UDI and MoDem centrists (who could net up to 10% were they to run separately)—and finishing in first place in only four regions. LR will probably win a few, though only the Pays-de-la-Loire (Bruno Retailleau, president of the LR parliamentary group in the Senate, heads the list) looks fairly sure (as the PS and écolos are in conflict there). It is not out of the question, though, that LR could end up with just this one region (if it even manages that). If so, it will be the death knell for Sarkozy and his 2017 ambitions (and even if Bertrand and Estrosi win). And so much the better.

This will be excellent news if it comes to pass, as Sarkozy has shown himself during this campaign—and for the umpteenth time—to be the worst person in the top-tier of French politics, demagogically mouthing Front National rhetoric and with his trademark hot-tempered, trash-talking style. Increasing numbers of Sarkozy’s LR colleagues are fed up with him (see, e.g., this piece in Mediapart) and his strategy of mimicking the FN. And these fed-up LR tenors now go beyond the usual suspects (Alain Juppé, François Fillon, and their associates). Sarko’s refusal to even consider withdrawing Dominique Reynié’s LR list in LRMP—which finished in third place—to help the PS defeat the FN there, was denounced by Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Raffarin, who is normally calm and soft-spoken, was practically shouting on France Inter last Monday morning. There are indeed decent, moderate personalities on France’s parliamentary right. Unless LR shocks everyone tomorrow night with a major victory—winning eight regions or more—it will be reglèments de comptes time in that party when its Bureau Politique next meets.

Last Monday I discussed the 1st round result with the students in my three Master’s classes—who lean markedly to the right (mainstream and souverainiste)—at the Catholic University of Paris. One of them, who is highly politicized and works on the presidential primary campaign of one of Sarkozy’s LR rivals, spoke of the deep split in the LR, between the moderates—those who are real republicans (Juppé, Fillon, Bruno Le Maire etc)—and the hard-right/reactionaries led by Sarkozy. She was of the conviction that the two currents would not be able to eternally co-exist in the same party—and in saying this, she was seconded by another student, also an LR activist. If, down the road, the LR does split and there is a major upheaval in the PS, this could signal a wholesale recomposition of the French political field. I’ll come back to this in my post-election post, as well as with other thoughts I have on this subject.

One recurring thought is the striking similarities between what is happening in France with the United States. On this, I recommend Paul Krugman’s column in yesterday’s NYT, “Empowering the ugliness,” in which he discusses the two countries and gets it exactly, totally right.

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CEVIPOF_Liegey Muller Pons

For those who don’t live in the Hexagon or keep up with politics here, the first round of the regional elections is happening tomorrow. There are 13 regions in France; until this year there were 22 but François Hollande and his Socialists decided, for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, that 22 was too many and that the apparently too-small regions needed to be larger. So Hollande had his Socialists push through a stupid, half-baked law earlier this year—that only graduates of ENA, of which Hollande is one, could cook up—to force through a merger of a few—but that absolutely no one in the affected regions understood or wanted—to bring the number down to 13. For those interested, the old map is here, the new one here.

The regional councils don’t have a lot of power—considerably less so than state legislatures in the US—though have some responsibilities—mostly technical—and the budget to go along with them. But most people don’t think about the councils too much, so the participation rate in regional elections is relatively low (46% in the last ones, in 2010). The mode de scrutin (electoral system) is proportional list in two rounds. It used to be in one round, through the 1998 elections, thereby allowing for the theoretical possibility of ad hoc coalitions. When the political system was bipolarized—with a left and right pole—coalitions didn’t need to happen, but with the Front National’s breakthrough that year, the then Socialist-led government decided to modify the electoral system, with a majority bonus awarded to the list arriving in first place in the second round, the idea being that this would prevent the FN from holding the balance of seats in a hung council.

Brilliant Socialists. Now that we have a tripolar system in France—with the FN being one of the poles—Marine Le Pen & Co. could well take control of three—or even more—of the regional councils after the second round next Sunday. This didn’t need to happen but, with the current mode de scrutin, most likely will. Electoral systems matter. The above map shows, based on the latest polling data, which list will finish in first place where and by what magnitude. The black/gray is FN, blue is LR (Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party), the red/pink the PS (as for the Front de Gauche and écolos, they’re non factors). Bleak, as my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer puts it in a post today (N.B. the important article he links to by Nonna Mayer).

I’ll be an assesseur titulaire (election judge) at my own polling station tomorrow (representing the PS, whom I will probably vote for, out of pity). It will be interesting to see how many of my neighbors vote FN (I fear the worst). Post-election commentary will follow on Monday or Tuesday.

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Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia (Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia
(Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

[update below] [2nd update below]

The headline story in last Friday’s Le Monde, which I am looking at on my desk as I write, is entitled “Après les attentats, Europe se referme” (After the attacks, Europe is closing the door), and with a big photo of refugees, presumably Syrian, in a dingy off the coast of Lesbos. The accompanying article, on “the return of fortress Europe,” quotes PM Manuel Valls—a member of the Socialist party and formally a man of the left (albeit its most rightist flank)—saying that Europe must make it clear that it cannot welcome as many migrants as it has up to now. And on the France 2 news yesterday evening was a report from Slovenia, which is putting up a barbed wire fence on its border with Croatia to keep migrants out, taking after Hungary, Slovakia, and other EU member countries sure to follow.

On some level I can comprehend the reflex of Slovenia et al (though not Manuel Valls; I don’t care if he’s prime minister but it is simply not acceptable for a leading personality of the French PS to talk the way he does on this issue). European states are indeed not prepared to confront the torrent of refugees and migrants flowing into the continent—even though Europe has successfully dealt with refugee/migrant flows of equal, indeed greater, importance in the recent past (Yugoslavia in the 1990s), not to mention after WWII. Hopefully the EU-Turkey agreement that’s being hammered out, which will presumably allow for an orderly processing of asylum requests of the refugees in Turkey, will work.

As for the bottom line—and there is no getting around this—the majority of Syrian refugees will eventually have to be settled in third countries, mostly in the West. The war in Syria will not end anytime soon and when/if it does, there will be nothing for Syrians who have left the country to go back to. Syria has been destroyed and is not likely to be rebuilt, at least not in the foreseeable future (e.g. see this report from Kobane). The destruction of Syria is not only physical—of cities (Aleppo, Homs) and towns—but also societal. Wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that have generated large cross border refugee flows have mainly involved rural people, who await the war’s end so they can return to their villages and farms and try to resume their lives. The great majority of Syrian refugees are urban and educated. Their livelihoods and social networks—not to mention extended families—are gone. And they can’t sit around in refugee camps in Lebanon, or live on handouts in Turkey, for years on end. They need to be able to work, continue with their education if they’re of that age, and rebuild their lives. Now. A few will be able to do so in the MENA region but the only part of the world where this can happen for most is the West (including Russia).

The United States could easily absorb a large number of Syrians—say, one hundred thousand, even more (why not?)—but obviously won’t in view of the current political climate. The post-Paris hysteria in the Republican party—leaders and base—over taking in any refugees leaves one speechless. As WaPo’s Alexandra Petri put it a couple of weeks ago, the reaction of Republicans is “past the point of parody.” The fear of Americans—mostly on the right—that even a tiny number of potential terrorists could be embedded in a refugee population is particularly puzzling in a country where just about anyone can legally constitute an arsenal of assault weapons and then carry out a massacre—in a movie theater, elementary school, college campus, family planning clinic, social services center, you name it—and with no reaction whatever from the political system—and precisely because those Americans who fear potential refugee terrorists are also the kind who are all for the unlimited right to acquire assault weapons and will vote against any candidate to elective office who thinks otherwise. Fearing jihadi terrorism in a country with practically no jihadis but where mass shootings happen every day of the week—and to which politicians respond with prayers and thoughts and that’s it—is, objectively speaking, irrational.

Continuing to speak objectively, Syrian refugees are “not the problem,” as Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch asserted in a piece in Foreign Policy. Americans who do think that refugees are a problem tend, however, not to look at websites like Foreign Policy. Addressing Americans on that side of the political spectrum, my friend Claire Berlinski, who blogs at Ricochet—the tagline of which is “Conservative conversation and community”—has a good, well-argued post, dated November 24th, “What’s in it for us? Why we should accept Syrian refugees.” Glancing at the comments thread, it doesn’t look like she convinced too many of her numerous refugee-skeptical readers.

One group that has been excellent on the refugee question is the libertarians, with whom I otherwise disagree 100% on a whole range of issues (notably the economy and social policy). E.g. Dave Bier, the director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center in D.C.—a new libertarian think tank—has a fine piece (November 16th) on the “Six reasons to welcome Syrian refugees after Paris.” See as well the analysis (November 18th) by the Cato Institute’s immigration specialist Alex Nowrasteh, “Syrian refugees don’t pose a serious security threat.”

If one needs further convincing on the question, don’t miss historian Josh Zeitz’s explanation in Politico Magazine (November 22nd), “Yes, it’s fair to compare the plight of the Syrians to the plight of the Jews [and] here’s why.” Voilà.

UPDATE: Regarding my comment above on “mass shootings” in the US, Mother Jones’s Mark Follman has an important clarification in the NYT op-ed page, “How many mass shootings are there, really?”

2nd UPDATE: Comedian and TV host Samantha Bee had a humorous but informative two-part report on Syrian refugees and the American reaction on her show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Here’s part 1 and part 2. (February 24, 2016)

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