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Archive for April, 2016

The state of the race

cruz kasich trump clinton sanders

I vowed to myself earlier this month that I wouldn’t do another blog post on the US election campaign until the conventions in July, or unless something really big and important happened before then, as it has been clear since Super Tuesday III six weeks ago that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic party nominee and that, for the GOP, we probably wouldn’t know until Cleveland. But in the wake of the Acela primaries—and as various friends, fans, and family are asking what I think—an état des lieux is in order.

On the Democratic side, which is my principal interest, even hardline Bernie Bros now know that it will be Hillary. Good. I’ve been liking Bernie Sanders comme tout le monde but his act was beginning to wear thin. He was not wearing well. And I have not been alone in my sentiment on this. A number of initially well-disposed liberal-lefties have indeed modified their attitude toward him, one being lawyer-blogger Robin Alperstein, who laid it out in an overly long, occasionally excessive but nonetheless well-argued essay dated April 17th on how and why she was becoming anti-Bernie. And Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, in a post yesterday, explained why he “never warmed up to Bernie Sanders.” He begins

With the Democratic primary basically over, I want to step back a bit and explain the big-picture reason that I never warmed up to Bernie Sanders. It’s not so much that he’s all that far to my left, nor that he’s been pretty skimpy on details about all the programs he proposes. That’s hardly uncommon in presidential campaigns. Rather, it’s the fact that I think he’s basically running a con, and one with the potential to cause distinct damage to the progressive cause.

I mean this as a provocation—but I also mean it. So if you’re provoked, mission accomplished! Here’s my argument.

And here Drum’s argument is.

However valid the critiques, Bernie’s candidacy, it must be said, has been important and salutary. On this, the smart and insightful Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy laid out the argument in an essay in Dissent dated April 21st, “A World to Make: Eleven Theses for the Bernie Sanders Generation.” The introduction:

The Sanders campaign has always been about more than Bernie Sanders. It has also been about more than winning states and delegates (although it has turned out to be a serious and remarkably effective effort at exactly that). The larger potential of the campaign is that a rising political generation has come to see it as a vehicle for doing something that, a few years ago, seemed impossible: advancing a vision of democratic political and economic life much more radical than that advanced by the Democratic Party of the 1990s and perhaps as expansive as the programs of the 1930s.

As for Purdy’s Eleven Theses for the Bernie Generation, they are

1. The economy is about power
2. Expertise is not legitimacy
3. You’re allowed to want economic security
4. You are more than human capital
5. Solidarity is different from hope
6. Democracy is more than voting
7. Not everything has to be earned
8. Equal treatment is not enough
9. We need a fight to make peace with the planet
10. We have in common what we decide to have in common
11. We have a world to make

Purdy elaborates on each thesis in the essay, with the last one being short and to the point:

Previous Democratic political campaigns have worked to navigate this world of inequality, insecurity, and so-called meritocracy, and to humanize it around the edges. The point, however, is to change it.

Some of us call that point democratic socialism.

Nice.

One of Bernie’s signature issues—which seems like radical pie-in-the-sky—is single-payer health insurance. But while there is no chance single-payer will be enacted in the US anytime soon—if ever—certain components of it can, so argues journalist Jonathan Cohn—who has written extensively on health care policy—in the Huff Post a week ago, and that Bernie and his movement—if it lasts—should focus on this after the election.

The imperative of radically reforming the existing order, not just humanizing it around the edges, is the implicit takeaway from two important articles in The New York Times, both dated April 27th. In one, “How the other fifth lives,” Thomas B. Edsall examines how “the self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system.” The other article, by journalist Annie Lowrey, (rhetorically) asks “Where did the government jobs go?” Public sector employment has been the entrée into stable middle class life for large numbers of Americans—and particularly Afro-Americans—since the 1930s but, with privatization and budget slashing, those jobs have been disappearing, and with the consequence that increasing numbers of Americans—mainly Afro—have been tumbling out of the middle class. If that sizable slice of the population is to regain middle class status, those public sector jobs will have to come back, as the private sector is not going to do it.

Both these articles are highly recommended, particularly for certain friends who, blindsided by the Trump and Sanders phenomena, have confessed to having a “Pauline Kael moment” and admitted to living in a “Belmont bubble.” Pas moi.

To be continued (as there’s more)…

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Prince, R.I.P.

$_35

My social media news feed has been deluged with eulogies to him over the past eighteen hours. Just about everyone I know—and many more I don’t—is heaping praise on him, as one of the greatest musical artists in modern times. I won’t say he was my absolute favorite but I did like him. Of course. How could anyone of my generation not? He was an exceptionally talented and versatile musician, and amazing on stage (rewatching some of his concert videos, which I have on DVD—they’re impossible to find free online—confirms this). And ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘When Doves Cry’ are among the great pop hits of my early adult life (playlist here). One video that is online—thanks to the NFL—is Prince’s halftime performance at the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami, in the midst of a rainstorm. He was incredible. Watch it here. It’s a must. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

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Ronit Elkabetz (Photo credit: Bebert Bruno/SIPA)

Ronit Elkabetz (Photo credit: Bebert Bruno/SIPA)

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

She died today, at age 51. Cancer. I was shocked, as I had no idea. She was Israel’s leading actress, well-known in France, and one of my favorites (of any nationality). She was terrific. I saw her in eleven films, almost all good—with the best being the 2007 The Band’s Visit (in France: La Visite de la fanfare). I love this movie. She also co-directed (with her brother, Shlomi) three very good films—a trilogy, in which she had the lead role—two in the last decade: To Take a Wife (Prendre Femme) and The Seven Days (Les Sept jours), which, entre autres, are almost ethnographic in their depiction of Moroccan Jewish sub-culture in Israel.

The third part of the trilogy, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (in France: Le Procès de Viviane Amsalem), came out in 2014. It is entirely set in a rabbinical court room in Israel, with the protag, Viviane (Elkabetz’s character, who is loosely modeled after her own mother), seeking a divorce—gett, in Hebrew—from her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), from whom she is separated, can no longer stand, and doesn’t want to even try patching things up with. She wants a divorce, period. But as personal status in Israel—as in majority Islamic countries, Turkey and Tunisia excepted—is governed by religious law, she has to seek the divorce in a rabbinical law court, presided by three rabbinical judges. Husband Elisha refuses the divorce—and only he can grant it—and the rabbis take his side, at least initially, so she is constrained to remain married to the man she loathes. The entire two-hour film is of Viviane’s judicial nightmare and which lasts five years, of her and her lawyer trying to persuade three rabbis, who are no more sympathetic to the woman’s plight than would be any qadi in a Shari’a law court. It’s a gripping film, though seemed interminable after a certain point—it just goes on and on—but which was certainly deliberate on the Elkabetzs’ part, for the spectator to feel the exasperation of the wife with the interminability of the divorce proceeding—Jewish halakha law, objectively speaking, being archaic and retrograde when it comes to such a matter (for an elaboration on the subject, see the interview with Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz in The New Republic, “In Israeli divorce, ‘the man has all the power’;” an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post by rabbinical court advocate and attorney Osnat Sharon, “When film and reality meet;” and an article by Adam Janofsky in Tablet on “chained wives” refused Jewish divorces by their husbands).

Le Monde’s Middle East grand reporter Christophe Ayad posted on social media today a portrait of Ronit Elkabetz he published in Libération in September 2009. And writer Ayelet Tsabari has a piece in the Forward today on “How Ronit Elkabetz gave Mizrahi women like me permission to dream big.”

UPDATE: Haaretz has a tribute to Ronit Elkabetz with this lede: “In the span of only 25 years, Elkabetz grew to become one of the most respected Israeli creators, pushing Sephardi women to the cinematic forefront.” Accompanying the tribute is a one-minute video on her life and career.

2nd UPDATE: In an interview in Le Monde in 2007, Ronit Elkabetz had this to say about Israel and Arabs:

Je fais donc partie des deux peuples, Israël et Palestine, depuis toujours et pour toujours. La culture arabe est dans nos veines, dans notre cuisine, notre musique et notre langue. Les gens qui le nient sont loin du réel.

Pour l’info, Elkabetz was opposed to the occupation. N.B. her role in Michal Aviad’s film ‘Invisible’, which I posted on three years ago.

3rd UPDATE: Le Point has an article (May 1st) by its Jerusalem correspondent, “Les Rabbins et le divorce,” in which the film ‘Gett’ is discussed.

gett the trial of viviane amsalem

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(Photo credit: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)

(Photo credit: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)

I have a short article, or briefing, up on the website of World Politics Review, under the title “France’s Hollande enters final year in office disavowed and ineffective.” The piece is behind the paywall—as is all of WPR’s content—but the editors have kindly “whitelisted” it for my blog, so the entire text may be accessed here (if the link doesn’t work, see the update below).

If I had been writing just for AWAV, I would entitled the post “François Hollande: the fiasco.” In assessing Hollande’s record, which is what the WPR editors asked me to do, one important issue I was not able to develop at any length—the briefing being limited to 1,200 words—was Hollande’s determination to constitutionalize the déchéance de nationalité—the stripping of French citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism—which he finally had no choice but to abandon late last month, in the face of determined opposition within his own party—92 of the 223 deputies of the Socialist group in the National Assembly who showed up for the vote opposing the amendment—and the Senate adopting a different wording of the amendment than the one laboriously passed by the lower chamber, thereby precluding the convening of a joint session of parliament to vote it into the constitution (or reject it, as may well have happened). The déchéance affair was a fiasco of the first order, less for the fact that Hollande thankfully failed in his effort—which I predicted when he declared on December 23rd that he would indeed seek to have the déchéance inserted into the constitution—than him coming up with the idea in the first place. That Hollande—profiting from the national trauma in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks—could appropriate a proposal heretofore identified solely with the extreme right and then try to ram it in to the constitution, definitively discredited him in the eyes of many of those who voted for him in 2012, myself included.

I wrote about this in January, in my piece in the winter issue of the web magazine South Writ Large. There were several serious problems with the déchéance measure, as I argued. If one gave the slightest thought to these—and few of those who defended Hollande on the matter did—it would have been clear how crazy but also potentially dangerous the whole thing was. The first problem—and that was cited by most critics off the bat—was that it symbolically—but also juridically—created two categories of French citizens: those who were 100% French—with both parents born in France—and those of second-generation immigrant origin, who are French citizens by jus soli. As one knows—though many manifestly do not—large numbers of French-born dual nationals inherit the citizenship of their parents. They do not request it.

The second problem—and to which less attention was paid—was the circumstances under which French citizenship would be stripped. Hollande and his surrogates assured that it would only be in the extreme case of convictions for terrorism. The problem is, “terrorism” does not have a juridical definition in France. Moreover, this is not the term that was used in the rival versions of the constitutional amendment passed by the National Assembly and Senate. The formulation was “gravely undermining the life of the nation” (atteinte grave à la vie de la nation). This was imprecise, to say the least, both juridically speaking and otherwise. What, pray, is “the life of the nation”? Socialists and other mainstream currents hugging close to the center of the political spectrum would no doubt interpret this to mean terrorist acts such as the ones committed on November 13th, but who is to say that a future government of the hard right, not to mention the Front National, would not interpret such a constitutional provision otherwise, that “undermining the life of the nation” would include, say, disrespecting a person invested with public authority, e.g. a police officer or teacher, and with the offending citizen subsequently being convicted of outrage à agent public—the iniquitous, liberty-undermining délit d’outrage—or booing “La Marseillaise”—and all the more so as the version of the déchéance amendment passed by the National Assembly encompassed both crimes and misdemeanors (crimes et délits)? The symbolism here was not only terrible but dangerous, and with possibly disastrous consequences for many French citizens in the future, not to mention the cohesion of the French nation, as the entire jus soli principle—which underpins the French republican conception of citizenship—would be fatally undermined.

A third problem is how the French state would know who is a dual national. In point of fact, the state has no way of knowing how many of its citizens hold the citizenship of another country. E.g. my daughter, who was born in France and has lived all but one of her 22 years here, is an American citizen, because I, as her American father, undertook the demarche with US consulate in Paris when she was a few months old to acquire her “consular report of birth abroad of a citizen of the United States of America.” So she is a Franco-American dual national, though is culturally 100% French and has never lived in the United States. But then, one of my French students told me recently that her father is American but never declared her to a US consulate in France, so she does not possess US citizenship. My daughter and student were both born in France to a French mother and American father, but one is a dual French and American citizen, and the other is only French. But the French state does not know this. So if Hollande’s constitutional amendment had been adopted and then a future hard right-wing government decided to implement it in an expansive way, the only way for it to know who was a dual national would be to legally oblige all French citizens holding another citizenship to declare this, perhaps to their local commissariat de police—as happened with one category of the French population back in 1941… Does France really want to go down this road?

So one gets the idea. Hastily enacted laws—not to mention hastily amended constitutions—may have unintended consequences in the future. That François Hollande and those advising him did not perceive this or take it seriously—and Hollande was personally informed of all this by political scientist Patrick Weil, who publicly campaigned against the déchéance measure—almost defies belief. Whatever the case, it morally disqualifies Hollande from being elected to a second presidential term.

UPDATE: Here is the original, unedited version of my World Policy Review article:

On May 7, 2017, French voters will go to the polls to elect, or re-elect, their president. Barring a dramatic reversal of fortune on his part, that president is most unlikely to be François Hollande. As he enters the final year of his term, Hollande is in the weakest position by far of any president in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. His poll numbers have been negative since September 2012 – four months after his victory over Nicolas Sarkozy – with his popularity – short-lived spikes following the terrorist attacks of January and November 2015 excepted – not exceeding 30% since April 2013. The latest IPSOS-Le Point poll has Hollande’s job approval rating at 15%, with 80% disapproving his action. Worse for him, a survey of the electorate published last month by the academic institute CEVIPOF, the sample size of which was 21,000, revealed a mass rejection of Hollande even by voters of his own Socialist Party (PS). The survey, moreover, projected his certain elimination on the first ballot in the 2017 election should he be in the running and regardless of the identity of the opposition Les Républicains party’s candidate. In short, Hollande’s predicament heading into the 2017 campaign is dire.

How did this happen? The immediate explanation is naturally the state of the French economy. Hollande, as befitting a presidential candidate of the left, was elected on a platform pledging to reduce unemployment, France’s decades-long scourge – 1983 being the last year when unemployment did not exceed 7% – and promote economic growth. To say that Hollande has failed in his objective would be an understatement. Unemployment is presently at 10.3% – one point higher than when he took office – and rising, whereas it is half that in Germany and the UK, and dropping in Italy and Spain. As for economic growth, annual GDP increase has ranged from 0.2 to 1.2% over the past four years, which is par for the course in the eurozone but manifestly not sufficient to appreciably reduce the numbers of those registered with Pôle Emploi.

Apart from a youth employment measure enacted in 2012 – which, in effect, involved the state subsidizing the jobs created – the first significant piece of legislation billed as both tackling unemployment and liberalizing the labor market was drawn up only in 2015, dubbed the Law on Growth, Activity, and Equality of Economic Opportunity, a.k.a. the Macron Law, sponsored by the youthful, dynamic, nominally left-of-center economy minister Emmanuel Macron. Though the measures were small bore – loosening restrictions on Sunday store openings, liberalizing intercity bus transport, opening up protected professions (such as driving schools), among others – they provoked a veritable psychodrama on the left, including the left flank of the PS, and a part of the trade union movement, with the inevitable street demonstrations and symbolic one-day strikes in public services, though the controversy ceased once the law was enacted.

More consequential is the proposed reform of the Code du Travail – the 3,860-page compendium of French labor legislation – informally referred to as the El Khomri Law, after Myriam El Khomri, the labor and employment minister, a relative political novice who had no prior knowledge of the dossier when she was promoted to her ministerial post in September 2015, or any experience in negotiating with trade unions or other social actors. Needless to say, the unfortunate El Khomri, who has become the government’s lightening rod on the question, was not the veritable author of the proposed law, which bears the imprint of Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls. The bill is presently under parliamentary deliberation, has been significantly amended by the government itself, and likely won’t come up for a definitive vote before the summer, but has already generated a firestorm on the left, been roundly denounced by the unions, and led to several days of mass demonstrations across the country, which witnessed the participation of large contingents of university and high school students in addition to the inevitable trade unionists and others on the organized left.

The provisions of the bill that have provoked the most opposition concern the capping of indemnities by the Conseils de Prud’hommes (labor arbitration boards) for employees terminated from their jobs for non-economic motives (i.e. fired at the employer’s whim) – a measure the government has now dropped – and allowing company CEOs to arbitrarily rewrite collective bargaining agreements and then submit them to a vote of the company’s staff, perhaps informing the latter in the process that if the revised accord is not approved, the company may have to proceed with layoffs and transfer part of its production abroad.

In the US, UK, and elsewhere, this is already the status quo and, for elites at least, is utterly uncontroversial. But in France, and particularly on the left – with which close to 50% of Frenchmen and women continue to identify – such proposals to appreciably undermine job security are unacceptable – and when coming from a government of the left, are profoundly shocking. An Odoxa-Le Parisien poll conducted in mid March indeed revealed that 71% of Frenchmen and women are opposed to the El Khomri Law. A refrain of left-wing critics has it that a Socialist government is offering the employers’ lobby more than it had ever asked for itself, and is going further in labor market reforms than previous conservative governments have dared. As for the beneficial effects of the El Khomri Law on employment and economic growth, this has been the subject of a vigorous debate among economists, which, as happens in France, has been played out in the op-ed pages of the elite press, notably Le Monde, where collective tribunes signed by august personalities have argued for and against the proposed law. The bottom line: whereas the El Khomri Law may enhance profit margins and the competitiveness of French companies, there is no a priori reason to expect that it will singlehandedly reduce unemployment or increase GDP growth.

For many voters of the left, the seemingly gratuitous campaign to undermine the Code du Travail is the final straw in a series of disappointments and actions seen as incomprehensible coming from a Socialist president. One of these actions was Hollande’s initiative – announced in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks – to amend the constitution to allow for the stripping of citizenship (déchéance de nationalité) of dual nationals convicted of terrorism, which was billed as a symbolic measure but, in juridically creating two categories of French citizens, could have deleterious consequences in the future under a hypothetical far right-wing government (for more on this issue, see the present author’s commentary in the update here). Faced with a rebellion by PS parliamentarians, Hollande announced on March 30th that he was abandoning his effort to amend the constitution.

The damage, however, was done. The fact that Hollande could appropriate an idea heretofore proposed only by the extreme-right and then insist on its constitutionalization, and despite fierce opposition within his own political camp, signified that he felt he could dispense with his party and many of its voters in a re-election campaign. As it stands, sizable numbers of Hollande’s 2012 voters will likely dispense with him as well should he decide seek that re-election.

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

My dear friend Adam Shatz has a post up on the LRB blog (here) on the latest political hysteria in France over Islam and the penchant of a relatively small number of French Muslim women to overtly display their religious identity in public space. The tempest was launched last week by Laurence Rossignol—the Minister for Families, Children, and Women’s rights—in a particularly dimwitted succession of public statements, and with feminist intellectual Elisabeth Badinter—the Joan of Arc of laïcité—upping the ante with her call for a boycott of brands that have invested the lucrative market for Islamic fashion in women’s clothing (e.g. here and here). This is one of those only-in-France polemics, but one on which a large number of Frenchmen and women—indeed a majority—feel strongly about. E.g. the other day a well-known academic warrior for the cause of laïcité de combat unfriended me from Facebook in a fit of pique—and then blocked me for good measure—following a snide comment I made on his timeline about Madame Badinter. People here are so sensitive when it comes to this issue. In any case, Adam nails it in his post. I could have signed it myself. And, as it happens, he mentions me by name. Merci, Adam.

UPDATE: There are several pertinent tribunes on the subject, all dated April 5th: Esther Benbassa, “Le voile, pas plus aliénant que la minijupe,” in Libération; Thomas Guénolé, “Islam, voile et ‘mode islamique’: les 6 erreurs (graves) d’Elisabeth Badinter,” in L’Obs; Anaïs Flores et al, “Islam, voile: Elisabeth Badinter sème la division; elle complique notre rôle d’enseignant,” also in L’Obs; and Saïd Benmouffok and Bérenger Boureille, “‘La crispation sur le voile ne saurait se substituer à une politique d’émancipation universaliste’,” in Le Monde.

2nd UPDATE: Robert Zaretsky, a French history specialist at the University of Houston, has an essay in Foreign Policy (April 7th) on how “French secularism became fundamentalist.” The lede: “A militant form of laïcité has taken hold in France, backed by everyone from intellectuals to government officials. Is this what the republic’s founders envisioned?” With the exception of a couple of small errors regarding the action of the Conseil d’État in the Islamic headscarf affair, I could have, as with Adam’s post, signed the piece myself.

3rd UPDATE: Historian Joan Wallach Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton has an essay in Orient XXI (April 27th) on “The veil and the political unconscious of French republicanism.” The lede: “The French obsession with the veil exceeds that of most other countries in the West. Why?” Interesting analysis, though I’m not sure about the way she links attitudes toward veiling with larger contradictions in French republicanism regarding gender equality.

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