Archive for September, 2016


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I just watched the debate—this Tuesday morning—on YouTube. I knew how it had gone beforehand—that Hillary had won it hands down—having woken up when it was at mid-point (3:45am CET) and followed the live commentaries and reactions on my Twitter feed. Strictly on form, I thought Trump wasn’t too bad for the first twenty minutes or so, though the content of what he said on trade and jobs was pure Trumpian bullshit. He is a total ignoramus on these subjects—as on every other—with no idea WTF he’s talking about. And for the last hour of the debate, he reverted to being his typical Donald Trump self, from A to Z. Everyone watched him, so no explanation required. Borrowing from Andrew Sullivan’s live blog of the debate, Trump was like a drunk in a bar, incoherently ranting and raving. Echoing what I and millions of people have said countless times, it is simply beyond belief that such a person could be the presidential nominee of one of the two major parties and with an actual chance of going to the White House. If I had to choose between Trump and Marine Le Pen, I would the latter in a split second. The fact that Trump has gotten this far is not only a damning indictment of the Republican Party—which deserves to die as a result (though it won’t)—but also of a very large portion of American society.

As for Hillary, her performance was tops IMO: articulate, calm, poised, nerves of steel, in command of the issues… In short, she was Hillary Clinton. There has not been, in my lifetime at least, a presidential nominee who knows policy better than she and is more qualified to be president. As for her debate persona, of being supposedly over-rehearsed, robotic, smug-looking, “too much head and not enough heart” (dixit WaPo’s Chris Cillizza), and whatever snarky reproach Maureen Dowd will no doubt level at her: bof… It’s of zero importance so long as she killed it on substance. Sure, form does matter greatly in debates, but Hillary had no problem in this department last night. For those who think she did—that there were problems with her facial expressions or body language—what could she have possibly done differently? Please tell.

I have no idea what effect the debate will have on the polls. Anyone who has been supporting Trump up to this point—who has given the slightest credence to his bullshit, cares not a whit about his lies and insults, and has not been repulsed by his persona and horrified at the mere thought of him being president—is not going to rethink that support on account of his performance last night. They love the way he is. Some soft Trump supporters—e.g. working class Democratic voters in the Rust Belt states, moderate Republicans—may now declare themselves undecided to pollsters and perhaps consider voting Hillary or sitting out the election. On verra. The main effect will be to calm down Democrats who have been panic-stricken at the tightening of the race and been freaking out as FiveThirtyEight’s chances of Hillary winning have headed south into the 50s. Hillary’s debate victory should arrest her polling descente aux enfers and cause the numbers to uptick a point or two. Nate Silver, for his part, thinks she’ll see a gain—though if she doesn’t, then it may well be panic time.

Slate’s Michelle Goldberg has a good instant comment on the debate—in which she called Trump a “walking phallus”—”At the first presidential debate, Hillary proves she’s got this.”


Vox’s Ezra Klein, “The first debate featured an unprepared man repeatedly shouting over a highly prepared woman: The coherence gap between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was devastating.”

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, “Donald Trump’s first presidential debate confirmed he has no idea what he’s talking about.”

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, “Ranting bully Donald Trump came unglued in first presidential debate.”

Anyone want to take bets on Trump bailing out of the second debate?

UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer has a must-read meditation in The Nation (September 28th), “What would Alexis de Tocqueville have made of the 2016 US presidential election? Feverish thoughts from a moment of ‘extreme peril’.”

2nd UPDATE: David Wasserman at FiveThiryEight (September 29th) has something to calm the nerves of those terrified by the specter of a Trump victory, “‘Missing’ white voters could elect Trump. But first they need to register.”

3rd UPDATE: David Roberts at Vox (September 29th) has a must-read commentary that tells us what we’ve been sensing but does it very well, “The question of what Donald Trump ‘really believes’ has no answer. It is a category error.” The money quote is the very last sentence.

See also WaPo’s Chris Cillizza (September 29th), “This is the single most remarkable thing I have read about Donald Trump in a very long time.” Really frightening.

4th UPDATE: Ex “Bernie bro” Isaac Saul explains, on his A Grain of Saul blog (September 27th), his salutary change of heart: “I wrote that I despised Hillary Clinton. Today, I want to publicly take it back.” He adds: “After months of thought and research, I’ve come to enthusiastically support Clinton.”

For idiot Bernie bros out there contemplating a vote for Jill Stein, or politically illiterate millennials who think Gary Johnson is cool because he smokes reefer and should therefore be president of the United States and leader of the Free World, please read Thomas Geoghegan’s tribune in the venerable lefty In These Times (September 26th), “3 reasons to vote for Hillary Clinton that have nothing to do with Hillary Clinton: We can’t ignore the ways that having a Democrat in the White House matters.”

5th UPDATE: Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard University, writes in The Washington Post (September 30th), “I’ve come to admire Hillary Clinton. What on earth happened?”

See also in WaPo the op-ed by Ruth Marcus, “Most people grow out of middle school. Not Donald Trump.” The WaPo report she links to on Trump’s childhood (at ‘hurling rocks’) is a must-read.

6th UPDATE: Politico Magazine has a lengthy investigative report (September 30th) by journalist Garrett M. Graff, “What the FBI files reveal about Hillary Clinton’s email server: New documents tell the full, strange story of a technophobic VIP, a sloppy State Department, and the jerry-rigged computer that held it all together.” A friend, who works for the state of California, linked to it on social media with the following comment:

The State Department’s IT was FUBAR, so she let her aides come up with ways she could do her job without using their system.

Basically, she bypassed the petty rules and dysfunctional bureaucracy so she could do her job serving the public.

I think most of us who work for the government have done something similar at one time or another.

When you do that, and it comes to light, you have to say: Yes, I made a mistake, I’m sorry. You have to take the fall, because you can’t condone the rule-breaking, even if you know rule-breaking is sometimes necessary to get the job done.

And the people who use this uncomfortable situation to try to impugn your integrity (and I think most of us in government have encountered them)? Screw ’em. Seriously, fuck those people. They are a blight on the goodness and basic decency that is at the core of public service.

7th UPDATE: We’ve all read about how Donald Trump stiffs contractors and other people who do work for him, which is, at minimum, prima facie proof that he is a sociopath, indeed an outright criminal. It is beyond comprehension how, knowing this indisputable fact about Trump—which he all but confirmed in last Monday’s debate—anyone could possibly vote for him (but do his supporters, who live in the alternate world of Fox News, AM talk radio, the Internet réacosphère, and Alt-right websites understand the extent of it?). If you, dear reader, know persons who say they are voting for Trump, please send them the account by New York-based singer-songwriter Christine Lavin, “Read what Donald did to his wedding caterer, it will make you sick,” and then ask what they make of it.

8th UPDATE: See the latest salvo by the (politically centrist) Washington Post Editorial Board (September 30th), which has been on a tear against Trump—as have the near totality of the paper’s regular columnists, conservatives included (e.g. see this latest one by Michael Gerson)—”The clear and present danger of Donald Trump.” The editorial is the first in a series the Post will be running “on the damage [Trump] could wreak unilaterally as president.”

9th UPDATE: Here are The Washington Post’s (great) editorials on the concrete dangers that a President Trump would pose:

Donald Trump is normalizing bigotry.”

A President Trump could deport freely.”

A President Trump could end the era of American global leadership.”

Donald Trump’s contempt for American democracy.”

A President Trump could wreck progress on global warming.”

A President Trump could destroy the world economy.”

How much damage could a President Trump do? We can only begin to imagine.”

10th UPDATE: Staunch GOPer Tim Miller—a founder of the America Rising PAC and former spokesperson for Jeb Bush, entre autres—has a broadside that needs to be read by any Republican out there, “The conservative case against Donald Trump: Six reasons Republicans should not vote for Trump in November.” I obviously do not share his view of of Hillary—and we no doubt differ on countless other matters as well—but he hits a bull’s eye here in regard to Trump.

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Democrats: panic time?


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No. Not yet, at any rate. Anyone who’s followed me on this knows that I have been dismissive of Trump’s chances in November, e.g. pronouncing him “all but toast” after the DNC and asserting numerous times over the months that Hillary Clinton will definitely win, period. And going back to late February, I confidently pronounced on social media that “[a]t some point this year—in two weeks or eight months—Trump is going to crash and burn. It *will* happen— this is a certainty—and be a sight to behold…”

Je suis allé un peu vite en besogne. Peut-être. He still has another seven weeks to crash and burn but I am less certain it will happen, for the simple reason that what will look like crashing and burning to those who are appalled by Trump and terrified by the prospect of him winning will not necessarily look that way to those who welcome that prospect. Trump really was right when he bragged that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still not lose his voters. One of the many depressing things about this campaign is realizing the extent to which people in the same society have—thanks in large part to the Internet, social media, cable TV news (i.e. Fox), and AM talk radio—come to inhabit such different cognitive universes, with totally different sources of information and which they process and comprehend in totally different ways. This is not news—we’ve known it for a while—but it’s hitting us over the head in a big way in this campaign. If the 213 crazy or outrageous things that Trump has said or done to date, any one of which would have sunk any other candidate—or the 258 people, places, and things he has publicly, unpresidentially insulted—have not caused a significant number of his supporters to abandon him, then likely nothing will.

I am still reasonably confident Hillary will win but, along with just about everyone I know, am unsettled, indeed nervous, by the latest change in the race, particularly when situating it in the larger context of the right-wing populism, illiberalism, and nationalism that is sweeping the Western world. The Brexit vote was a huge shock—for me and all my pro-Remain relatives and friends in the UK. And then there’s the lurch to the right in France—with Marine Le Pen striving to look presidential and Nicolas Sarkozy adopting the Front National’s positions on immigration, Islam, and identity lock, stock, and barrel—the unprecedented scores of the Alternative für Deutschland in recent Länder elections (including in Berlin on Sunday), the surge of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the rise of right-wing populist parties in the Scandinavian countries, Law and Justice in Poland, et j’en passe. And lest one forget, there’s Vladimir Putin, who won a smashing victory on Sunday; Tayyip Erdoğan entrenching his quasi dictatorship; and Bibi Netanyahu and his hard-right coalition being quasi unbeatable… The political climate in Europe is worrisome—not to mention in states on its periphery—and there is no a priori reason why it should not be likewise in the United States, as the situation there is similar in so many ways to the one here in France. E.g. a couple of weeks ago I attended a speaking event (excellent) on the Front National’s voters, with three top academic specialists and a leading pollster on the panel. The FN’s voters, such as they were described, are identical—in sociological profile, political outlook, and general world-view—to Trump-supporting Americans. They are carbon copies. I already knew this but was marveling at it nonetheless during the event (where Trump’s name was not mentioned once). And the FN is now a permanent fixture in French politics and will aggregate a sizable chunk of the electorate for years to come.

On the Brexit referendum and the parallel with Trump, if a majority of the British electorate can vote for a measure with such objectively calamitous consequences and that is so objectively inimical to both the interests and standing of its country—and swallow the lies of the demagogic politicians and media organs that promoted this—a similar type outcome in the United States can, objectively speaking, not be excluded.

À propos, see the article in Vox (September 19th) by Zack Beauchamp, “White riot: How racism and immigration gave us Trump, Brexit, and a whole new kind of politics.” (h/t Bob B.)

On Hillary’s problems, what is preoccupying is the marked lack of enthusiasm for her among millennials, Latinos, and blacks (and particularly younger black voters). And all those tens of millions of $$ spent on ads over the summer in battleground states down the drain. And then there’s her doggedly high unpopularity, with her present favorable/unfavorable number being –13, which about what it’s been for most of the year. I was confident that her favorables would rise after the DNC, that she could maybe halve that number by now, but that has not happened. For reasons I do not comprehend, a very large number of people out there simply cannot stand her. Trump’s negative spread is wider, as it has been all along, but at a current –19 he’s closing the gap. His appalling increase in popularity is entirely due to Republican voters “coming home.” It has been my operating assumption that there would be far more Republican defections from Trump than Democratic ones from Clinton, but the gap is, at present, not that significant, with #NeverTrump Republicans—university educated, women—being at least partly cancelled out by working class Dem voters going for Trump. Heretofore recalcitrant Republican voters who still don’t like Trump—and even see him as temperamentally unfit to be president—will vote for him nonetheless, as (a) they dislike Clinton and the Democrats even more, (b) Supreme Court nominations override everything, (c) he’ll sign whatever bills the GOP-controlled Congress sends his way, (d) they assume he’ll be hemmed in by Congress, the military establishment, and other institutional actors, who will make sure he doesn’t do crazy shit, (e) like the vast majority of voters everywhere, they aren’t aware of how their country may be perceived abroad, what Trump will mean for America’s standing in the world, and don’t care, and (f) maybe he won’t be so bad in office after all.

But if Trump sticks to form and tries to rule as a caudillo, that will be fine with many of his voters too, as that’s what lots of Republicans want, and particularly the new voters he’s attracting. It is pretty clear that a certain number of Trump supporters did not vote in past elections, which is making me nervous about the polls and the accuracy of their likely voter screens. On this score, I am recalling an episode of the PBS MacNeil-Lehrer Report from the early-mid 1980s, with John Judis and Curtis Gans sur le plateau, the subject being some aspect of American electoral politics. Explaining the Democratic Party’s electoral problems of the time, Judis argued that there was a “hole” in the American electorate, that the low voter turnout rate in the US compared to Western Europe was due to the high rate of abstention by lower class Americans—the kind of voters who were the base of left-wing parties in Europe and would, if they participated in American elections, presumably vote Democratic in their large majority (and pull the party to the left on economic issues in the process). Gans countered this by evoking the “Mussolini factor,” saying that if large numbers of habitual non-voters entered the system, it would likely be in positive response to a knight-on-a-white-horse candidate, i.e. a potential strongman with a populist, anti-elite rhetoric who promised to kick ass in Washington and solve their problems. And make America great again while doing so.

Continuing in this vein, I am also recalling a political science-type article I read some fifteen years ago on the structure of voter abstention in the US—constituting half the electorate at the time in presidential elections—in which the author (whose name I cannot recall; it may have been Gans or Samuel Popkin) divided non-voters into three broad categories: (a) the apathetic, representing some 40% of abstainers, who were not interested in politics, didn’t read newspapers, and knew little about public affairs; (b) the disaffected, representing 25 to 30% of abstainers, who did follow politics, had voted in the past but didn’t feel the two major parties or its current candidates spoke to them or addressed their concerns, and (c) the alienated, also some 25 to 30%, who were angry at the system and its politicians, whom they saw as corrupt (tous pourris), beholden to special interests, and in no way represented people like themselves. The author submitted that, in our increasingly atomized society, there was not much to be done about persons in category (a)—who in the past may have been brought to the polls by family members or institutions they were a part of (e.g. trade unions)—but that (b) and (c) could suddenly enter, or reenter, the system in response to a fresh, new, different type of candidate.

That candidate doesn’t necessarily have to be a Mussolini-type strongman: e.g. Barack Obama, with his 69.5 million votes in 2008, manifestly attracted large numbers of habitual abstainers, notably Afro-Americans. But the one outsider candidate in the present era—until this election—who most clearly fit this bill—who was not necessarily a potential caudillo but promised to unilaterally clean things up in Washington—was Ross Perot in 1992, whose candidacy (independent, self-financed) caused turnout to increase five points over that of 1988, from 53 to 58% of the eligible electorate, with 13 million more voters casting ballots (104.5 million, up from 91.5 million in ’88; in 1996 it dropped to 96 million). The New York Times exit poll in 1992 revealed that 30% of Perot’s voters would have stayed home had he not been on the ballot (the rest splitting evenly between Clinton and Bush).

One other thing. Perot won 19% of the popular vote, which was five points over what the final polls projected. No one had him going this high. And Perot’s voters were not mobilized by a sophisticated GOTV operation or lots of campaign workers at the grassroots. Moreover, Perot didn’t even have a political party. It was all media and the force of his personality. Trump’s candidacy is, needless to say, a much bigger juggernaut—media and otherwise—than was Perot’s. Which is why I am nervous about this election and will remain so through November 8th. Repeating myself, I do think Hillary will win—there are too many structural factors working in her favor—but the new voters Trump is attracting and the mobilization problems in the Democratic electorate are making this election, as a well-known emeritus Harvard Law School professor wrote last week (h/t Marty K.), almost impossible to predict.

Final points:

  • The election all comes down to Pennsylvania. Whoever wins PA wins the nation. If Trump wins PA, it will necessarily mean that he has also won Florida and Ohio, plus held on to North Carolina, putting him over 270 EVs. If Hillary takes PA, she wins, as Trump has no realistic path to victory without it. FWIW, the most recent poll out of PA, released yesterday, has Hillary leading Trump by 9% head-to-head (pour l’info, it was conducted by Morning Call/Muhlenberg College, whose polls earn a grade of A in FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings).
  • The favorable/unfavorable ratings are essential. If Hillary’s remains less negative than Trump’s and by at least several percentage points aggregate, it is exceedingly difficult to see how she can lose. In the nightmarish event that his negatives become less so than hers, she’s toast.
  • If Obama’s job approval rating remains what it is today—50% aggregate—it is hard to see how Hillary loses. If it suddenly goes below 48%, then that won’t be good at all for her.
  • The debates will be critical (duh). Hillary can only lose them by having a physical malaise on stage.
  • Prediction: Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will do nowhere near as well as current polls have it. Johnson will not reach John Anderson’s 1980 score (6.6%) and Stein will not surpass Ralph Nader’s in 2000 (2.7%). This will benefit Hillary.
  • The Democrats need to take back the Senate. It is essential. If Hillary ekes out a narrow win but the Senate remains GOP, her victory will be Pyrrhic, as she won’t be able to do a thing in office, including get any SCOTUS nominations approved. And the Repubs will be sure to make gains in the 2018 midterms.
  • Borrowing from my August 7th post, if the race is still neck-and-neck into October, America’s “Deep State”—notably the military, intelligence, and foreign policy establishments—will pull out all the stops to tear down Trump, e.g. leaking his tax returns or other seriously damaging information. The American ruling elite will do all it can to ensure Trump’s defeat. And it will have the media on its side.
  • The best sites to follow the numbers are Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium—N.B. its “Clinton Nov. win probability” up top—and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

À suivre.

UPDATE: On the uncertainty of polls, Nate Cohn has a post today (September 20th) in the NYT’s The Upshot page, “We gave four good pollsters the same raw data. They had four different results.”

2nd UPDATE: Paul Waldman captures the current political Zeitgeist in a commentary (September 19th) in The American Prospect, “The presidential campaign has descended into madness.” The lede: “As the birther controversy illustrates, Donald Trump seems to be dangerously immune from charges of hypocrisy, incompetence, or corruption.”

3rd UPDATE: John Judis, whom I referred to above, has a pertinent piece (September 20th) in TPM on “Two myths about American elections: Bigoted voters and Red vs. Blue states.”

4th UPDATE: My friend Stathis Kalyvas—who teaches political science at Yale and is one of the most brilliant social scientists I know, not to mention one of the top specialists of Greek politics in the world—left the following comment on my Facebook page in response to this post:

Despite the differences and the stakes, I have to say that the Greek crisis taught me a lot that I am reliving now…

I asked him to elaborate, so he replied:

I should write something thoughtful, but to summarize I would underline the social contagiousness of crazy theories, the impossibility of countering populists with reasoning and facts, the strength of the “fuck you” vote, the fact that people with grievances but comfortable lives are perversely willing to challenge social foundations because they feel safe enough to do so. All these makes bad outcomes almost a foregone conclusion…


5th UPDATE: Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman has a must-read article (September 20th) on the violent, irrational hatred of Hillary Clinton, “Hillary vs. the hate machine: How Clinton became a vessel for America’s fury.” The lede: “Decades of right-wing attacks turned a crusader of women’s rights into a major target of hate.” Three comments: (1) The article focuses on the Hillary hatred of the right but this is, as we know, very much present on the left as well—and which I continue to see almost daily on social media. (2) If the United States had French-style libel laws—not to mention British—many of the best-selling Hillary hate books would be hit with lawsuits and likely taken off the market. (3) The Hillary hate increases my sympathy for her and wish—independent of Trump—that she wins and decisively. The rage of the Hillary haters will fill me with great satisfaction.

6th UPDATE: Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka, writing in the NYT (September 20th), explains “What Hugo Chávez tells us about Donald Trump.”

7th UPDATE: I am taking the liberty of posting the Facebook status update (September 23rd) of an old friend from my Chicago days (1980s)—who has had a long career as a progressive political and labor activist and consultant (and holds a doctorate in political science to boot)—and who is my go-to person for analysis and insight on American electoral politics:

I am still confident. I ignore horse races. In the last two GOOD polls within two days Trump’s unfavorable rating has crept up, while even with her public illness, the emails and “deplorables,” her unfavorables have stayed the same. It is a race as to who ends the campaign as the least disliked by undecided voters, and if she is “less unpopular” undecideds should break her way. Can she win without OH and FL? Yes, as long as undecideds in the other leaning blue states break her way. The electoral map just stinks for Trump. Without gerrymandering we would have a Democratic House. It is still blue, and if those who were blue for Obama, or even 90% of them, vote again and stay blue, plus good turn out from newly registered Latinos and Puerto Ricans in the southwest and Florida, she wins. Peoples’ fave/unfave is becoming more settled, moving only a little, so she should seal the deal if she comes out of the debate as less of a liar than he is a jerk. She will be more informed; all she has to do is be reasonably likable, like she was on Jimmy Fallon, a recent high point.

I agree. The latest polls are upticking for Hillary. And Trump does indeed have a ceiling in the low 40s. Barring debacle (most unlikely) in the debates or some unpleasant October surprise, she should, as my friend says, be able to seal the deal.

8th UPDATE: The Washington Post’s “most read” article today (September 24th) is an interview with historian Allan Lichtman—who conceived the famous 13 “Keys to the White House” (which I had a post on during the 2012 election campaign)—who appears to think Trump may win (the headline of the article is misleading, in fact). In Lichtman’s surefire formula—it has apparently never failed—if 6 of the 13 keys are false, then the incumbent candidate, or candidate of the incumbent president’s party, loses the election. So far 5 of the keys are false, with one hanging in the balance; if that one ends up proving false, Hillary is doomed and Trump wins. The key in question is nº 4: “There is no significant third party or independent campaign”—with Lichtman adding, in the WaPo interview, that the third candidate must be anticipated to receive at least 5% of the vote. Lichtman says that Gary Johnson looks to be there, as his highest polling numbers have been 12 to 14%; Lichtman’s rule of thumb is that that such a poll number at this stage be cut in half, signifying that Johnson will get 6 to 7% in the end. Thus the 6th fatal key.

Three comments. First, Johnson’s average poll number is presently 8.5% at RCP and 8.6% at HuffPost Pollster. Divide either in two and Johnson is under 5%. Moreover, at no point has RCP had Johnson at even 10%; he briefly reached 12% at HuffPost in August but dropped back down. So Lichtman is off on this. Second, a question: should Johnson even be considered a “significant” candidate? The significant independent candidates in recent decades have been George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, and Ross Perot in 1992 and ’96. Wallace was, of course, a major political figure of the time. Anderson was high-profile throughout the ’80 campaign and whose poll numbers were sufficient to qualify him for the debates. And we know about Perot (see above), who also qualified for the debates (in ’92). Johnson has nowhere near the stature or media attention of the three aforementioned men. He’s the nominee of a political party that always runs a presidential candidate and who qualifies for the ballot in most, if not all, states. Johnson—who could walk through a busy shopping mall unrecognized anywhere in America outside New Mexico—is only polling well due to the peculiar, exceptional nature of this campaign. Which leads to the third comment, which is that Johnson is mainly drawing potential votes from the challenger party candidate, not the incumbent party’s: his support is coming heavily from Republicans horrified by Trump, not Democrats defecting from Clinton. So his notable polling performance should in no way be seen as a problem for the latter.

Conclusion: Lichtman’s 4th key is not false. At five false keys, Hillary Clinton wins.

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Protest at the French embassy, London, August 25th (photo credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Protest at the French embassy, London, August 25th
(photo credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

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It is now mid September and the burkini brouhaha, which had France in a state of hysteria the entire month of August, has yet to abate. The story doesn’t end, in large part because it’s about much more than the burkini. The brouhaha over this banal article of clothing is merely the latest installment in the never-ending obsession in France over the visibility of Islam and public display of religious identity by a minority of French Muslims—and with the very real threat of terrorism by Muslims fueling public fear and anxiety, and offering irresistible temptations for demagogic politicians to capitalize on this.

The reaction outside of France as to what’s happening here is also attracting attention, notably the New York Times article of September 2nd that gave voice to hijab-wearing Muslim women in France and Belgium, and that the Times had the excellent idea to translate into French, guaranteeing that it would be widely read in France. And it was, getting under a lot of peoples’ skins in the process, including that of PM Manuel Valls—a warrior for laïcité de combat who wants the burkini banned—who felt compelled to respond to the NYT, penning a piece in Le Huffington Post (September 5th)—translated into English under the title “In France, women are free“—which, in turn, provoked a rejoinder from the NYT but also from Le Monde, which referred to Valls’s “charge bancale” (shaky accusation) against the Times.

Then, last Tuesday, Libération’s Brussels correspondant Jean Quatremer unleashed a diatribe on his Libé blog against the reaction of the “Anglo-Saxons” to the burkini affair, “Burkini, voile: les racines religieuses des leçons de ‘tolérance’ anglo-saxonne,” which was followed on Wednesday morning by France Inter’s political analyst Thomas Legrand, whose daily political editorial was consecrated to the apparent “Anglo-Saxon” incomprehension of French-style laïcité: “Laïcité, la France et les Etats-Unis ne se comprennent pas.” (Oh, how nice it would be if the French could cease talking about “les Anglo-Saxons,” of reflexively throwing the United States and Great Britain—two countries that differ on a myriad of domains—into the same sack, and then seeing them as a repoussoir…).

Now Messrs. Quatremer and Legrand so happen to be among my favorite French journalists and for many years now: Quatremer for his excellent reporting on the European Union, plus other things (e.g. he was one of the first journalists to call out DSK for his unacceptable behavior toward women and denounce the omertà of his colleagues in the media on the matter); Legrand for his brilliant analyses of French politics, with which I am in full agreement 98.5% of the time. I listen to his three-minute “édito politique” every weekday morning at 7:45, and if I’m still in my beauty sleep at that moment, I catch up with it on the France Inter web site. When it comes to analyzing French politics, Legrand is the best. Point barre. These two gentlemen are my heros in French journalism. So understand my dismay in reading/listening to their above mentioned back-to-back commentaries, which were quite simply awful. Legrand’s was the worst I’ve ever heard by him and Quatremer’s was ten times worse than that. It was a disaster. As we are Facebook friends, I informed him on his comments thread last Wednesday that he was “à côté de la plaque,” “[qu’il s’est trompé] de A à Z,” and that I would take apart his piece point by point. We had a good exchange—he didn’t seem ruffled by my bad humor (though some of his FB friends were)—with me promising to respond to him at length on my blog, and him saying he looked forward to that (je lui ai dit que j’allais le faire en français, même si ça me prendrais plus de temps, mais il m’a dit qu’il n’y avait pas de problème si j’écrivais en anglais, donc j’ai mélangé les deux).

So here it is, followed by my critique of Legrand’s editorial. N.B. I write here in a fraternal spirit, as my admiration for these two gentlemen and their journalism is in no way diminished by their commentaries on this one question.

M. Quatremer writes: 

Ne nous y trompons pas : le débat va bien au-delà de la place de la religion musulmane (dans sa version islamiste) en France, les critiques étant tout aussi virulentes à l’égard de la politique française à l’égard des sectes, aucun Anglo-saxon ne comprenant pourquoi l’Église de scientologie, pour ne citer qu’elle, n’est pas reconnue comme une Église comme une autre.

M. Quatremer, you are laboring under some misconceptions here. En effet, ce que vous dites est sans fondement. First, on the Church of Scientology, with which I have been personally familiar since precisely 1973 (as Scientologists used to proselytize in public in my Chicago suburb and, in my adolescent naïveté, I would engage them in conversation): I have never—not once, ever, not a single time in my now long life—heard about an American—let alone met one—who considered the Scientologists to be anything other than a bizarre cult (en français, une secte bizarre). I guarantee you that no American who is not him or herself a Scientologist—or maybe a friend of Tom Cruise or John Travolta—considers this “church” to be a legitimate religion comme les autres. Everyone views it as a cult (une secte). When I tell my American students in Paris—niveau bac+2, en France pour un semestre d’études—about the French campaign against the Scientologists—which I have occasion to do when teaching the subject of laïcité à la française—not one expresses disapproval of the French attitude. And they all think the Scientologists are a weird cult.

So why are the Scientologists considered a religion in the US and with the US government scolding the French and Germans for their anti-Scientology campaigns? There’s a story to this. First, the one organ of the American state that may formally accord the status of a religion to a group claiming this what it is is the Internal Revenue Service (le fisc fédéral). Organized religions (les cultes) in the US have tax-exempt status, which only the IRS can accord. From the founding of the Church of Scientology until 1993, the IRS rejected the Scientologists’ repeated requests for tax-exempt status, insisting—correctly—that this so-called church was in reality a profit-making enterprise. So what the Scientologists—who are not nice people—did was to initiate an underhanded campaign of intimidation against the agents of the IRS who were handling the Scientology dossier. Ils ont lancé une guerre d’usure contre le fisc. And as the Scientologists had a lot of money—with all the Hollywood stars and other rich people they had succeeded in indoctrinating—they could and did intimidate the press and anyone else who stood in their way, via lawsuits and outright personal harassment (and engaging highly-paid lawyers when hit with lawsuits themselves). Pour avoir la paix, the IRS, in 1993, threw in the towel—il a jeté l’éponge—and gave the Scientologists the tax-exemption they had sought (it is also possible—and this is pure speculation on my part—that there may have been some quiet lobbying of the Clinton administration by personalities in the motion picture industry toward this end, with Hollywood having had close ties to both Clinton’s entourage and the Scientologists; for more on all this, see the lengthy 1997 enquête in The New York Times).

The second part of the story is the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which was cooked up by the Republican-controlled Congress of the time, enacted with a veto-proof majority, and signed into law by President Clinton. The Act made the promotion of religious freedom an objective of US foreign policy and, entre autres, obligated the State Department to submit an annual report to Congress on the state of religious freedom in every country in the world. So in conformity with the law, the US embassy in Paris has reported annually to its hierarchical superiors in Washington on the state of religious freedom in France—and noting the status in France of the Church of Scientology, recognized as a religion in the US—which the State Department has dutifully noted in turn in its obligatory report, and with the US government—conforming to the law—expressing its pro forma concerns on the matter to the French government. And with the French government taking the American letter of concern and throwing it in the poubelle—and with no one saying anything more about it.

I guarantee you, M. Quatremer, that no one in Washington or at the embassy in Paris could have cared less about the anti-Scientology lawsuits in France or the French state considering the Scientologists to be a profit-making enterprise and not a religion.

As for “virulent” critiques of France’s policy toward sectes (i.e. cults), from whom? Who has been “virulent” about this? Do you have any examples?

Again, M. Quatremer, I guarantee you that no one in Washington, London, or anywhere else in the “Anglo-Saxon” world, who is not him or herself a member of a secte, cares what happens in France on this score.

En France, les défenseurs du droit des femmes musulmanes intégristes à couvrir leur corps à la plage ou ailleurs

M. Quatremer, serait-il possible d’éviter le mot “intégriste” quand vous parlez de l’islam? Ce terme est polémique et péjoratif, et qui ne veut rien dire en ce qui concerne l’islam. Aucun spécialiste—universitaire ou journalistique—de l’islam ou des musulmans ne le utilise. Et il ne se traduit même pas en anglais (par ex., “intégrisme catholique”—which is the only legitimate use of the term—is called “Catholic traditionalism” in English).

As for Muslim (and other) women having the right to cover their bodies on the beach and elsewhere, well, that is their right, is it not? I mean, France is not only a free country but also a civilized one, which is not going to tell women what clothes they may or may or not wear when they venture out of their homes. Et on ne va certainement pas les obliger à exposer des parties de leur corps sur la plage qu’elles n’ont pas envie d’exposer. N’est-ce pas? One certainly hopes not.

Seriously, this burkini hysteria in France is completely ridiculous. It is an only-in-France affair.

C’est moins le débat sur le burkini ou le voile qui m’intéresse ici que les raisons sous-jacentes aux critiques de la presse anglo-américaine… elle a manifesté là une gigantesque incompréhension de ce qu’est le modèle français

Question: what precisely is this famous “modèle français”? The law of 1905? If this is the model you have in mind, there no “incompréhension” whatever. The 1905 has its specificities but is entirely comprehensible to any “Anglo-Saxon.”

Let us continue:

et les Français qui se sont réjouis de ces critiques n’ont pas mesuré à quel point le modèle britannique et américain est différent du nôtre, un système dont ils ne voudraient par ailleurs à aucun prix : place de la religion, liberté d’expression, relativisme culturel, autant d’éléments qu’il faut prendre en compte si l’on veut comprendre la nature profondément différente du débat en France, en Grande-Bretagne ou aux Etats-Unis.

In point of fact, the American and British “models” of church-state relations differ more from one another than the American does from the French. The United Kingdom has an official church—the Church of England—whereas in the United States of America church and state are separated. As France also separates church and state, the USA and France are on the same side and against the Brits. Les Amérloques sont plus proches aux Frenchies qu’ils ne sont aux Rosbifs… Sérieux!

D’abord, la place qu’occupe la religion dans le monde anglo-saxon est particulière : la laïcité à la française n’y existe tout simplement pas.

Ça c’est vrai. La laïcité à la française ne peut pas exister aux USA ou ailleurs, pour la simple raison qu’elle est française. La laïcité à la française ne peut exister qu’en France, de même que, par ex., la laïcité à la turque (laiklik) ne peut exister qu’en Turquie, et la laïcité à l’américaine (secularism) ne peut exister qu’aux États Unis d’Amérique. Et ainsi de suite. Les relations entre l’État et les cultes sont spécifiques à chaque pays. They are a product of each country’s history and culture.

Certes, l’État est séparé de l’Église, mais en ce sens qu’il est neutre à l’égard des religions, qu’il n’en favorise aucune en particulier. Mais, la religion est partout. Toutes les religions sont autorisées en vertu du premier amendement de 1791 : «le Congrès ne fera aucune loi qui touche l’établissement ou interdise le libre exercice d’une religion».

Religion is indeed more present in the USA, as is the overall level of religiosity in American society. But this is cultural. It has nothing to do with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the constitution—which you cite—which defines the relationship between religion and the state. Just as Article 1 of the 1905 law—”La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes sous les seules restrictions édictées ci-après dans l’intérêt de l’ordre public.”—defines the relationship between the French state and religion, though does not speak to society. That French society may be non-practicing or atheist in its majority or, rather, deeply religious—as was the case for a sizable portion of Frenchmen in 1905—is immaterial in regard to the 1905 law. The 1905 law, as with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US constitution, speaks to law, not to culture. And the Establishment Clause and Article 1 of the 1905 law—the bit about “ordre public” aside—are really very similar.

Depuis 1956, la devise officielle est «in god we trust» et elle figure même sur la monnaie américaine.

This has been deemed constitutional, as it refers to god, who is common to all and not to a specific religion. Those who don’t believe in god may, for good reason, object to this. Quant à moi, en tant qu’athée—et depuis ma petite enfance, n’ayant eu aucune instruction religieuse de mes parents (athée et agnostique)—je m’en fous. La devise “In God we trust” est purement symbolique, sans conséquence aucune. Son inscription sur la monnaie me laisse totalement indifférent, comme pour le plus grand nombre d’athées outre-Atlantique. C’est du folklore américain.

Mieux, le président américain prête dans la quasi-totalité des cas serment sur la Bible (mais c’est une pratique non obligatoire).

This is a French classic, à soulever le fait que les présidents américains prêtent serment sur le Bible (quoique cette pratique, comme vous dites, n’est pas obligatoire). À propos, in 2005 I attended a colloquium in Paris, at the Palais de la Justice, on French and American conceptions of laïcité/secularism, with prominent specialists of church-state relations in the USA present, among them the well-known constitutional law professors Sanford Levinson and Marci Hamilton. During the intermission I had the opportunity to ask these two august scholars about the constitutionality of the president swearing the oath of office on the Bible. They both told me that, in their well-considered view, this did indeed violate the letter of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and certainly did its spirit. Voilà. But so long as a citizen did not file a formal lawsuit against a newly elected president doing this, there would be no jurisprudence on the question.

Résultat, même les sectes les plus extrémistes y ont droit de cité (des Mormons de l’Utah aux Amishs, en passant par les Témoins de Jéhovah, les Scientologues, etc).

What precisely is a “secte” (in English, a cult)? Juridically speaking, the term is not defined, either in France or the US. So here’s how I define it: a group calling itself a religion (a) that is small in number, (b) that is led by a guru figure with an all-powerful hold over his faithful, (c) that espouses beliefs that are far removed from the mainstream and are considered bizarre or weird by just about everyone outside the group, (d) in which members disconnect from, or outright sever relations with, persons outside the group, including their families, and (e) where there are severe costs, including threats, against members who wish to leave the group. If one accepts this definition of a cult, the Mormon church—a religion with some 15 million mostly prosperous adherents worldwide—is decidedly not one (as for the Amish, this is an Anabaptist community dating from the 16th century, so please don’t call it a secte; and likewise for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who’ve been around since the 19th century). And none of these three can be qualified as “extremist,” whatever one means by this.

Vous avez certainement entendu la vieille boutade, qu’une religion est une secte qui a réussi…

On compte aux États-Unis plus de 450.000 églises et ce n’est pas demain la veille qu’un président officiellement athée pourra se faire élire.

450,000 churches in the US, a country of 320 million inhabitants? Is that a lot? In France—whose population is one-fifth of the US’s—the number of religious edifices is around 100,000. On an atheist being elected president of the United States, who knows? Ten years ago who could have imagined that a métis—seen in the USA as black—and with a middle name of Hussein could have possibly been elected president? Pas moi. Things don’t happen until they happen.

De toute façon, je parierai qu’il y aura un président athée ou areligieux aux USA avant que la France laïque n’élise un président de la République d’identité musulmane…

À cela s’ajoute le respect absolu de la liberté d’expression, pendant de la liberté religieuse totale : on peut proférer toutes les opinions même les plus extrémistes, qu’elles soient racistes, antisémites, négationnistes, etc. L’existence officielle du KKK et d’autres groupes suprématistes blancs sont là pour le montrer.

On frise la basse polémique ici. Je ne vois pas le rapport entre le KKK, groupes antisémites etc, et la question de la laïcité. M. Quatremer, vous savez pertinemment que la liberté d’expression aux USA est dans le premier amendment de la constitution et que ses paramètres sont définis par les arrêts de la Cour suprême, pas par le législateur. C’est une particularité du système américain. Ça on le sait.

En outre, la société britannique reste une société de classe strictement hiérarchisée où chacun fait ce qui lui plait dans sa classe sociale tant que l’ordre social n’est pas perturbé.

Voilà une caricature d’une autre époque de la société britannique. Ce cliché était exagéré même il y a deux générations—en fait, il a toujours été exagéré—mais en 2016?… Allons.

By the way, do you believe that class consciousness has been less important in France than in Great Britain? Or that the hierarchies in British society are steeper? Academic studies of the question (e.g. this) have, in fact, shown the opposite, that France is a more hierarchically ordered society than Great Britain. Just saying.

Enfin, outre-Manche, tout comme outre-Atlantique, la liberté d’expression y est quasi absolue, héritage de la rupture avec Rome et ses dogmes. Cette liberté a néanmoins ses limites, des limites marquées au coin de la religion : pendant longtemps, l’homosexualité a été durement réprimée (alors que la polygamie des sectes était admise)

Until very recently homosexuality was repressed everywhere, not just outre-Manche et Atlantique. As for polygamy, this has always been illegal in the United States. In this respect, the state of Utah, which was founded by the Mormons, could not be admitted into the union (which it was in 1896) until the Mormon church formally abolished polygamy.

et, comme dans une banale théocratie, les États américains n’hésitent pas à s’inviter dans le lit de leurs citoyens. Ainsi l’Alabama a interdit, jusqu’en 2014, la fellation et la sodomie, même au sein des couples hétérosexuels, la Virginie interdit de faire l’amour en pleine lumière ou encore le Dakota du Sud impose que les hôtels aient des chambres à lits jumeaux séparés de 60 centimètres si le couple réserve pour une seule nuit. Il est même précisé qu’il est formellement interdit de faire l’amour au sol, entre les deux lits… Les lois et pratiques de la plupart des États américains sur les atteintes à la pudeur n’ont rien à envier aux pays musulmans.

M. Quatremer, the United States of America is a big country—the size of a continent—with a large population and a federal system of government. And there are countless jurisdictions, each of which enacts local ordinances (arrêtés municipaux) on all sorts of things. America is a country and society where one finds everything and its opposite. Aux USA, on a tout et son contraire. In America, if you look for it, you will find it. The laws and ordinances you mention were enacted a long time ago—many in the 19th century—and most have been long forgotten. In any case, none of these silly laws in any way affects the lives of the near totality of the American population.

rappelons le scandale du Nipplegate

Ouf. I’d forgotten about that one. So what’s the point?

Allons un peu plus loin et rappelons à nos amis américains que la ségrégation à l’égard des Noirs, peuple fondateur des États-Unis d’Amérique, n’est pas si lointaine – en considérant même qu’elle ait vraiment cessé — et que les États-Unis n’ont pas hésité, il y a 70 ans à enfermer dans des camps tous les Américano-japonais parce que soupçonnés d’être génétiquement des ennemis…

Vous frisez encore la basse polémique. Je ne vois absolument pas le rapport entre la ségrégation raciale du passé, ou le traitement des Japonais-américains pendant la seconde guerre mondiale, et le sujet de départ de votre article. Où voulez-vous en venir?

Par ailleurs, si on veut parler des méfaits des USA du passé, parlons de ceux de la France aussi, par ex., de son histoire coloniale et les massacres qu’elle a commises—particulièrement en Algérie, le pays d’origine de la majorité des musulmans en France—et, tant qu’on y est, l’implication de l’État français dans la déportation des juifs pendant la guerre… Si on veut parler de l’Histoire, parlons de l’Histoire.

Better yet, let’s just stick to the subject at hand.

Si une femme musulmane française voilée affirme sans rire qu’elle est moins bien traitée qu’un chien alors qu’une autre se demande si on ne va l’obliger à «porter une lune pour être reconnue» (heu, ça n’est justement pas le but du voile ?), que pourraient dire les Afro-américains, eux, qui peuplent les geôles américaines et qui n’ont pas intérêt à avoir affaire à la police blanche s’ils ne veulent pas être abattus…

Encore la basse polémique. What do imprisoned Afro-Americans have to do with the personal opinion of one Muslim woman on the way she feels treated in France? Personally speaking, I do not see the connection.

Enfin, rappelons que ce sont les Anglo-américains qui se sont jetés à corps perdu dans des guerres contre des pays musulmans avec les résultats que l’on voit, ce qui accroît le sentiment d’une guerre entre le monde occidental et le monde musulman. Les leçons de tolérance des Américains sont assez étonnantes à l’heure où le candidat républicain, Donald Trump, veut interdire l’accès du territoire aux Musulmans, ce qui est autrement plus grave que quelques interdictions municipales du burkini. Faut-il aussi rappeler que la ville de New York s’est opposée à la construction d’une mosquée à proximité du mémorial du 11 septembre ? Et on n’a guère entendu les Anglo-saxons lorsque tous les pays d’Europe de l’Est ont refusé d’accueillir des réfugiés parce que musulmans. Mais le burkini, voilà une atteinte intolérable aux droits des femmes musulmanes…

M. Quatremer, l’article du New York Times vous a manifestement mis de mauvaise humeur, as you’re throwing everything at it but the kitchen sink (expression américaine): the Iraq war, the Ground Zero mosque, Donald Trump… Ouf!

Allez, none of these have anything to do with the subject of the NYT article.

And by the way, you are mistaken that the ville de New York opposed the Ground Zero mosque. The mayor of the time, Michael Bloomberg, strongly supported the project, as did the Manhattan borough president and many other local elected officials, plus the current mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Il ne s’agit pas de dire que le modèle français est parfait, ce qui n’est manifestement pas le cas, mais qu’il est différent : la liberté d’expression n’est pas totale (diffamation, lois mémorielles, répression du racisme et de l’antisémitisme)

Freedom of expression—a value that I think we are all deeply attached to—is not total anywhere. E.g. the Official Secrets Act in the United Kingdom is far more severe than its equivalent in the US, as are British libel laws. And commercial speech in the US is not protected by the First Amendment. As for lois mémorielles in France, I think these are terrible, as I have written on more than one occasion (if one is interested, see here, here, here, and here).

l’espace public est étroitement réglementé

Qu’est-ce que vous voulez dire par “l’espace public”? La rue? Si oui, vous avez tort, car celle-ci n’est pas étroitement réglementé en France. La France est un pays libre—et heureusement—où les gens peuvent s’habiller en public comme bon leur semble (pourvu qu’ils ne dissimulent pas le visage, bien entendu).

la séparation de l’Église et de l’État est absolue (sauf en Alsace-Moselle)

The Alsace-Moselle exception. Guyane aussi. Ce n’est pas rien. In America, there are no exceptions to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. And in France, there are several domains where the church-state separation is not total, e.g. the state subsidizing confessional schools (Loi Debré)—which is impossible in the United States—and paying for the upkeep of places of worship built before 1905 (provided for in the 1905 law). Some ten years ago, when my daughter was in collège (public) we received a letter informing us of the school’s service d’aumônerie (chaplain services). I was astonished to learn this existed in public schools in laïque France, as such is impossible in public schools in the US, laïcité à l’américaine oblige (and with, par ailleurs, public schools in the US educating a higher percentage of school children [90%] than the public system in France).

And then there’s the Bureau Central des Cultes in the Ministry of Interior. There is no such official interlocutor with organized religion at any level of the American state.

Conclusion: les États-Unis d’Amérique sont, à maints égards, plus laïque que la France. Je ne rigole pas.

l’Église catholique ayant été renvoyée dans ses églises avec une violence dont on n’a pas idée aujourd’hui

Vous exagérez. Le conflit entre les deux France autour de la loi de 1905 était âpre mais le sang n’a pas coulé dans les rues. Je ne crois pas qu’il y ait eu mort d’homme.

Même la langue française a un statut incompréhensible pour le reste du monde (c’est la seule langue admise par la Constitution et une Académie veille à sa pureté)

Many countries in the world have an official language and which is inscribed in its constitution. This is incomprehensible to no one.

Bref, invoquer l’exemple de «tolérance» anglo-américain est donc un non-sens puisqu’il ne se découpe pas en tranche et qu’elle est religieuse. Est-ce de ce modèle dont nous voulons ?

I have no idea what you’re talking about here. And believe me, no one is proposing that France exchange its precious “model” for another.

N.B.: Il y a 7,5 % de musulmans en France, le pays occidental qui en compte le plus, 4,6 % en Grande-Bretagne et 0,8 % aux Etats-Unis. Même s’ils sont à prendre avec d’infinies précautions, ces chiffres de 2011 restent intéressants, car ils montrent aussi la spécificité de la France qui accueille forte communauté non chrétienne.

France has the largest Muslim population in the Western world—in both percentage and absolute number—on account of its colonial past. Some 85-90% of Muslims in France have roots in former French colonies. And France’s complex history with its largest Muslim colony—Algeria—explains at least in part its neurotic relationship with Islam and its present Muslim population. But that’s for another discussion.

Moving on to Thomas Legrand’s editorial (if one is still with me…). It begins with a question by Patrick Cohen, followed by M. Legrand’s response:

Vous revenez sur la polémique entre le New York Times et Manuel Valls à propos de la condition réservée en France aux femmes voilées..

Oui, le quotidien new yorkais a donné la parole à des musulmanes, françaises ou vivant en France. Précisons que ce n’est pas une enquête journalistique mais un appel à témoignage. Ces femmes ont des mots très durs, parlent de ségrégation et dépeignent une société française largement hostile. Manuel Valls a réagi à cet énième portrait d’une France raciste. Il estime que ne pas avoir donné la parole à des Françaises musulmanes qui ne portent pas le voile (l’immense majorité) produit une image déformée de notre pays. Il l’a écrit au journal, qui lui a d’ailleurs répondu. Cet échange entre le 1er Ministre et le NYT montre, encore une fois, le mal que nous avons à faire comprendre à l’étranger notre rapport collectif à la religion. L’idée que l’Etat, ou même la société politique, puisse contester à la religion le droit de vouloir édicter des règles de vie sociale est une idée totalement incomprise, singulièrement dans le monde anglo-saxon.

A couple of remarks. First, if Manuel Valls and other Frenchmen who adhere to his conception of laïcité have a hard time being understood by non-French people, maybe it’s because their arguments are not good. Maybe Valls & Co are trying to defend something—the right of the state to interfere in the decisions of women as to what clothes they may or may not wear—that is, in fact, almost impossible to defend before non-Frenchmen.

What M. Legrand says here reminds me of something I read two or three years ago by the conservative American intellectual Walter Russell Mead, who, writing on his visit to Europe (including France), sighed about the difficulty he had in trying to explain to uncomprehending Europeans the attachment of Americans to the Second Amendment of the US constitution (sur les armes à feu) and, as he put it, the preference of the American people for “small government.” My reaction in reading Mead on this was that if his European interlocutors couldn’t comprehend him, maybe it was because what he was arguing was, objectively speaking, incomprehensible to European sensibilities—and, one may add, to those of a very large number of Americans too. No European who is not slightly batty can comprend the unrestricted, over-the-counter sale of semi-automatic rifles and other weapons of war such as exists in large parts of the United States, and of the legal right of people to parade around in public with these, including in schools and stores. Yes, the world-view of the National Rifle Association is indeed a difficult one to explain in Europe (and including in Anglo-Saxon Great Britain, where the consensus view is that Americans are crazy when it comes to firearms).

As for “small government,” if Mead means by this that Americans prefer that the government not organize social insurance schemes such as health insurance and old-age pensions—that this be left up to the private sector and not be obligatory—then, yes, Europeans will not understand this, and rightly so (what Mead suggested about the preferences of Americans also happens not to be true, but that’s another matter).

So back to Manuel Valls and those who support his laïcité de combat, yes, they will indeed have a difficult time explaining to non-Frenchmen that the state should have the right to tell women what clothes they may or may not wear. If you’re trying to sell an objectively shitty product—here, a conception of laïcité that is liberticide and that, in effect, discriminates against believers of one religion in particular—people are not going to buy it.

Second remark. No religion in France is “dictating the rules of social life” to anyone. M. Legrand implicitly essentializes Islam and then implies that it is telling women what to do and wear. But no one has any evidence that Muslim women in France who wear a headscarf or burkini are being ordered to do this, that anyone is telling them to do anything.

The editorial continues:

Manuel Valls est-il le mieux placé pour mener ce débat ?

En France, pourquoi pas, même si l’on peut considérer qu’il est parfois un peu raide sur le sujet, le 1er Ministre, chef de la majorité, est tout indiqué es-qualité pour donner sa définition de la laïcité, en débattre et, le cas échéant, proposer au parlement de préciser, adapter la loi dans l’esprit, du moins, du consensus patiemment établi depuis 1905. Mais ça, les Américains ne le comprennent pas. Ils sont organisés en communautés agrégées (ont la même prétention universaliste que nous) et n’admettent pas que l’Etat se mêle des préceptes d’une religion. Et pour eux, quand le chef du gouvernement se préoccupe des droits (et devoirs) des femmes musulmanes, il empiète forcément sur les libertés d’une communauté et donc sur les droits de l’Homme.

Americans organized in “communautés agrégées”… Voilà, le fameux communautarisme anglo-saxon… This is one of the most hackneyed clichés (clichés éculés) in the French ideological repertoire. It is a French fantasy. A figment of the French imagination. And a tremendous French conceit, as Frenchmen who speak about “communautarisme anglo-saxon”—which is never defined or explained—are implicitly asserting the superiority of the supposedly universal French model over that of the imagined “Anglo-Saxon.”

In fairness to the French, it should be pointed out that French academic specialists of the United States never employ the term “communautarisme”—a neologism devoid of social scientific value—in their work on the US.

Non, M. Legrand, les Américains ne sont pas organisés en “communautés agrégées.” Ils sont tous des citoyens avec les mêmes droits et devoirs. Comme en France.


Il est très difficile d’expliquer aux Américains l’individualisme positif des Lumières, le fait que la République française ne reconnaisse qu’une seule communauté, la communauté nationale composée d’individus émancipés. C’est d’autant plus difficile qu’objectivement, tous les Français ne sont pas égaux et que la consonance des noms des citoyens discriminés n’y est pas pour rien. Qu’une religion impose, par une forme d’aliénation qui écrase le libre arbitre, un accoutrement qui cache et soumette la femme, nous choque autant que les Américains sont choqués de voir un 1er Ministre s’occuper de ces questions. Vu d’une grande partie du reste du monde, Manuel Valls est un blanc, chrétien qui veut soumettre des minorités. Je me souviens d’une discussion avec des confrères américains quand Lionel Jospin était 1er ministre. Aucun de mes interlocuteurs ne me croyait quand je leur disais que personne en France n’accordait aucune importance au fait que Lionel Jospin soit protestant et que d’ailleurs quasiment personne ne le savait. En réalité, nous n’en avons pas conscience, mais notre modèle laïc, auquel nous tenons, est une spécificité dans le monde. Il faudra trouver les moyens de le préserver, sans qu’il puisse être perçu, à l’étranger, pour ce qu’il n’est pas : un repli identitaire…

I have much to say about this passage, which has a number of problems, but will limit myself to two comments: First, if, as suggested above, a Frenchman is having difficulty in making an argument about France to educated foreigners—and particularly to those from the Western world—then maybe his argument is flawed. Maybe he needs to rethink his argument. Second, Americans are as open-minded as anyone else, and certainly as much so as Frenchmen. And intellectually speaking, they are also products of l’Âge des Lumières. Educated Americans are not so different from educated Frenchmen or other Europeans. If you explain something to them and do it well—including the story about Lionel Jospin (which I have also done many times to Americans)—they will understand you. Believe me.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire (pour le moment au moins).

UPDATE: In case one missed it, the best analysis that has appeared on the bigger picture of what the burkini hysteria is all about is the tribune by Farhad Khosrokhavar in Le Monde, dated September 9th, “‘Le fondamentalisme laïc fragilise la France des droits de l’homme et de la femme’.”

2nd UPDATE: Financial Times Paris bureau chief Anne-Sylvaine Chassany has a good article, dated September 15th, “France: Islam and the secular state.” The lede: “The burkini bans have exposed historic tensions that are dividing Muslims and threatening French unity.”

3rd UPDATE: France Culture’s Sylvain Bourmeau had an absolutely excellent, must-listen half-hour discussion, September 24th, with sociologist Fabrice Dhume-Sonzogni, entitled “Le communautarisme, cette chimère toxique,” on France Culture’s ‘La suite dans les idées’ program he produces. The lede: “Au terme d’une longue enquête, le sociologue Fabrice Dhume montre comment le mot épouvantail ‘communautarisme’ n’est précisément que cela: un épouvantail planté au milieu de notre espace public.” This is the first time I have ever heard such an argument in France on the bogus notion of “communautarisme” and with Dhume-Sonzogni saying almost exactly what I have since the neologism took off in French public discourse in the 1990s. Listen to it here.

The occasion of the France Culture interview was the publication of Dhume-Sonzogni’s latest book, Communautarisme: Enquête sur une chimère du nationalisme français, prefaced by Eric Fassin. It is certainly a must-read.

See also Dhume-Sonzogni’s article, “L’émergence d’une figure obsessionnelle: comment le «communautarisme» a envahi les discours médiatico-politiques français,” on the academic TERRA-HN website (July 2013) and blogger Ossman Zamime’s post, “Vous avez dit ‘communautarisme’?,” in Mediapart (March 6, 2016).

An update to this update (October 31st): Philippe Blanchet, who teaches sociolinguistics at Université Rennes 2 and is a member of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, has an excellent review, on his Mediapart blog, of Dhume-Sonzogni’s book, “‘Communautarisme’: attention aux retours de manivelle!”

4th UPDATE: Journalist Aude Lorriaux has a first-rate enquête (September 30th) in Slate.fr, entitled “Les femmes musulmanes sont-elles forcées à porter le voile, comme on l’entend dire?” The lede: “De nombreux hommes politiques affirment ou suggèrent que la plupart des femmes voilées subissent des pressions et sont contraintes de porter le foulard, comme Manuel Valls, dans un tribune intitulée «En France, les femmes sont libres». Notre enquête démontre que ces faits sont très minoritaires.” The article is long but well worth the read.

5th UPDATE: Another enquête, this one in L’Obs (October 6th), by David Le Bailly et Caroline Michel, “Burkini, histoire d’une manipulation.” The lede: “Au cœur du mois d’août, l’interdiction sur certaines plages du maillot de bain intégral islamique a provoqué une controverse qui a frôlé l’hystérie. Qui a sciemment alimenté la polémique? Quel rôle a joué l’entourage de Nicolas Sarkozy? Révélations.”

6th UPDATE: Emile Chabal—a smart historian at the University of Edinburgh—has an excellent, salutary, necessary, and long overdue essay (September 18, 2017), published on the highbrow intello website Aeon, simply entitled “Les Anglo-Saxons.” The lede: “Not just American or British, the Anglo-Saxon is a mirror to Frenchness: the country’s alter-ego and most feared enemy.” Hopefully Chabal’s essay will be translated into French—I’ve suggested it to him—and be made required reading for everyone in France who refers to Americans and Brits as “les Anglo-Saxons”…

7th UPDATE: L’article d’Emile Chabal cité ci-dessus a été traduit en français et publié dans Courrier International, le 2 janvier 2018, sous le titre “Le terme ‘Anglo-Saxons’, miroir des peurs françaises.”

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