Archive for January, 2017


I would have normally had at least two or three posts on this by now but as I was in the US for 2½ weeks until last weekend, I didn’t catch any of the three pre-1st round debates—sure, I could have watched them en différé online but didn’t—and was admittedly not following French politics too closely while stateside, what with the unbelievable political nightmare unfolding outre-Atlantique and that naturally dominated political discussion in my entourage there. Also, it didn’t seem to be hugely important—unlike last November’s primary of the right and center—as there is not a soul in France and Navarre who thinks that the PS primary winner has a snowball’s chance in hell of even making it to the 2nd round of the presidential election, let alone winning it (and the participation rate would tend to bear this out: some 1.6 million voters on Sunday, compared to 2.6 in the 2011 PS primary 1st round and 4.3 in the right’s one in November). I did, however, get back to France in time to vote in the primary’s first ballot—disclosure: for Benoît Hamon, sans état d’âme—and watch Wednesday’s debate between the top two finishers Hamon and Manuel Valls, who will square off in the 2nd round on Sunday. Three brief comments.

First, it is labeled the primary of “La Belle Alliance Populaire” (BAP), signifying that it was open to all comers on the left—including Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Emmanuel Macron—but this was a joke. There was not a chance that these two gentlemen were going to participate in an exercise organized by the Rue de Solférino and with the strings pulled by PS First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis (a.k.a. Camba), who gives the word “apparatchik” a bad name. It was a Socialist Party primary, point barre, with candidates who could have fostered discordance and semer la zizanie in the debates—e.g. la trés gauchiste Gérard Filoche and Pierre Larrouturrou, the latter of the minuscule but intriguing Nouvelle Donne—ruled ineligible by Camba even before they could submit their qualifying signatures. The non-PS candidates who were allowed to participate were there strictly pour la figuration: François de Rugy and Jean-Luc Bennahmias—both former EELV members now with their own microscopic écolo groupuscules no one can remember the names of (and with Bennahmias being a drôle de zigoto to boot)—and Sylvia Pinel, who presently heads the diminutive, centrist Parti Radical de Gauche, holds a ministerial post in the current government that everyone needs to Google to remember what it is, and who is mainly distinguished for saying nothing whatever of interest when speaking before a microphone. The Socialists were nonetheless desperate to have her run in the BAP primary, as they absolutely needed a woman. Six mecs et pas une seule nana: l’image aurait été dévastatrice pour le premier parti de la gauche…

It appeared from the moment François Hollande threw in the towel in December that the primary would pit Valls—on the right end of the PS—against Arnaud Montebourg on the left, and with the former having the edge. I evoked back then the prospect of a dark horse, who did indeed emerge in the person of frondeur Hamon. As for Vincent Peillon, he could have been an interesting competitor to Montebourg but his candidacy was unexpected—he announced out of the blue four days before the December 15th deadline—and, as he had faded from public view since leaving the government in 2014, never got off the ground. I didn’t take Hamon extremely seriously until his appearance on France 2’s semimonthly two-hour political interview show ‘L’Émission Politique’ on December 8th, in which he impressed everyone who saw it (I didn’t). He took off from that moment and I started to predict that he would overtake the eternal gadfly Montebourg to face off against Valls in the 2nd round, and that he did. It was indeed an almost foregone conclusion by the day of the 1st round that Hamon would finish in first place.

Second, the BAP primary, as everyone knows, is less about selecting the strongest Socialist candidate for the presidential election—as the PS is all but hors course for this—but rather the person who will lead the party for the next five years—or what remains of it after the shipwreck of Hollande’s quinquennat. Not only is the PS looking at a rout on April 23rd but risks emerging from the June legislative elections with a parliamentary group resembling the one after the 1993 wipe-out, when it was reduced to 56 deputies (out of 577) in the National Assembly. The party is deeply divided, between a social-libéral, productivist, militantly républicain wing led by tough guy Valls and a more leftist, anti-libéral écolo-friendly one—now represented by Hamon—but that is less sécuritaire and with a more liberal conception of laïcité. For the latter alone I lean in that direction. As Valls has become radioactive for large numbers of PS voters—personally, I can’t stand him—the prospect of him leading a post-election PS—again, what remains of it—would almost guarantee either a formal split in the party or sizable defections to Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. The crisis in the left would worsen. So better to go with Hamon.

As for my own vote for Hamon, it’s strategic. My intention at this date is to vote for Emmanuel Macron in the 1st round on April 23rd. I did not take Macron’s candidacy seriously at all until his mega rally at the Palais des Sports on December 10th (which I was going to attend—just to go—but couldn’t make it to). A 39-year-old presidential candidate who has never run for public office and with no party behind him, ça prête à sourire. But the success of his Paris rally—before a packed arena of at least 12,000—changed everything, and particularly as he’s been repeating the feat at every rally he’s held since then, drawing unprecedented crowds in places like Nevers, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, and elsewhere in the French heartland (Marine Le Pen, by contrast, held her big 2012 Paris rally at the Zénith, which seats but 6,300). And this is being reflected in his rising poll numbers. I’ll have more about Macron at a later date but suffice to say now that he is presently occupying a wide space in the center of the political spectrum, spanning the center-left to center-right. And he has a general discourse that I find congenial: social-libéral but liberal in the North American sense on questions de société and laïcité. And he’s pro-Europe. As the prospect of a Marine Le Pen-François Fillon 2nd round is looking increasingly unpalatable—though Fillon is now in deep trouble on account of Penelopegate—Macron is presently the only candidate, according to the polls, who can knock one of these two out. And then win.

If Valls were to be the PS candidate, his social-libéralisme would complicate matters for Macron. But with Hamon the candidate, many Valls voters will likely go to Macron. Hamon widens the space for Macron while at the same time reducing that of Mélenchon, from whom he will likely take voters. D’une pierre deux coups. Thus my strategic choice for Hamon.

Third comment, on Wednesday’s debate between Hamon and Valls. I’m always impressed with French political debates, as the politicians are so articulate and in command of the issues. They all sound like Hillary Clinton discussing policy—and make US Republicans look like the bumbling, gaffe-prone nitwits they are. Hamon-Valls was, however, the best I’ve seen in a long while. It was a superb debate. Valls was good and less aggressive than expected. But Hamon was downright excellent. It was the first time I’d seen him at any length and was suitably impressed. He killed it. Now I’m talking here about form, which, in a high-stakes debate, is more important than substance. Hardly anyone remembers the details of policy proposals or dwells on inconsistencies. It’s the overall impression that counts. Hamon was extremely articulate, demonstrated mastery of the issues, was fast on his feet, adopted the right tone, and never missed a beat. He simply came across very well (one may see the whole debate here, beginning at around 29:00). As for his proposal on the revenu universel and whether or not this is realistic, who cares? Personally speaking, I discount grandiose promises made by candidates early in a campaign and that need to be financed. The more a promise will cost the taxpayer and impact on the budget, the less I take it seriously. In any case, Hamon’s performance has made victory in this coming Sunday’s 2nd round an all but done deal.

I’ll have more to say about this next week. In the meantime, if one missed Arthur Goldhammer’s posts on the primary—and Art and I have been exchanging views on this via social media—go here and here.

À la prochaine.

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My America

Washington, January 21st 2017 {photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Washington, January 21st 2017 {photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

I arrived back in France yesterday after two weeks in the US, chez la famille in North Carolina and with visits to Washington coming and going. I was in DC on Saturday and participated bien évidemment in the Women’s March—which was, of course, a march for everyone, a march of citizens resolutely opposed to the new tenant in the White House and all that he and his extreme right-wing party—now in control of two of the three branches of government (and soon the third)—represent—not to mention to what he and they say they want to do now that they have been blessed with the divine surprise of November 8th. The march was exhilarating. It was clear beforehand that it would be huge, and it was. In my social milieu everyone planned to participate, in Washington or, if they couldn’t make the trip, the cities where they live. Everyone has seen images of the event, and just about everyone who was there took photos on their smartphones. I took a few dozen, which I’ve put in an album that may be viewed here. And, if one somehow missed it, I was interviewed on France 24 on the Mall (video here).

America is a deeply divided society, as one knows, more so than France nowadays. I feel no connection to or affinity with that part of America that voted for Trump. I have nothing to do with those people. And they have and want nothing to do with people like me. For them, I and just about everyone I know are, if not the enemy, the Other. Those who participated in Saturday’s marches—in person or in spirit—are the Americans with whom I identify. This is my America. And I felt this viscerally the Sunday before last, at a rally of some two hundred people in Raleigh NC to defend the Affordable Care Act. I took a few pics of this, which may be viewed here. L’Amérique progressiste et ouverte. L’Amérique qu’on aime. Mon Amérique.

I spent five days in Washington on my arrival in the US two weeks before D-Day, visiting with friends, old and newer. The political catastrophe that has befallen America—and the world—was, of course, a major topic of discussion.The DC friends I saw work for NGOs, labor unions, think tanks, are federal civil servants (at the Justice Department and the Pentagon), academics and scholars, social workers, lawyers… Everyone said the same thing: they were devastated by the election result, could not wrap their heads around the imminence of the unspeakable one’s accession to the presidency, had no idea what was going to happen, and feared the worst. And this was the view of everyone they knew. And now that the unthinkable has happened—with the unspeakable person now in the White House—the worst is underway.

À suivre, malheureusement.

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Voyage to Algeria


This is a post that should have gone up six months ago. Better late than never. I spent two weeks in Algeria last May-June, my first trip there in twenty-five years. I had originally intended to write a lengthy commentary on my impressions of the country after such a long absence; in lieu of that, I will simply link to two albums of photos I took (N.B. the above pic is not mine). The first album here is of Algiers and environs, where I spent most of the two weeks. The second here is of a three-day road trip I took with my friend Hacene, who lives in the Paris area but happened to be in Algeria when I was there—he’s an Algiers native and has an entrepreneurial activity there—and informed me that he was going to take me out east, to show me a part of Algeria I didn’t know. So we went to Constantine (not my first time there), then to Batna, in the Aurès, where we spent the night, and then the next day to nearby Timgad, which has to be the least visited large Roman ruin on the African continent (and to which Carthage does not hold a candle). From there we headed to Biskra via the secondary route, past the Balcons de Ghoufi—the Ghoufi canyon—which, again, has to be one of the more spectacular natural sites that practically no one has seen, as Algeria has never encouraged tourism and has no tourist infrastructure to speak of. Even Hacene, who did part of his military service in Batna in the 1970s, had never been to the Ghoufi canyon. To go there one needs a car but also for it to be a destination.

From Biskra, where we spent the night, we headed back to Algiers along the edge of the Sahara, stopping in Tolga—which is one of the larger palm groves in the country—and then via the High Plateau, briefly stopping in Bou Saâda. I’ve added legends to the photos, which may be seen in small print on the bottom or in clicking on the info icon on the top right.

I have much to say about Algeria, of course, but will limit myself here to five short comments. First, the country is safe. And it feels so. The security forces are everywhere. Their presence in no way feels sinister or oppressive (as was, e.g., the case in Syria on my visits there in years past). They’re there to protect the population. And the state, of course.

Second—and in this vein—Algeria is politically stable (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). There is little to no prospect, in the foreseeable future at least, that the country will witness state collapse or descend once again into the civil strife and violence such as it experienced in the 1990s. Algerians are traumatized by that decade—which they call “the years of terrorism,” during which 40 to 50,000 persons suffered violent death—and are not about to repeat the experience. The society is conservative and religiously pious but there is no threat from jihadist or other extremist groups, which—apart from armed bands in the desert and other remote areas—have been smashed or brought to heel. In this respect, the situations in Tunisia and Morocco—with the sizable numbers of jihadists returning from the Middle East—are more preoccupying. When Algeria’s current president finally passes away, an orderly succession will be organized. And life will go on.

Third, the status of women has evolved significantly since my time in the country in the late 1980s-early 1990s and for the better. Women are present in public space in a way they weren’t in the past, and not just in the capital but in the interior of the country as well (e.g. even in Batna one sees groups of women in outdoor cafés, which was inconceivable two decades ago). And while the great majority cover their hair and wear some kind of hijab (in gay colors)—but with a visible minority in Algiers not veiling—the haïk (face veil) has all but disappeared and the somber black salafist jilbab is a rarity. And old codes of honor in regard to the virginity of women at marriage are a thing of the past for much of urban society.

Fourth, the country remains totally dependent on rentier income from hydrocarbon (oil and natural gas) exports. There is no economic dynamic otherwise, despite significant liberalization and dismantling of public enterprises. But while there’s the usual corruption a sizable portion of the rent finds its way to the population at large. There is no grinding poverty in Algeria such as one sees in Morocco. And the entire country appears to be a construction site. There are chantiers everywhere, even in hamlets in the middle of nowhere. Also, the country’s catastrophic water shortages are a distant memory. The water flows in fountains in Algiers, something one did not see way back when.

Fifth, there has been a marked decline in the French language. When I lived in Algiers in 1989-90, practically everyone spoke French at some level, and with many speaking it fluently. Algeria was the most Francophone country in the world where French was not the native language of the population. One did not need to speak Arabic at all to communicate with people, in Algiers, Oran, and other large cities at least (and in the Kabylie of course). Such is no longer the case. The younger generation—which, for me, means those under age 45—no longer speaks French with any degree of proficiency, and particularly in the interior of country. But somewhat paradoxically, French is much more visible than in the past. From the 1970s through the ’90s—when the language issue was highly politicized, of Arabophones vs. Francophones—French was largely proscribed in signage and advertising (such as this existed in the era of  “specific socialism”). But that ended when Abdelaziz Bouteflika—an unrepentant Francophone—acceded to the presidency in 1999. So all stores now have bilingual signs, even in places like Biskra, where hardly anyone actually speaks French.

There is much more to say about all of this. I’ll come back to the subject at a future date.


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Happy F—king New Year

Reina, Ortaköy, Istanbul

Reina, Ortaköy, Istanbul

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

2016 was a shitty year, we can all agree. The shittiest year in years. And with the terrorist attack in Istanbul ringing in the new year, 2017 promises to be even shittier yet. I learned of the atrocity around 1:30am, while at a new year’s eve party, in a news flash on my phone. The party—which was pretty good, actually—became less fun from that point on, for me at least. Terrorist atrocities are horrific no matter where they happen but are just that much more so when they hit close to home. And this one felt close to home. Istanbul is a city I know and love—as I do the Ortaköy neighborhood, where the attack happened—and where I have friends. My daughter spent the 2014-15 academic year at Galatasaray University, which is in Ortaköy, and tells us today that, on that new year’s eve, she was at a party just next to the Reina nightclub. The attack hit particularly close to home for my friend Claire Berlinski as well, who just posted her reaction on the Ricochet blog, “2017: #We Are Already Reina.” Claire, as usual, says it better than I.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.

UPDATE: My friend Monica Marks, who is an academic specialist of Tunisia presently residing in Istanbul, posted this on Facebook:

All my condolences to friend Khedija Arfaoui, a well-known Tunisian advocate for women’s rights and outspoken opponent of terrorism who lost her son and daughter-in-law in last night’s terrorist attack on the Istanbul nightclub. Her son, Mohamed Ali Azzabi, and his wife Senda, are pictured here. They were on holiday in Istanbul and left behind a baby and many loving family and friends.

What a goddamned f—king tragedy.

2nd UPDATE: Istanbul writer Kaya Cenç has an op-ed (Jan. 1st) in the NY Times, “Istanbul: First darkness, then terror.”

3rd UPDATE: Ezgi Başaran, who is a journalist and academic visitor at St Antony’s College, Oxford University, has an op-ed (Jan. 3rd) in The Washington Post, “Secular citizens of Turkey have never felt so alone,” that is one of the saddest I’ve read on that country.

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