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Archive for April, 2018

May ’68: Fifty years later

It’s not even May yet and the anniversary is already being marked here in a big way, with the inevitable slew of new books, dossiers in the press, documentaries on TV, and the like. As it so happens, I covered May ’68 last week in a course on modern France that I teach to American undergraduates (some of whose parents weren’t even born then) on a semester abroad in Paris. I always enjoy talking about the events and situating them in the larger context of what was happening in the world in that momentous year (which, being 12 years of age, I remember fairly well, the American side at least).

The purpose of this post is not to talk about May ’68—of which I have nothing new or original to say—but simply to link to a very good piece posted ten days ago on NYR Daily, “1968: When the Communist Party stopped a French revolution,” by Mitchell Abidor, author of the just published book May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France. The NYR Daily title is somewhat misleading, as there was never the slightest chance that the student protests and worker strikes of May ’68 would lead to “revolution”—soyons sérieux—but it is useful to recall on this 50th anniversary that the PCF—which represented over a fifth of the French electorate at the time—was deeply distrustful of the students and did all it could to calm the ardor of the younger workers who were on the streets. This was because the PCF understood the “latent conservatism,” as Abidor puts it, of the larger part of its working class base—and because the PCF itself, and in spite of its orthodox Marxism, was fundamentally a conservative party that worked within the system to advance its economic agenda.

Something I’ve been thinking about of late, and particularly with Trump and the evolution of the Republican Party electorate in the US, is that the working class is nationalist and authoritarian almost by nature and if unmoored from labor unions, will not vote for parties of the left (except if they adopt a nationalist, populist, anti-liberal rhetoric, e.g. Jean-Luc Mélenchon). The working class is an essential part of a progressive coalition but only with the existence of robust labor unions. If unions weaken, then the left is in trouble, as workers—those who don’t retreat into abstention—will gravitate to the populist right..

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books leads with an interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit—the ultimate soixante-huitard and antithesis of the PCF Weltanschauung—by German political scientist Claus Leggewie, “1968: Power to the imagination.” Dany le Rouge is my man, qu’est-ce que vous voulez que je dise…

For the best book (in English) on May ’68, see the instant history by Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville, which I posted on several years ago here.

À suivre très certainement.

June 1968 legislative
elections campaign poster.

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This post began as a Facebook exchange between me and my friend Claire Berlinski over Emmanuel Macron’s 2 hour 38 minute BFM-Mediapart-RMC interview Sunday night—excellently analyzed by Arthur Goldhammer here—that I’m shifting to AWAV. Claire, who caught snippets of the interview on RMC—I watched pretty much the whole thing on BFM—heard from her father—who lives in Paris, as does she—that the interviewers, Jean-Jacques Bourdin and Edwy Plenel, had behaved rudely toward President Macron. After an exchange on this, she wrote

I didn’t watch, but my guess would be that they felt comfortable being mouthy with him *not* because all decency and respect for the office of the presidency has broken down and we’re turning and turning in the widening gyre, but simply because Macron is so young. True, “They wouldn’t have dared to speak like that to CDG or VGE or my God even Hollande,” as my appalled father said, but one look at photos of all France’s postwar presidents, side-by-side, suggests why. It just isn’t instinctive to look at someone young enough to be your kid (as opposed to old enough to be your father) and think, “That’s an authority figure, you must show him deference.”

That Macron’s managed to become president of a country like France — where so much unconscious association is made between the presidency and the monarchy; where so much respect is naturally afforded to a certain kind of formal, older man of culture and good breeding—shows that even though Macron’s a centrist politically, and obviously an intelligent and cultured kid, the French were in a truly revolutionary mood when they put him in office. As indeed they were, given that they pretty much destroyed the ancien régime at the same time.

In some ways, if American voters said, en masse, “We’re going to show the establishment that we have so little respect for them that we’d literally rather give Bozo the Clown the suitcase than reward one of them,” the French did something psychologically very similar — although it seems much less radical to *our* minds, first because we’re Americans, so we’re more used to having younger presidents in office, and now, even religious and racial minorities; second, because Macron is so much more respectable, politically, and stable, emotionally, that we don’t see him as in any way a Trump analogue.

But I suspect, for France, putting what looks to them like a *child* in that office was a similar act of contempt and rebellion. (Although it’s a rebellion much more likely, in the end, to get them what they want: a better country to live in, with more opportunity, a higher standard of living, and more global power. Our rebellion is obviously going to achieve none of those things; quite to the contrary.)

The other thing that would have usually made him totally unelectable, but this time made him electable *precisely* because voters wanted to say, “And screw you all” to the establishment, was Brigitte. “So, these assholes all think they’re entitled to screw beautiful young mistresses while they screw the country, too? To hell with them all. Let’s replace them with a guy who barely looks old enough to shave — and who sure won’t be using our votes — or our taxpayer money — to bang Carla Bruni or Julie Gayet in the Elysée Palace, because that woman would kill him, literally.” I think that was a much bigger act of defiance, of “épater le bourgeois,” than generally appreciated.

My response to Claire:

I think you’re over-analyzing here. First, on the interviewers Bourdin and Plenel being “mouthy” with Macron and behaving rudely, I don’t think his relative youth was a factor. That’s simply the interviewing style of the two journalists in question, which is precisely why Macron specifically selected them for the event. He knew what he was getting into. He was eager to joust. If he had wanted to be treated with kid gloves and lobbed softball questions, he could have chosen any number of high profile TV news personalities known for their deference to the powerful, e.g. David Pujadas or Anne-Sophie Lapix (who interviewed François Hollande last Tuesday on France 2). And if you caught Macron’s TF1 interview last Thursday with Jean-Pierre Pernaut, you won’t have noted any mouthiness.

N.B. On the president of the republic deciding who is going to interview him on national television, in no other advanced democracy would such a thing happen. In the Western world, only in France does the president/prime minister select the journalists for such an interview. In this respect—as in almost all others—Macron has not broken with the practice of his predecessors.

On Macron’s youth—having turned 40 last December—everyone knows it, of course, but it actually hasn’t been an issue or subject of public or media discussion. And it’s not as if France hasn’t had relatively youthful presidents and PMs in recent times (e.g. Giscard d’Estaing, Laurent Fabius). Moreover, while Macron may be youthful in both age and looks, he has impeccably, almost effortlessly, slid into the role as president of France’s monarchical republic. Not even his fiercest critics would deny that he has taken on the stature, that it fits him like a glove—and far more so than his two predecessors, Sarkozy and Hollande, whose personal behavior and style (for different reasons) debased the presidency in the eyes of so many. Macron acts like a president of the republic. And, importantly, he is exceptionally bright, well-spoken, and cultivated, and with an intellectual culture—taken very seriously here, by elites and masses alike—that is head and shoulders above that of his two predecessors. As an énarque—and inspecteur de finance to boot—one would hardly expect less. He moved into the Élysée palace last May knowing exactly what to do and with a intimate knowledge of how the French state works and who is who. So on the level of form, he cuts the figure. And, to repeat, everyone knows it. So his age is simply not an issue.

As for the French people having been in a “truly revolutionary mood” in electing Macron, well, I would put it differently. The French electorate was indeed in an ornery state last year, but which was expressed not by supporting Macron’s unlikely candidacy but in giving 21.3% of the 1st round vote to Marine Le Pen and—of equal importance—an amazing 19.6% to Jean-Luc Mélenchon. If one adds the lesser candidates on the extremes, the total vote garnered by populist/extremist/anti-system candidates in the presidential 1st round was 49.6%. That is to say, fully half of the French electorate—and the turnout, at 78%, was high—cast a “fuck you” vote last April. And none of that went to Emmanuel Macron, who so utterly epitomized the “establishment,” even though he was indeed an insurgent candidate. The state of mind of the French electorate was, ergo, not so different from that of other European polities witnessing a populist surge. What was different in France was the configuration of the party and, above all, electoral systems, the latter of which could have yielded a catastrophic result but thankfully did not.

In point of fact, Macron’s victory—and I’ve written this before—was the product of a perfect storm, or of the stars perfectly aligning (choose your metaphor). It took a crazy series of serendipitous happenings over a three month period—from late November 2016 to February 2017—for Macron to be transformed from a candidate no one took seriously into a veritable homme providentiel. To recap: 1. There was the primary of the right and center in late November ’16, that Alain Juppé—the incarnation of moderate conservatism—was supposed to win handily, thus rendering him the prohibitive favorite to win the presidency the following May. But in a coup de théâtre—that no one saw coming until the very closing stretch—he was eliminated by the more right-wing François Fillon, who then became the favorite, though whose victory left a gaping hole on the center-right of the political spectrum. 2. On December 1st, François Hollande announced that he would not seek reelection. Had he done so, he and Macron would have battled for the same voters. Whatever the outcome of their mano a mano, it is unlikely that either would have made it to the 2nd round. 3. Le Canard Enchaîné, in its January 25th issue, broke the “Penelope Gate” story, which mired Fillon in inextricable scandal, all but wrecked his candidacy, and with center-right voters looking for an alternative. 4. The Socialist Party, largely discredited after five years of failure in power and bitterly divided, held its primary in late January, with the leftist Benoît Hamon pummeling the centrist (and much loathed on the left) Manuel Valls. Valls’s elimination opened more space in the center and center-left, with his voters—who either despised Hamon or deemed that he had no chance of making it to the 2nd round—largely defecting to Macron. 5. On February 22nd, the centrist, perennial presidential candidate François Bayrou announced that he wouldn’t be running a fourth time and proposed an alliance with Macron.

The upshot: A wide space on the political spectrum, from center-left to center-right, was freed up by the five above-mentioned serendipitous happenings, to be  occupied by Macron alone. And with the collapse of Hamon’s base—with leftist PS voters defecting to Mélenchon and more centrist ones to Macron—this made it so that Macron was the only acceptable 2nd round candidate to voters not on the hard left or hard/extreme right. His brand of social liberalism was a breath of fresh air to many of his voters but it is clear that a sizable portion of them supported him mainly to prevent a Le Pen-Fillon 2nd round. And his 2nd round vote was, of course, largely anti-Le Pen. As for Macron’s bilan after a year in office, I’ll address that in due course.

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Photo credit: Michael Fleshman/Flickr

This is the title of an excellent, must-read post on the blog of British-Syrian progressive activist Leila Al-Shami, who is, entre autres, co-author (with Robin Yassin-Kassab) of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, published by Pluto Press in 2016. Al-Shami specifies that she has “consistently opposed all foreign military intervention in Syria” but has had it up to here with the Western “anti-war” left, which opposes interventions only when the US is involved—and, of course, the really Great Satan, Israel—and supports the Syrian Ba’athist regime in the name “anti-imperialism.” As she puts it, “[t]his pro-fascist left seems blind to any form of imperialism that is non-western in origin” (here, Russia and Iran). And it doesn’t give a whit about the people of Syria, ça va de soi. As I have been fuming myself of late at this pro-Bashar, Putin-apologizing “left”—which I hold in the utmost contempt—I read Leila Al-Shami’s commentary with delectation. If you, dear reader, are a right thinking person, you will too.

More on this later.

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