Archive for June, 2020

Municipal elections 2020. Second round. (source: Le Monde)

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

The second round of the French municipal elections happened on Sunday, if one didn’t know—which was the case with the near-totality of persons outside France (and no doubt a few inside France as well). E.g. I spoke on Sunday with a friend in the US, who is geopolitically well-informed and knows France well; he had no idea about the elections. Some background. The elections in the country’s 36,000-odd communes—85% of which have a population of less than 2,000—were scheduled for March 15th (first ballot) and March 22nd (runoff). Municipal elections, which happen every six years, are considered France’s most important after the presidential and legislative, generating a high level of interest and with a normally high participation rate (as mayors are the elected officials in closest proximity to citizens and, according to the polls, are the most appreciated). The elections are always a big deal. This one was going to be, entre autres, a particular test for the party Emmanuel Macron created ex nihilo in 2016, La République en Marche (REM), to show that it could sink roots at the local level, which it has entirely lacked. But then the pandemic hit and which dominated the news and public attention during the two week official campaign that preceded the first round, with the government exhorting citizens to wear masks and practice social distancing. The wisdom of even holding the election was called into question and with the government seriously considering postponement, but, receiving the green light from its science and health advisers, decided to go ahead with the first round, mandating mask-wearing and hand-washing in polling stations.

I worked a local polling station that whole day as an assesseur (titulaire), which I’ve done some twenty-five times since becoming a French citizen fifteen years ago. But this time I really had to do it, pandemic or not, as I was a candidate on the united list of the left in my (very right-wing) commune, led by the Parti Socialiste (PS) and with six other left formations (ballot below)—though I had no chance, let alone desire, of being elected to the city council (I also did this in 2008, in my capacity as a member of la société civile, to get an idea from the inside of the dynamics of local elections in France and compare them to my US experiences, and also as I’m friendly with the local Socialists).

Ballot, first round, 15 March 2020.

As it happens, we didn’t break the 10% threshold to qualify outright for the second round (for the first time ever, I believe) and, as negotiations to merge with the ecologists’ list, which qualified by a wide margin, for the second round didn’t work out (not their fault; see below for an explanation of the peculiar electoral system), I was not an assesseur on Sunday. I went to vote, mask and all, c’est tout.

Back to the March 15th first round, the abstention rate hit a historic high at 55% (the previous record, in 2014, was 38%). Not surprisingly, a lot of voters, particularly elderly ones, prudently stayed home on account of the pandemic. How much the low turnout skewed the results can only be speculated on, though it stands to reason that there was some effect. As always happens, the election outcome was settled outright in the first round in the vast majority of communes—86% of them, to be precise—with the winning list surpassing 50%, leaving the remaining 5,000 or so—accounting for some 35% of the electorate, most in the larger municipalities (and almost all the major cities)—to be settled in the second round.

(source: Le Monde)

As the nation was preoccupied with the pandemic, the first round results were an afterthought the next day, mentioned in passing on the news and relegated to the back pages of the papers; when President Macron announced that evening that the confinement, or lockdown, would begin at noon the following day, that obviously meant that the second round could not take place the next Sunday, so it was postponed sine die—though which posed a tricky legal issue, as, according to election law, if the second round is postponed, this annuls the results of the first, meaning the whole thing would have to be done over. The Conseil d’État ultimately ruled that if the second round were held before the end of June, then the results of the first could stand, so it was thus scheduled for June 28th—which looked to be the right thing to do in view of the success (so far) of the deconfinement and flattening of the curve of SARS-CoV-2 infections. The sanitary conditions for the polling stations were even stricter than for the first round, with mandatory masks, only three voters at a time, screens separating the assesseurs, etc. Things went smoothly, so it was okay.

There are three big takeaways from Sunday’s result. The first is the abstention rate, which set another new record. Of the 16.5 million voters eligible for the second round, 59% didn’t turn out—and particularly in cities. The pandemic was clearly a factor but not the only one. The interest was not there for many voters—and despite the uncertain outcomes and high stakes in many races—on account of the disruption to peoples’ lives by the pandemic and the long fifteen weeks separating the first round—which relatively few paid attention to to begin with—but also an increasing alienation from electoral politics. Rising abstention has been a secular trend over the past three decades. As this disproportionately concerns the couches populaires—the lower classes—and young people, it necessarily shaped the outcome on Sunday.

The second was the stunning success of the lists led by Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV), and in some of France’s largest cities: Lyon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Grenoble (won in 2014), Tours, Annecy, Besançon, Poitiers, Colombes, plus others; the écolos likewise participated in left victories in other cities, including Paris and Montpellier (the outcome in Marseille is presently uncertain), and came within a hair of winning Lille. The victories in Lyon and Bordeaux were particularly amazing. In Lyon, where the EELV annihilated the REM, the result was a humiliating repudiation of mayor Gérard Collomb, an erstwhile PS centrist-turned-macroniste, who ran the city hegemonically since 2001, and had, moreover, entered into a post first round pact with the hard-right regional council president, Laurent Wauquiez, of the hard-right lurching Republican party (LR), to block an ecologist victory. Major fail. The result in Bordeaux was closer, with the EELV-led left-wing list edging out the LR-REM alliance, giving the city its first mayor of the left since 1947.

A few remarks about the écolo “green wave.” 1. The newly-elected EELV mayors—some of them newcomers to politics—were unknowns outside their cities before Sunday. The EELV has almost completely renewed its leading personnel, with the high media profile écolo politicians of 15-20 years ago now out of politics. This is not common with French political parties. 2. Yannick Jadot, who led the EELV’s successful campaign in last year’s European election—and has presidential dreams for 2022—has been avoiding the “left” label—seeking to transcend the left-right cleavage—but the winning EELV lists on Sunday all situated themselves decidedly on the left, and most in alliance with the PS and other left formations. There is no ambiguity about where the EELV situates itself on the political spectrum. But it is also clear that the party is decidedly closer to the PS (moderate left) than to the gauche radicale (La France Insoumise et al). The fact that the EELV is now responsible for governing some of France’s largest (and most prosperous) cities will necessarily impose a certain pragmatism. Looking ahead to 2021 (regional and departmental elections) and 2022 (presidential and legislative), there will almost certainly be an EELV-PS alliance, but with the former no longer playing junior partner to the latter. 3. The EELV’s “green wave” will indeed reshape the left in the coming period but its importance should not be exaggerated. Prior to Sunday, the écolos governed four of France’s 270 cities with a population of 30,000 and over. Now they will govern fifteen. The fact is, the EELV is still pretty small and, when it comes to local power, nowhere near the still convalescing PS. And the écolos have a history of performing well in intermediate elections but biting the dust in the presidential and legislative. Polls for 2022 presently have Yannick Jadot in the single digits and there is no a priori reason to believe he will go higher. Moreover, the high abstention rate on Sunday did facilitate the “green wave,” as the ecologists’ Millennial and Gen-Z CSP+ voters (educated, professional, urban) turned out in higher numbers than did the couches populaires.

The third big takeaway of the election was the abject failure of the REM, which won practically nothing. The only mayor of a commune with a population of 30K+ elected under the sole REM label was LR-defector Gérald Darmanin in Tourcoing. All the other centrist victories were by Emmanuel Macron’s MoDem and UDI allies, e.g. François Bayrou in Pau. PM Édouard Philippe may have won a landslide reelection in Le Havre but while having quit LR, he has not joined the REM. The REM is an empty vessel, existing solely to anchor Macron’s personal ambitions (now his reelection in 2022) and with the Great Helmsman making his party’s every last decision. The party has no autonomy whatever from the Élysée. It would be one thing if Macron were a brilliant political strategist, but he demonstrated yet again in this electoral episode his pathetic political skills, the showcase being his imposing the arrogant, imperious Benjamin Griveaux—who manifestly has more enemies than friends—as the REM candidate for mayor of Paris—which Macron really believed he could win—and when Griveaux got caught up in the miserable sextape affair, replacing him with non-politician Agnès Buzyn, who quit her post as minister of health as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was making its way to France—and who later admitted that she knew as early as January that the pandemic would indeed hit France and with a fury, was worried sick about it, informed Macron, but publicly revealed nothing. The Buzyn fiasco was epitomized by the fact that she failed to even win a seat for herself in the Paris city council. Also contributing to the REM’s rout was its/Macron’s decision to ally the party with LR, i.e. the right, in a number of cities in the second round, with the express purpose of trying to block the ecologists. Not only did the strategy fail but it definitively confirmed that the REM, a centrist formation at its foundation—and with a significant center-left flank—is now solidly anchored on the center-right. And it’s not going back; e.g. one learns that now ex-REM left-leaning deputies, led by Aurélien Taché (who’s taken good positions on issues, notably immigration), will be forming a new center-left party, #NousDemain. Whatever the REM’s future as a center-right party—the center-right political space already being crowded and with plenty of political pros not in the REM—it definitely has none without Emmanuel Macron.

A quick rundown of the results of the other parties.

The Socialists: The 2014 elections being a historic catastrophe for the PS—which I detailed at the time here, here, and here, if anyone’s interested—it was hard to see it losing even more ground. Sunday’s bilan was not bad at all, with the party easily holding on to its major cities, including Paris, Nantes, Rennes, Dijon, Clermont-Ferrand, Avignon, and Rouen, though Martine Aubry in Lille won the narrowest of victories (vs. EELV). The PS also picked up Montpellier, Nancy (a longtime center-right bastion), and Saint-Denis, and may yet Marseille—which would be huge—but given the specific electoral system for the three largest cities (Paris-Lyon-Marseille), that won’t be known until the newly-elected city council meets on Friday (as no list there has a majority of seats). Paris was the big one, of course, with Anne Hidalgo—allied with EELV in the second round—easily defeating her main rival, LR’s Rachida Dati. Hidalgo has not been overly popular—though several of my Parisian friends love her—but she’s redoutable. I’m not enamoured with her myself—as a banlieuesard, I have issues with her anti-automobile measures—and find her to be a dull, plodding speaker—I’ve seen her more than once—but she’s solid. And she is, at this given moment, the PS’s preeminent political figure. And as the PS has no obvious candidate for 2022—First Secretary Olivier Faure is a good man but it can’t be him, and Bernard Cazeneuve is nowhere to be seen—eyes will inevitably start to turn toward Hidalgo. She says she’s not interested and I can’t see it myself, but who knows? As Ségolène Royal is intimating that she may jump in the 2022 race—which will dismay, if not alarm, many on the left—the pressure on Hidalgo may consequently become intense. On verra.

The Communists: The PCF took a big hit in 2014, losing many of its longtime bastions in Paris’s famous “red belt” (working class banlieues—now heavily immigrant—ringing the city to the north, east, and south), to both the PS and the right. The party won back a few—notably Bobigny, Noisy-le-Sec, and Villejuif, and picked up Corbeil-Essonnes—but lost even more, including Saint-Denis—its last city of over 100K inhabitants, and which had been Communist since 1944—Aubervilliers, Champigny-sur-Marne (where Georges Marchais lived), Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, Valenton, and Choisy-le-Roi; and down south, Arles and Gardanne. The PCF continues its slow descent to oblivion.

As for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, it won practically nothing, mainly because it contested practically nothing (though even if it had, it still would have won practically nothing). LFI is little more than a vehicle for JLM’s megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur. JLM must have had a tough time swallowing the specter of Philippe Poutou, chef de file of the historically Trotskyist Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, winning an impressive 9.3% in Bordeaux (of all places). LFI didn’t attain that score anywhere outside a few left-leaning communes in the Île-de-France. It is even being said that the mere fact that LFI was part of the left-wing coalition in Toulouse caused defections of some voters there to the incumbent LR-led right-wing list, which won a narrow victory.

Les Républicains: LR were the big winners in 2014, controlling the mairies in over half the communes with populations of 30K+. There was no significant change this year. The heir of neo-Gaullism won a few (Metz, Orléans, Auxerre, Biarritz, Lorient) but also saw some big ones slip through its hands. And losing Bordeaux—where Jacques Chaban-Delmas and Alain Juppé reigned for almost all of the past 75 years—was tough; if Marseille—ruled by Jean-Claude Gaudin since 1995—is lost in the “third round” on Friday, that will be tougher still.

Rassemblement National: Last but not least. The ex-Front National’s breakthrough on the municipal level was in 2014, when it won eleven mairies, which was a big deal for the FN but, in the larger scheme of things, not that much of one. In view of Marine Le Pen’s trajectory since then, one could expect her renamed RN make further gains this time, but such did not happen at all. The party of the extreme right continues to experience great difficulty in recruiting competent activists and sympathizers to fill its lists at the local level, and then to retain those it does who are eventually elected to municipal councils. The drop-out rate—of counselors who stop showing up—is significant. In 2014, the FN managed to run lists in 369 communes with populations of 10,000 and over. This year the RN managed to do so in only 262. And whereas the FN broke 10% of the vote in 317 of those 362 lists in 2014—thus qualifying for the second round—on this March 15th, such only happened in 136 communes (source here). That said, the RN won outright first round victories in six of its 2014 communes, including Hénin-Beaumont (Steeve Briois), Fréjus (David Rachline), and Béziers (mayor Robert Ménard is informally allied with the RN, though is distancing himself from the party and Marine LP). On Sunday the RN lost three mairies, including Mantes-la-Ville (in the Île-de-France) and the 7th sector of Marseille, but picked up three new ones: Moissac, Bruay-la-Buissière, and, above all, Perpignan, the first city of over 100,000 won by the FN/RN since Toulon in 1995. Perpignan’s new mayor, Louis Aliot (Marine LP’s ex), is a first-tier RN personality and has been working that city for many years. He also downplayed the RN label during the campaign, to the point where it didn’t even appear on the candidate’s posters. Perpignan, with its large population of rapatriés from Algeria—there’s even a pro-OAS stele in a cemetery there—is ready-made terrain for the RN, so Aliot’s victory was hardly a surprise.

Conclusion: in local politics in France, the long-established parties—LR, successor constituents of the ex-UDF, PS, PCF—continue to dominate.

I mentioned above that I would have a description of the electoral system (mode de scrutin) for municipal elections. I’ll add that later as an update, so if anyone is interested, please revisit this post tomorrow.

UPDATE: Here’s the electoral system for municipal elections (adapted from an official website, translated, and edited):

The lists must be composed of as many women as men, with compulsory alternation between women and men or vice versa.

In the first round, the list which obtains the absolute majority of the votes cast receives a number of seats equal to half of the seats to be filled. The other seats are distributed by proportional representation (highest average) among all the lists having obtained more than 5% of the votes cast, according to the number of votes obtained.

In an eventual second round, only the lists having obtained in the first round at least 10% of the votes cast are allowed to remain. They may be subject to modifications, in particular by merging with other lists, which may be maintained or merged. Indeed, the lists having obtained at least 5% of the votes cast may merge with a list having obtained more than 10%. The distribution of seats is then as in the first round.

In Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, lists are constituted at the level of the arrondissement (in Marseille, in sectors grouping two arrondissements), each with their own mayor and council, with designated counselors in the latter being seated in the city-wide council. A ‘third round’ vote of the newly elected city council selects the city’s mayor.

The number of seats in the municipal councils—and thus the size of the lists—depends on their population, ranging from 15 for communes of 1,000 to 1,499 inhabitants to 69 for those over 300K.

Commentary: no one in France sees anything problematic with this mixed majoritarian-proportional electoral system. I have never come across a single critique of it. But it is a terrible system IMHO. First, it gives a super majority to the winning list, including those that win with a narrow plurality in a triangulaire or even quadrangulaire (three or four-way race) in a second round run-off. Lists that finish behind the winner get a symbolic handful of seats but are reduced to impotent opposition. A fundamental principle of proportional representation—the necessity of forming coalitions, as a single party almost never wins an outright majority—is rendered inoperative. Second, the municipal councils are way too big. They’re bloated. E.g. there are 49 members of the one in my commune, which has a population of some 75,000. Except for the counselors (in my commune, a third of the 49) who have a délégation (i.e. are in charge of a particular file, e.g. sanitation, street maintenance, pre-school education, culture) assigned by the mayor—and who thus become deputy mayors (adjoints au maire)—they are mostly useless (and don’t get paid, so it’s not even a part-time job). Third, the mayor—the n° 1 on the list—has too much power and almost no political checks on it (unless the elected counselors on his/her list split into dissident factions, which does happen). Fourth, the lists being voted at-large means that, excepting highly politicized citizens and local actors (business and other) who closely follow local politics, most people do not know their local elected representatives apart from the mayor.

The six-year term is also way too long. For local elections, the term should be four years maximum.

A correct reform of the system—proposed by no one other than myself—would be to elect mayors and municipal counselors separately (both in two rounds), the former running under partisan labels and the latter sans etiquette, at-large in the smaller communes and with the larger ones (say, over 20,000 inhabitants) divided into single-member circonscriptions, and with the size of the council divided by three (each circonscription encompassing three bureaux de vote), so that each counselor would receive a délégation (assigned by the mayor). The structure of elected city government in Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, with their arrondissements, would be more complex, though with the mayor nonetheless elected citywide under her/his name (and not indirectly, as is presently the case).

2nd UPDATE: The well-known, very smart political scientist Jean-François Bayart has a must-read post on his Mediapart blog that is sharply critical of Anne Hidalgo’s action as mayor of Paris. Among other things, he slams the pedestrian malling of the city’s central arrondissements, of turning Paris into a playground for tourists and the youthful CSP+ crowd. He also rightly deplores Paris’s organizing the 2024 Olympics, which Hidalgo led the campaign for. It is well worth the read for anyone who lives in Paris or spends time in the city.

3rd UPDATE: The newly-elected Marseille city council selected Michèle Rubirola, who led the broad left-wing coalition, as mayor (July 4th), in circumstances that may only be described as rocambolesque. Big win for the left, big loss for LR.

Read Full Post »

And police racism. The George Floyd murder and subsequent protest movement have reverberated across the globe, as one is likely aware, and particularly in France, beginning with the big June 2nd anti-police violence rally on the esplanade of the Paris Tribunal—organized via social media by a committee led by the family of Adama Traoré, a black man who died in police custody in 2016 (details here)—and followed up by the comparably large June 13th demo at the Place de la République. The June 2nd event took everyone by surprise; and few Parisians would have come across it, the Paris Tribunal being on the periphery of the city (at Porte de Clichy). As Le Canard Enchaîné reported in its June 10th issue, the intelligence service of the Paris Police Prefecture was blindsided by the unauthorized demo, getting wind of it only that morning and projecting an eventual crowd size of 500 to 1,000, when some 23,000 ultimately showed up. Sociologist Abdellali Hajjat, in a Mediapart post reflecting on France’s racism problem, remarked that the June 2nd and 13th events were the largest anti-racism rallies in France since the final day of the famous 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism. Now that’s noteworthy.

So France’s answer to #BlackLivesMatter is now a durable reality, as is the debate over statues and other historical symbols regarding France’s history of colonialism and slavery. As Abdellali Hajjat observes in his Mediapart post, the American protest movement has spawned an internationalization of the antiracist cause. What is striking here in France is the somewhat panicky reaction of politicians and mainstream media commentators, from the right to center-left, with their hoary invocations of the universal values of the hallowed French republican model, which does not recognize the existence of race or ethnicity—unlike the “modèle communautariste anglo-saxon” of the French imagination—so whatever racism that exists in France can only be epiphenomenal, not at all structural. French politicos and pundits—and French people in general—have a hard time dealing with race and ethnicity when it relates to France’s colonial past—epitomized most recently by the disgraceful manner in which Emmanuel Macron spoke on the matter in his televised address this past Sunday (and which 14 prominent scholars with specialized knowledge of the subject properly shredded in a collective tribune in the June 23rd Le Monde).

When it comes to police violence, French commentators are right to say that France is not the USA; as I wrote in my June 3rd post on the George Floyd protests, there is no comparison between the two countries on this score. French police behave in many nasty ways but do not draw their guns and pull the trigger as do their US counterparts. Swarthy and dark-skinned persons in France may experience humiliations or indignities when encountering flics—the contrôle au faciès, which I wrote about eight years ago and is the subject of a Human Rights Watch report released just last week, is an old and never-ending story, and police violence is a reality (and concerns not only members of visible minorities)—but, notwithstanding bavures that end in a fatality, French persons of color do not fear for their lives as do their counterparts outre-Atlantique (for the latest account on this, see the powerful NYT op-ed by Ishmael Reed).

While the French police are less violent than the American—at least when it comes to killing people—they are no less racist in their attitudes; e.g. the well-known pollster and political analyst Roland Cayrol, who is hardly a woke gauchiste, insisted on this himself on France 5 a couple of weeks back. With 54% of French cops reportedly having voted for Marine Le Pen in the 1st round of the 2017 presidential election (she received 21% nationally), why would it be otherwise? In a tribune in the June 10th Le Monde, social scientist Rachid Benzine and Catholic priest Christian Delorme—who was an initiator of the above-mentioned 1983 march—weighed in on the causes of the hostile relationship between the police and the younger generation of France’s visible minorities. Comparing France and the USA, they observe [N.B. for the benefit of non-Francophone readers, the passages below have been fed through Google Translate and edited]:

And even if, in effect, Emmanuel Macron’s France is not Donald Trump’s America, and if the police of the two countries cannot be equated, what is happening in America works like a magnifying mirror of our own reality.

On the quasi impunity of the police, which in France appears almost to be greater than in the USA:

No government in any country in the world can afford to have its police against it, and that is why, almost every time when violence or racist behavior is reported by members of the security forces, the tendency of political authorities is to almost systematically let them off the hook. The judiciary itself, which cannot too strongly oppose the police as an institution, which is its “armed wing,” also cannot allow itself to too harshly sentence police officers or gendarmes [prosecuted for violent behavior].

Overly flagrant behavior is sanctioned on rare occasions and “bad apples” punished, but for forty years there has been, on the part of government officials and the national police [which is under the authority of the Ministry of Interior], a refusal to question the depth of the dysfunctions in the relationship between the police and “youths of the suburbs” (jeunes des banlieues), a euphemism for young blacks and North Africans.

Benzine and Delorme do observe that the police in France, quite unlike their US counterparts, are often afraid to go into the banlieues, less because they fear for own physical integrity than they might wound or kill someone themselves.

They conclude:

It is therefore urgent to call into question the root causes of this divide between the jeunes des banlieues and the police. These are obviously multiple, notably linked to economic disparities and urban segregation. But they have, above all, a historical foundation: that of a French police force which, after the Second World War, was constructed in the fight against Algerians in France who agitated for Algerian independence.

Since 1954 [when the Algerian war of independence began], the relationship between the police and “visible minorities” has not changed. And whether we like it or not, there is a link between the Algerians who were thrown to the Seine on October 17, 1961, by the police, then headed by the sinister Prefect Maurice Papon, and the black or North African victims of recurrent police “blunders.”

It is a legacy issue. It is a problem of colonial and post-colonial culture. It goes beyond individuals and is thus not a matter of indiscriminately condemning people. But if you close your eyes too much about it, the Republic is, as it were, hitting a wall. As we know: fear leads to violence.

The legacy of Algeria. À propos, I am looking at a (448 page) book on a shelf in my study by political scientist Emmanuel Blanchard, La police parisienne et les Algériens (1944-1962) (Paris: Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2011). Vast subject.

It’s possible that I’ve missed it but I have heard or seen no mention in the media debate over the past three weeks of last fall’s hit film, Les Misérables, the subject of which is precisely the relationship between the police and youthful members of visible minorities (mainly black) in the banlieues. The film is, as I’ve written elsewhere, the best in the North/Sub-Saharan African immigrant-populated banlieue ghetto genre in years, if not ever. It was a box office success, with over 2 million tix sold (a lot for France); received stellar reviews; won the Jury Prize ex æquo at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the 2020 César award for Best Film; was nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film; and was just one of those movies people saw and talked about. If one wants to know about the interface between the police and the “jeunes des banlieues,” the scene in the trailer (at the 0:16 mark) sums it up. Such happens every day somewhere in France and has been experienced by countless youthful members of visible minorities.

The film depicts the day in the life of three cops of the BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminalité), whose beat is the Cité des Bosquets in Montfermeil, a Paris banlieue in the Seine-Saint-Denis (the famous “neuf-trois”: the poorest and most heavily immigrant populated department in France): the rookie good cop (actor Damien Bonnard, always first-rate), the bad cop (Alexis Manenti, who won the César award for Most Promising Actor), and the visible minority cop (Djebril Zonga), who grew up in a cité (public housing project) himself (and visible minority cops being a recent phenomenon in France). The BAC, which specializes in muscular interventions in “quartiers sensibles,” i.e. cités in the banlieues, has a terrible reputation with the youths who encounter it; anthropologist Didier Fassin, who gained authorization to embed himself with a BAC unit in the Paris region for 15 months (in 2006-07)—and wrote a book based on his field work—witnessed up close the unit’s “racist discourse,” “discriminatory practices,” “scenes of humiliation,” “abusive contrôles au faciès,” and the like. As for Montfermeil’s Cité des Bosquets, which has been labelled the “worst ghetto in the Seine-Saint-Denis,” director Ladj Ly grew up there, so knows it rather well. Montfermeil is also particular, as it is, minus the Bosquets, one of the most well-to-do (and “white”) communes in the “neuf-trois.” It has also been (along with neighboring Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 riots started), poorly served by public transportation (until the long-awaited extension of the T4 tram line six months ago), thus isolating it from Paris (and employment prospects for Bosquets residents).

I was interested in the Bosquets/Montfermeil side of the film, as I visited that cité once, in 1998, during the campaign for the regional elections that March. I accompanied a candidate, Jamel Sandjak—a well-known personality in the soccer world of the Île-de-France and an activist in the center-left PRG (an eternal junior ally of the Socialist party)—on a campaign foray into the Bosquets. Three things struck me about the place. First, its spatial isolation. We parked the car in a quartier pavillonnaire—a neighborhood of nice, single-family homes—and walked a half kilometer or so, through open terrain, to reach the cité. It was another world from the main part of the town. Second, as it was a Saturday morning and market day, the commercial center of the Bosquets was bustling, with lots of people out and about. No one looked to be ethnically French. I saw one or two “white” persons—who were probably Portuguese or something, not Français de souche—but everyone else was of North or Sub-Saharan African origin (with maybe some Turks and Sri Lankans). The ambiance was North African-Middle Eastern, not at all French. I indeed had the strange sentiment that I was not in France. Thirdly, the physical state of the cité was terrible. It was run down; in short, a slum—and in contrast to the buildings of the bordering cité (Chêne Pointu) in Clichy-sous-Bois, which were freshly painted and looked not bad. In France, the physical upkeep of public housing projects is the responsibility of local government. So whereas Clichy-sous-Bois had a Socialist mayor, who put money into the maintenance of public housing in his commune, Montfermeil’s ultra right-wing mayor, named Pierre Bernard, did the opposite. A royalist and for whom Jean-Marie Le Pen was too moderate (I’m not kidding), Mayor Bernard—who ran on the partisan label divers droite, which signifies way out there on the right—did absolutely nothing for the Bosquets, needless to say. I was reliably informed that young people who ventured in to the center of Montfermeil were made not to feel welcome—the attitude being ‘get back to your ghetto!’

Bernard’s successor in the Montfermeil mairie—who has seven children and hails from the Vendée (you can’t make these things up)—doesn’t look more moderate. And if what one sees in ‘Les Misérables’ reflects reality, the physical state of the Bosquets has, if anything, gotten even worse. One of the salutary aspects of the film is that it doesn’t focus exclusively on les jeunes but also gives attention to their elders. So one sees the BAC cops interacting correctly with the older men—mid 30s and 40s—who run the local kebab joint or have other above ground jobs—or maybe not—many of whom have done time in prison and almost all of whom have found religion (i.e. Islam). The men are the cops’ informal informants as to what’s going down in the cité. The relationship is uneasy but what choice is there. And then there are the bearded, djellaba-wearing salafis—the heavies—who clearly exercise authority in the cité, moral and maybe otherwise, with the cheeky teenage boys behaving deferentially in their presence, and respectfully listening to their entreaties to come to the mosque and learn about religion. As they are key social actors, the cops also have to deal with them. Again, no choice.

What is so exasperating about the maddening French polemicizing over communautarisme—a bogus neologism devoid of social scientific value—is that while politicians and pundits go on about the supposed existence of this phantasm chez les Anglo-saxons and how un-republican French it is, the very thing they execrate has been happening right under their noses in France for decades, and for which those who head the French state have no response apart from empty ideological exhortations and even emptier promises to fight discrimination. Emmanuel Macron and other politicians can denounce “communautarisme“—and now “separatisme,” whatever that’s supposed to mean—but they have no idea what to do about it. They have not a clue as how to change the reality of the Bosquets or all the other such ghetto cités.

If the French political class were serious about tackling the problems in the banlieues, and particularly the execrable relationship between the police and les jeunes, one positive step would be to legalize the consumption and sale of cannabis and other soft drugs, as the French state’s futile, unwinnable war on drugs is responsible for much of the police-jeunes tension (abusive identity checks, muscular interventions of the BAC, etc; again, see the beginning of the film’s trailer linked to above), not to mention the drug-trafficking gangs that rule the roost in so many cités, and with the consequent criminalization of so many youths, who end up with police records, do prison time, and you name it. But for incomprehensible reasons, the very debate over legalizing, or even decriminalizing, the recreational consumption of cannabis—as has happened in many countries and American states—has remained a near taboo subject in France. Emmanuel Macron endorsed decriminalization during the 2017 campaign but dropped the idea once elected. Even the PS has been skittish on the question.

The portrait of France depicted in the film is not all somber. It begins with footage of the wild celebrations that followed France’s victory in the World Cup final on July 15, 2018—and is the image chosen for the film’s poster—which united Frenchmen and women of all origins. As I posted at the time, the jeunes of immigrant origin waved the French tricolore, not the flags of their parents’ countries. It was a gratifying multiracial/multiethnic moment of communion and celebration.

‘Les Misérables’ has naturally been compared to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 landmark film La Haine, which it does take after (and particularly the final scene). ‘La Haine’, which I’ve seen three or four times, was one of the first in the genre and generated a lot of buzz when it came out: PM Alain Juppé deemed it so important that he held a screening at the Matignon and invited his ministers to attend, and Jodie Foster was so impressed with it that she supervised the English subtitling (she’s a perfect Francophone) and fast-tracked its US distribution. The pic has much to recommend it IMO (e.g. the scene of the three buddies venturing into Paris and their behavior at the vernissage is brilliant), but I am not an unconditional fan. First, the wellsprings of “the hate” that is the film’s theme are not made clear. Second, the fact that the three buddies were multiracial—black-blanc-beur (black-white-North African)—privileged a social class reading of the cleavage over an ethno-racial one, when the reality in the banlieues is the precise opposite. Third, the Vincent Cassel character—the “white”—overwhelmed the two others. Moreover, he was Jewish; I’m sorry but the image of the angry banlieue Jew just won’t fly. It’s not credible. There are plenty of Jews (Sephardi, from North Africa) in banlieue cités (notably in Sarcelles and Créteil)—though their numbers are declining as they move/flee to other parts of the Paris region (and some to Israel)—but their teenage sons tend not to hang out with groups of beurs et blacks. ‘La Haine’ was already surpassed in the genre by Abdelllatif Kechiche’s excellent 2003 ‘L’Esquive’ (English title: Games of Love and Chance) and has definitely been by ‘Les Misérables’.

The 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism, mentioned above, also received cinematic treatment, with the 2013 film La Marche, by Belgian director-actor-screenwriter Nabil Ben Yadir and with an ensemble cast of well-known actors and actresses, including Olivier Gourmet, Jamel Debbouze, Hafsia Herzi, Lubna Azabal, and Vincent Rottiers. The film’s release was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the final week of the march, which arrived in Paris on December 3rd and with tens of thousands having joined in, seven weeks after the original 17 marchers set out from Marseille. It received buzz in view of the anniversary and I naturally saw it right away, but it was a box office failure and received middling reviews (here’s a positive US one), with many criticizing distortions or fictionalizations of the event, plus the fact that the film ended with the December 3rd Paris rally and famous audience/photo op with President Mitterrand at the Élysée (this scene from newsreel footage), when this was only the opening act in a new social movement of French-born children of immigrants from the Maghreb. The film did specify at the outset that it was “inspired” by the veritable history of the march, so there was inevitably going to be some fictionalization (notably with the characters’ names), but I thought it hued fairly closely to the historical record, so far as I’ve read about it at least. Lots has been written on the event but, from a social scientific standpoint, the reference is Abdellali Hajjat’s La Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2013). Excellent book. As for the film, I didn’t think it bad. If one has any interest in the subject, it may certainly be seen.

I will resist the temptation to go on further on the 1983 march, which was a seminal event. Just a few points. First, the catalyst of the march was the abusive or violent behavior of the police toward les jeunes des banlieues (the epicenter at the time being the big cités in the satellite towns east of Lyon). Thirty-seven years later, nothing has changed on that score. Second, the march may have brought the Maghrebi second-generation (les beurs) to the attention of public opinion, and in dramatic fashion, but the political activism of young Franco-Maghrebis was already intense at the time (and a significant part involving the offspring of Harkis, whose situation had its specificities). Associational life in the banlieues—a good part of which was linked to the radical left—was teeming, though associational activists, notably in the Lyon area, were cool to the march. There was, initially at least, not a groundswell of militant support for it. Third, once the march gained media coverage, the political class, both left and right—save the Front National (1983 was its breakout year)—expressed sympathy for the marchers. That the left was in power was important (the Socialists’ efforts to co-opt and tame the élan of the movement came later). Fourth, the historiques of the 1983 march saw their action as following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. One may also note that the 17 original marchers included two Catholic priests—one the engagé Father Delorme—and a Protestant pastor, and that the Lyon chapter of the historically Protestant humanitarian NGO Cimade played a key role. There was little mention of Islam during the march. Matters are somewhat different today.

À suivre.

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De Gaulle

He’s a leading story in the news today, in France at least. If one needs reminding, today is the 80th anniversary of the Appel du 18 juin, the brief address of the great general—though who was not too well known at that moment—to the French people, from London over the airwaves of the BBC, calling on France to continue resisting the German invaders and not capitulate in suing for an armistice—which is what the newly-appointed prime minister, Philippe Pétain, did four days later (de Gaulle returned to BBC HQ on that day to rerecord the address; listen to it here). As we know, hardly anyone in France heard the address and no recording of the original remains, but, as British historian Julian Jackson states in the opening paragraph of his 928-page biography of the general—called “monumental” and “magisterial” on both sides of the Channel and Atlantic—it was with this that De Gaulle “entered history,” ultimately becoming the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century—though as Jackson reminded the audience on France Inter this morning, it could not have happened without Winston Churchill.

There’s so much to say about Charles de Gaulle—I spend several classes on him in courses I teach on France and 20th century Europe: WWII, Algeria, the Fifth Republic and the 1960s—but will just mention the movie here. Churchill got his with director Joe Wright’s  riveting 2017 Darkest Hour—for which Gary Oldman justly won the Academy Award for Best Actor—entirely set in May 1940, when Churchill, almost seul contre tous, refused to capitulate to Hitler. De Gaulle receives like treatment in Gabriel Le Bomin’s biopic, simply entitled De Gaulle, which opened here on March 4th—two weeks before the beginning of the confinement, when all theaters shut down. The film covers the catastrophic seven weeks of the Fall of France, in May-June 1940, and of de Gaulle, literally seul contre tous, refusing capitulation to Hitler. It’s a movie for the masses and a tad hagiographic—de Gaulle is portrayed as both defender of the honor of France and a devoted husband and father (which he was)—but I liked it all the same. On the Allociné scale, I rated it 4.0 (very good). The historical details are accurate and the acting first-rate, notably Lambert Wilson as de Gaulle, Isabelle Carré as wife Yvonne, and Olivier Gourmet as the hapless PM Paul Reynaud. It’s a well-done film, which did not merit the mixed reviews of US film critics I otherwise hold in high esteem. With cinemas reopening next Monday, its run in France will resume. Trailer with English s/t is here.

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[update below]

That’s the title of a typically excellent essay by my dear friend Adam Shatz, posted on the LRB website on June 5th (it will be in the June 18th issue), in which he weighs in on the events in the US over the past two weeks—and, more generally, on the subject of race in America, on which his knowledge is deep. I would normally say that I could have signed the piece myself, though Adam, as is his wont, includes numerous literary and historical references that are beyond my culture intellectuelle.

One literary personality Adam cites at several points is James Baldwin, which prompted me to rewatch Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary I Am Not Your Negro (available on Netflix in France; in the US, on Amazon Prime and maybe other platforms), which I first saw en salle when it opened here in May 2017. If one doesn’t know the pic, it was inspired by James Baldwin’s unfinished memoir, Remember This House, of his friendship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, plus letters and notes of his from the 1970s. It’s a reflection on the Black experience in America through the words of Baldwin (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson; in the French version, by Joey Starr), and with impressive archival footage—much of it devastating images of the violence, verbal and physical, visited upon Afro-Americans throughout history by the police and white mobs. I know this history pretty well but still, seeing the latter—the hatred of white mobs, particularly aimed at Black children integrating schools—is quite shocking. I can think of no other comparable experience in any other country.

On this score, Baldwin recounts a story from his youth, in the 1940s or ’50s, of a friendship he had with a blond white girl in New York City, of them going to the movies—in Manhattan mind you, not some town in Tennessee—but how they had to go to the theater separately, as they could not walk on the street or take the subway together; to be seen together in public would have put both at great risk, at the hands of the police or just passers-by.

In no other country would this have obtained (South Africa and maybe a couple of others excepted), and certainly not in France. France has been no stranger to racism, bien évidemment, but there has never been a taboo on interracial love. The documentary has a segment of Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show, in 1968, where he is contradicted in his views on race in America by Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss. Baldwin tells him:

The years I lived in Paris [from 1948] did one thing for me: they freed me from that particular social terror which is not the paranoia of my own mind but is visible on the face of every cop, every boss, everybody…

Further along, there are these words by Baldwin (accompanied by the video of Rodney King being pummelled by L.A.’s finest):

I sometimes feel it to be an absolute miracle that the entire Black population of the United States of America has not long ago succumbed to raging paranoia. People finally say to you, in an attempt to dismiss the social reality, “But you’re so bitter!” Well, I may or may not be bitter but if I were, I would have good reasons for it, chief among them that American blindness or cowardice, which allows us to pretend that life presents no reasons for being bitter.

If you haven’t seen ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, this is as good a time as any to do so.

UPDATE: Conservative Never Trumper David French has a post on his blog recounting how he discovered the reality of systemic racism in America.

The founder of the New York real estate company Harlem Lofts, Robb Pair, who hails from rural Virginia—and is the husband of a cousin of mine—has posted a heartfelt video statement on Facebook, “My apology to Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, et al.”

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The George Floyd protests

Mauerpark, Berlin

I’ve been riveted to the fast-moving events in the US over the past several days, as has the rest of the world. Here in France, they have (thankfully) knocked the coronavirus and déconfinement from the lead story on the evening news. America looks to be in free fall, as Michelle Goldberg has submitted, an observation reinforced by the gesticulations and rantings of the unspeakable resident of the White House, though one is filled with hope (some at least) when watching the live televised reports from the large, peaceful, multiracial marches of young people in cities across the country. There are so many aspects of this to discuss, though the bull in the china shop—Trump—I will save for another time, except to repeat what I’ve been saying to people over the past two/three years, which is that we’ve run out of adjectives to describe his and his regime’s abjectness (as for his deplorable supporters, we’ll stick with that attribute).

Just before starting this post, I watched the video in the New York Times article, “8 minutes and 46 seconds: How George Floyd was killed in police custody.” If you haven’t yourself, please do so. There is, if one somehow didn’t know, a problem with the police in America—and with racism in the police. Linking to the NYT video in an essay in the Never Trump webzine The Bulwark, “How many bad apples are we really talking about?,” executive editor Jonathan V. Last observed that

The Minneapolis police department has 800 officers. If you can randomly select four cops out of that group and have all of them be bad, then the overall percentage of bad cops as part of the whole isn’t trivial. For a sense of scale, imagine the odds of picking four red marbles out of a bag of 800 marbles when 5 percent of the marbles are red. It’s 1-in-160,000.

This all fits within our varying definitions of “bad” police, because every one of the four cops involved in the Floyd death is acting, at best, in what should be regarded as a criminally unprofessional manner.

I know that Minnesota is not much different from the rest of the Upper Midwest and that Trump came close to winning the state in 2016 (as did Bush in 2000 and 2004), but have always had a positive image of it as a liberal bastion (Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Party, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone, social democratic mayors in the Twin Cities, welcoming Somali refugees in the 1990s, etc). That image is necessarily undermined, however, when reading accounts such as this one on the Minneapolis police, posted on Twitter last Saturday by a citizen there named Lynnell Mickelsen, which greatly helps in understanding what happened last week:

My dental office in the Linden Hills neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis is boarding up their windows this afternoon. We are a long way from the protests, so let’s be clear about what’s going on here. We don’t have a protest problem. We have a policing problem. 1/

Minneapolis police do NOT appear to be under the command or control, of our mayor or our excellent police chief. So it seems like a lot of cops have apparently decided to stop doing their jobs until their notorious union chief, Bob Kroll, tells them to go back to work. 2/

Ever since George Floyd was murdered, the police response to peaceful protests has been to:
1) wildly escalate the situation with tear gas and rubber bullets;
2) watch as looters – a very different group than the protesters – move in;
3) Vanish and let the chaos reign. 3/

Their strategy seems to be: “Either we get to kill Black men when we feel like it with no criticism from you people……..or you don’t get any law enforcement it all. Nice little city you got there, pity if something happens to it? Do you miss us yet?” 4/

For context, the Minneapolis police force is overwhelmingly white and male. Ninety-two percent of them live in the suburbs–often the far suburbs. Their union chief, Bob Kroll, is a huge Trump supporter and open white supremacist. 5/

In short, a big subset of our police department looks (and acts) like they were recruited directly from a Trump rally. They literally seem to hate this progressive city and most of our residents. And they especially hate Black people. 6/

We all live in our own little bubble. The police have been killing unarmed Black men in Minneapolis for years and getting away with it Their first account of George Floyd’s death was to announce that he had a “medical” issue while being arrested and alas, died. 7/

The police didn’t mention the whole knee-on-neck thingy. So they seemed caught off-guard by the cell-phone video and then the public response to it. They were furious that the four officers involved with killing George Floyd were immediately fired because this rarely happens. 8/

The police were furious that they were being directly criticized by the mayor and governor (both Democrats), which rarely happens. They’ve been furious at the protests. So the cops have sort of gone on strike here. 9/

With the police openly refusing to do their jobs, they have basically invited the criminals to break into anything they want. It’s a very cynical move to change the discussion away from police misconduct to the need for cops to come in and break heads and have law and order. 10/

Hence, lots of businesses are putting up plywood. What else are they supposed to do? The Minneapolis police have basically invited criminals to “have at us.”

It’s really bad and a little scary. We’re being policed by a force with cold contempt for the city and its people. 11/

The arrest of the Derek Chauvin, the cop who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, is a good first step. But it’s only a baby step. We need to fire a lot of police officers in order to create a policing model that actually works to protect the city residents. 12/

Creating a truly effective and very different police force will be a long, hard slog of a task. Our local politicians are going to need a lot of support and wind at their sails if they attempt it. Let’s begin. End/

Ms. Mickelsen said something important and that I have insisted on in past AWAV posts on riots—or protests that get labeled as riots—but that has been largely ignored by the media and others, which is that protesters and rioters—the arsonists, looters, pillagers, and smashers—are not the same people. The “riot” in Minneapolis resembled the one in Baltimore in 2015 (the murder of Freddie Gray by the police, which I wrote about here), as it did a typical riot or disturbance in France, the latter happening with regularity over the past four decades. In France, as in the US and elsewhere, these invariably begin as a spontaneous protest by youthful members of visible minorities enraged at the behavior of the police, with the two clashing—hurling projectiles, tear gas, etc—and the looting and arson committed by apolitical opportunists and profiteers joining the melee to steal or just raise hell (I’ve written about French riots herehere, and here; and the 2011 London rioting here). But the ultimate responsible party—the culprit—in setting off the events is almost always the police.

There are, it should be said, some differences between the US, on the one hand, and France and other advanced democracies, on the other. On France 5’s (very good) public affairs talk show ‘C dans l’air’ on Monday, which was consecrated to the events in the US, the former Washington correspondent of the conservative daily Le Figaro, Laure Mandeville—whose political outlook clearly aligns with that of the paper she writes for—spoke of her personal observations of the “extremely violent” culture of American policing, of the hair-trigger reflex of police officers to draw their pistols—and when they pull the trigger, to pump the person with bullets, aiming at the upper part of the body, not the legs—which almost never happens in France. French flics behave in all sorts of odious ways but they do not draw their weapons, even in tense confrontations. French police officials who visit the US are “shocked” by the “brutality” of the procedures of their American counterparts, Mandeville recounted—though she did specify that America is a heavily-armed society and that the police fear, not unreasonably, being shot themselves (watch here from 00:16:50).

One question that has been preoccupying hand-wringing Democrats is if the televised images of disorder will benefit Trump in November. A number of people I follow on social media posted last week an interview in The New Yorker with Princeton political science professor Omar Wasow, who has researched the 1960s black protests/riots and the impact these had on white voting behavior, notably in the 1968 presidential election, with Wasow arguing that the violent protests of 1967-68 caused a significant defection of white voters to the law-and-order candidate Richard Nixon, thus facilitating his victory. Among those favorably posting the Wasow interview was the well-known journalist and author John Judis, prompting me to comment on his Facebook thread that comparing 1968 to 2020 was a stretch, as in the intervening seven months between the April ’68 riots (following the Martin Luther King assassination) and the election, there was the Robert Kennedy assassination, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and what happened there (demos, police riot, a nominee—Hubert Humphrey—who hadn’t run in a single primary anointed by party bosses in a smoke-filled room), the Vietnam war going badly, a snowballing antiwar movement (and rowdy demos on university campuses), an unpopular Democratic president, and George Wallace’s candidacy, among others.

Judis’s response to me was largely expressed in his post on the Talking Points Memo website, fretting, with reference to 1968, that the “Violent protests could be a gift to Trump.” Also fretting was political sociologist Ruy Teixeira (whose electoral and polling analyses I closely follow), who admonished Democrats on his blog for not sufficiently condemning the looters and pillagers. fearing that this failure could prompt potential Trump-to-Biden voters to stay with the orange-haired idiot.

On the 1968 analogy and the Wasow interview, I came across on Monday a Facebook comment by UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff, which precisely echoed my view:

The work of Princeton’s Omar Wasow has rightfully been getting a lot of attention in recent days. Wasow found that in the 1960’s, violent protests sparked a white backlash that helped the election of Richard Nixon. It serves as a very stark warning about the events of the last few days.

But there are many reasons to believe that the current protests will not have the same effect:

1) Richard Nixon could capitalize on the 1967-68 violent protests because he was not in power: Democrats were. As much as Caligula wants to disclaim responsibility for the daily disaster of his term in office, he cannot escape the brute fact that he is sitting in the Oval Office and Joe Biden is not. (An additional tweak is Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, a genuinely committed fighter for civil rights, was hemmed in by an increasingly-unhinged LBJ in terms of what he could advocate: Biden is not). The last time there was an outpouring of urban race riots was in 1992: it didn’t help the Republican administration then in power.

2) The 1967-68 protests happened over months. They dominated several news cycles, and in an era where the news cycle developed much more more slowly. Today, news cycles change much more rapidly. One week at this time we were talking about hydroxychloroquine. So it stands to reason to any one event will not have as much of an effect.

3) Video is powerful, but unlike in 1968, where all one saw was the burning and the looting, now, we have actually seen the video where Derek Chauvin lynched George Floyd. (And also Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland, etc.). That creates a different narrative. It is underlined by the images of police shooting and arresting journalists, police cars driving into peaceful protesters, etc. And I think importantly there are many journalists of color who get it in a visceral way that white journalists in the 60’s could not. (I was struck, while watching KCBS tape of their coverage of the 1965 Watts riot, that Black journalists were not even allowed to be on screen).

4) Nixon could capitalize on the violence not only because he was out of power, but because he could argue that he would be a peacemaker. It was nonsense, but he could play one on television. Caligula can’t even play peacemaker in his own addled brain. He is psychologically incapable of even feigning maturity and empathy. This also goes to the news cycle point: Caligula cannot help but say stupid, racist, and inflammatory things that undercuts his message. (Biden, on the other hand, can stand as the representative of a popular former administration – as Nixon could, actually).

5) Nixon could also play peacemaker because he could stand between the Humphrey and George Wallace, who was then running on a 3rd Party American Independent line. Caligula actually *is* Wallace, even quoting him (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”).

6) There is one issue in the news cycle that cannot be pushed out of it: COVID-19, which will kill people day in, day out, inexorably, like a giant glacier tearing through mountains. The death toll will continue to rise, particularly in red states. The best analogy to that from 1968 is of course Vietnam. But back to point #1: Vietnam was the administration’s – and thus the Democrats’ – responsibility. COVID-19 is Caligula’s and the Republicans.

7) America is a very different country today than it was in 1968, thank God, in no small part due to the Hart-Celler Immigration Act pushed through by Democrats. It is younger and far more diverse. It could very well react differently, or at least in a much more muted way, than the far whiter, older, and more rural electorate of 1968. And just about every survey of white attitudes on race has shown a significant and positive difference in the last five decades.

Absolutely none of this means that Democrats (not to mention democrats) should be sanguine about the political impact of violence. And of course, violence is bad for its own sake on many, many levels. But while it is crucial to make appropriate historical comparisons, it is vital to highlight the differences as well.

Some other differences. America was a much more racially polarized society in 1968 than it is today. What white Americans saw back then were “race riots,” and it scared them. What one sees today are peaceful, multiracial marches—there look to be as many whites as persons of color—with disorder ensuing when the police intervene or “bad elements” (as the CNN reporters have taken to calling them) arrive to loot and smash. If Fox News wants to portray chaos and mayhem, there’s not much Democrats or anyone else can do about that.

It’s been hard so far to get a grasp on the actual degree of damage and destruction caused by the arsonists and smashers since the protest movement began, but it has been nothing on the scale of the 1960s, when hundreds of buildings in single cities were burned to charred hulks and long stretches of city blocks devastated. The 14th Street corridor in NW Washington, which was badly hit in 1968, did not begin to recover until the 1980s. East 63rd Street in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, which had been a bustling commercial artery, was likewise devastated in 1968, and continued to look bombed-out, along with the surrounding blocks, through the 1980s (I lived nearby for several years, so knew it personally). And then there were the deaths, again on a scale that we cannot imagine today: in the 1965 Watts riot, 34 were killed; in 1967, it was 43 in Detroit and 26 in Newark (and then there were the 63 killed in L.A. in 1992).

There is also no “silent majority” nowadays. The majority is us. There are more of us than there are of them. But even with “them,” there is not unanimity. À propos, I spoke last weekend with a graduate school-era friend, who is a full-time labor organizer in Ohio and whose work brings him into contact with Trump supporters. He told me that a not insignificant number with whom he has spoken were shocked by the George Floyd murder and expressed sympathy with the demonstrations. And he added that he’s heard likewise on the right-wing call-in talk radio shows. An account of Trump supporters sympathizing with the marches—even joining one—was also relayed to me the other day by a family member in North Carolina. Whether this will last, who knows, but there was nothing comparable in the late 1960s.

The POTUS in 1968 was also not a Caligula (dixit Jonathan Zasloff) who threw gasoline on the fire and then fanned the flames. I’ll have to see ironclad polling data before I believe that there are any voters outside the MAGA-Fox News-Rush Limbaugh netherworld who believe that four more years of Trump will bring law, order, and stability, rather than chaos and discord.

Thomas B. Edsall’s NYT column today, “The George Floyd election,” is worth the read, if one hasn’t seen it.

À suivre.

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