Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for December, 2020

Best (and worst) movies of 2020

Voilà AWAV’s annual list (for last year’s, go here). This year’s will be shorter than usual, with the pandemic forcing the closing of cinemas in France for over five months all told, in view of the successive lockdowns/confinements: from March 17th to June 22nd and now since October 30th (they may or may not reopen on January 7th). And few American movies opened from June onward—and with only one big-budget Hollywood movie (Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’, which, needless to say, I did not see). I also did not manage to catch a few well-reviewed French and other movies before the sudden imposition of the second confinement. But I did see enough to constitute a list (and which includes Netflix exclusives).

TOP 10:
A Son (بيك نعيش)
Abou Leila (ابو ليلا)
Adam (آدم)
Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało)
Just Mercy
Love Trilogy: Chained (טרילוגיה על אהבה: עיניים שלי)
My Donkey, My Lover & I (Antoinette dans les Cévennes)
Queen & Slim
Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre)
The Wall Between Us (Zwischen uns die Mauer)

BEST MOVIE FROM ALBANIA:
The Delegation (Delegacioni)

BEST MOVIE FROM ROMANIA:
The Whistlers (La Gomera)

BEST MOVIE FROM SAUDI ARABIA:
The Perfect Candidate (المرشحة المثالية)

BEST MOVIE FROM IRAN:
Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness (يلدا)

BEST OFFBEAT MOVIE FROM MONGOLIA:
Öndög

BEST OFFBEAT MOVIE FROM MOROCCO:
The Unknown Saint (سيد المجهول)

BEST MOVIE FROM SPAIN WITH A SPANISH CIVIL WAR THEME:
While at War (Mientras dure la guerra)

BEST MOVIE FROM MEXICO WITH A CLASS STRUGGLE THEME:
Workforce (Mano de obra)

BEST MOVIE FROM GUATEMALA WITH A MEMORY OF THE 1980s MAYAN GENOCIDE THEME:
La Llorona

BEST MOVIE FROM CHILE WITH A RAGGAETON DANCING THEME:
Ema

BEST MOVIE FROM COLOMBIA ABOUT A SINGLE WORKING MOTHER WHO HAS TO DO IT ALL:
Litigante

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ABOUT THE SEAMY SIDE OF AN INSIDIOUS RIGHT-WING CABLE NEWS TELEVISION NETWORK:
Bombshell

BEST HOLLYWOOD COMEDY MAKING SPORT OF AMERICAN POLITICAL CONSULTANTS:
Irresistible

BEST REMAKE FROM GERMANY OF AN EVEN BETTER SPANISH POLICE THRILLER:
Lands of Murders (Freies Land)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM GERMANY ABOUT AN IRAQI-KURDISH GERMAN SOLDIER WHO GOES TO IRAQI KURDISTAN TO LOOK FOR HER LONG-LOST COMBATTANT SISTER:
Sisters Apart (Im Feuer)

BEST NETFLIX WAR MOVIE BASED ON ACTUAL EVENTS ABOUT AN INTREPID SWAT TEAM OF IRAQI POLICEMEN WHO STOP AT NOTHING TO TAKE BACK THEIR CITY FROM THE ISLAMIC STATE:
Mosul

BEST NOT BAD ALBEIT OVERLY VIOLENT ALGERIAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE MOVIE FROM FRANCE SET IN EASTERN ALGERIA IN 1960:
The Breitner Commando (Qu’un sang impur…)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM CANADA INSPIRED BY A SOPHOCLES TRAGEDY ABOUT AN ALGERIAN KABYLE FAMILY IN MONTREAL WHICH IS HAVING INTEGRATION PROBLEMS:
Antigone

BEST QUASI-ETHNOGRAPHIC AMERICAN INDIE MOVIE ABOUT A CROSS-CULTURAL MULTI-GENERATIONAL FAMILY IN CONTEMPORARY CHINA:
The Farewell

BEST NOT BAD QUASI-ETHNOGRAPHIC MOVIE FROM BRITAIN ABOUT IMMIGRANT-ORIGIN TEENS IN LONDON:
Rocks

BEST COMING-OF-AGE MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN 11-YEAR-OLD FRANCO-SENEGALESE GIRL IN PARIS NAVIGATING BETWEEN TWO CULTURES:
Cuties (Mignonnes)

BEST COMING-OF-AGE MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN 11-YEAR-OLD FRANCO-RWANDAN BOY IN BURUNDI DURING THE GENOCIDE IN RWANDA:
Small Country (Petit pays)

BEST COURTROOM DRAMA FROM FRANCE SET IN THE LOIRE-ATLANTIQUE:
The Girl with a Bracelet (La Fille au bracelet)

BEST DRAMA FROM FRANCE ABOUT INDENTURED SERVITUDE AMONG ILLEGAL CHINESE MIGRANTS IN PARIS:
La Nuit venue

BEST BIOPIC FROM FRANCE ABOUT A GREAT FRENCH WORLD WAR II HERO:
De Gaulle

BEST BIOPIC FROM BRITAIN ABOUT A GREAT FRANCO-POLISH SCIENTIST:
Radioactive

BEST OKAY HOLLYWOOD BIOPIC ABOUT A ONCE GREAT AMERICAN SINGER NO ONE LISTENS TO ANYMORE:
Judy

MOST PLEASANT LIGHT ITALIAN COMEDY ABOUT THREE RETIREE BUDDIES IN ROME LOOKING FOR A CHANGE OF SCENE:
Citizens of the World (Lontano lontano)

MOST AMUSING LIGHT FRANCO-TUNISIAN COMEDY ABOUT A FRANCO-TUNISIAN PSYCHOANALYST FROM PARIS WHO MOVES HER PRACTICE TO TUNISIA:
Arab Blues (Un divan à Tunis)

MOST FEEL-GOOD FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT A MILLENNIAL WHO RECOUNTS HIS LIFE VIA 25 YEARS OF HOME MOVIES:
Play

MOST NOT-ALL-THAT-FUNNY FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT A BLACK FRENCH HUMORIST-RAP SINGER POKING FUN AT HOW FRENCH PERSONS-OF-COLOR TALK ABOUT THEMSELVES:
Tout simplement noir

MOST NOT FUNNY FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT THREE ECCENTRICS IN PARIS WHO EMBARK ON A HELTER-SKELTER QUEST TO FIND A LONG-LOST CHILD:
Bye Bye Morons (Adieu les cons)

MOST UTTERLY NOT FUNNY FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT THREE WHACK JOBS IN THE HAUTS-DE-FRANCE WHO TAKE ON THE GAFAS:
Delete History (Effacer l’historique)

BEST POLICE DRAMA FROM FRANCE WITH VIRGINIE EFIRA AND OMAR SY IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Police

BEST NOT BAD POLICE COMEDY FROM FRANCE WITH ISABELLE HUPPERT IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Mama Weed (La Daronne)

BEST ROHMERESQUE ROMANTIC COMEDY FROM FRANCE WITH CAMÉLIA JORDANA IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Love Affair(s) (Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait)

BEST MARRIAGE THRILLER FROM FRANCE SET IN VIENNA WITH KARIN VIARD IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Appearances (Les Apparences)

MOST NOT TOO GOOD DRAMA FROM FRANCE SET IN BOSNIA WITH ADÈLE HAENEL IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Heroes Don’t Die (Les Héros ne meurent jamais)

MOST MILDLY AMUSING FLAWED COMEDY FROM FRANCE WITH VINCENT LINDON AND FRANÇOIS DAMIENS IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Mon cousin

MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ON POLICE VIOLENCE IN FRANCE:
The Monopoly of Violence (Un pays qui se tient sage)

MOST OVERLY LONG BUT NOT UNINTERESTING 11-HOUR 4-PART ROAD MOVIE-DOCUMENTARY BY AN EX-COMMUNIST FRANCO-ALGERIAN FILMMAKER THAT WILL LIKELY NEVER BE SHOWN IN ALGERIA:
Israël, le voyage interdit

MOST FRUSTRATING DOCUMENTARY ON CUBA BY A LEFTIST AUSTRIAN DIRECTOR THAT IS DEVOID OF A GUIDING THREAD OR ANALYSIS:
Epicentro

MOST CURIOUS DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE ON THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A YOUTHFUL EXTREME RIGHT-WING ACTIVIST IN THE SOMME:
La Cravate

MOST TOUCHING DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE ON HOW REALLY HARD IT IS TO BE A FARMER NOWADAYS:
Cyrille, agriculteur, 30 ans, 20 vaches, du lait, du beurre, des dettes

MOST PEDAGOGICAL DOCUMENTARY BY THOMAS PIKETTY CRITIQUING FINANCE CAPITALISM:
Capital in the Twenty-First Century

BEST MOVIE BY GRETA GERWIG:
Little Women

BEST MOVIE BY SAM MENDES:
1917

BEST MOVIE BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
Richard Jewell

BEST MOVIE BY AARON SORKIN:
The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST MOVIE BY TODD HAYNES INDICTING CORPORATE MALFEASANCE:
Dark Waters

BEST MOVIE BY AGNIESZKA HOLLAND ABOUT THE NIGHTMARE OF THE SOVIET UNION DURING THE STALIN ERA:
Mr Jones

BEST MOVIE BY CHRISTIAN PETZOLD INSPIRED BY A 19th CENTURY GERMAN FAIRYTALE NOVELLA:
Undine

BEST COLD WAR POLITICAL THRILLER BY OLIVIER ASSAYAS:
Wasp Network

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY SPIKE LEE:
Da 5 Bloods

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY FRANÇOIS OZON:
Summer of 85 (Été 85)

MOST FRANKLY UNINTERESTING MOVIE BY DAVID FINCHER:
Mank

WORST MOVIE SEEN THIS YEAR BY AWAV:
Jojo Rabbit

Read Full Post »

A friend (Franco-Algerian) has asked me for my take on the rapprochement between Morocco and Israel, and the role of the United States, i.e. of Trump and his recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara (neither of these developments have been warmly received by Algerians, needless to say). As for the Israel-Morocco aspect of the matter, the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two states is normal and hardly necessitated US mediation, as they have enjoyed a close, unofficial relationship since the early 1960s—and which became official in 1994 with the opening of liaison offices in their respective capitals (Tel Aviv for the Moroccan one), and while closed by Morocco in 2000, during the second intifada, did not fundamentally change anything. Ronen Bergman has a piece in the NYT on the ongoing 60-year relationship and Yossi Melman writes in Haaretz on how the Mossad, over the same period, built “perhaps the most steadfast clandestine relationship between Israel and any Arab state.”

Morocco’s rich Jewish past and present is obviously the bridge between the two countries—and with Morocco valorizing and promoting that heritage. As one knows, Morocco had, along with Iraq, the largest pre-1948 Jewish population in the Arab world (around 250K), but, unlike Iraq, with Moroccan Jews emigrating pacifically (albeit surreptitiously in the decade after 1956) to Israel over time, with no pressure to leave or flight on account of persecution. And as one equally knows, Israelis with personal or family ties to Morocco (some 10-15% of Israel’s Jewish population) maintain an affectionate relationship with the country and freely travel there—which is unique to Israelis with roots in MENA lands (and despite the fact that the status of Jews in Morocco to the early 20th century was not significantly better than in Eastern Europe). For this reason alone, it makes total sense that the two states would have diplomatic and commercial relations, with tourism, direct flights, and all.

As for the Palestinians, I argued in a social media exchange (with Algerians) that the Israel-Morocco rapprochement won’t change a thing one way or another, though it was observed in a very good 40-minute International Crisis Group podcast conversation—with Rob Malley, Richard Atwood, Dahlia Scheindlin, and Riccardo Fabiani—on “Trump’s Morocco-Israel transaction,” that this will further comfort Netanyahu & Co in their calculation that Israel can normalize with Arab states—as it already has with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan—without conceding a thing to the Palestinians. Good point. It is increasingly evident, however, that no state—even a powerful one like the USA—or coalition of states can compel Israel to make substantial concessions to the Palestinians that it doesn’t want to make—that it believes will compromise its security and/or be rejected by Israeli pubic opinion. E.g. when I visited the Beit El settlement on the West Bank in 2009 and talked to a few people there, it became clear to me that no Israeli government will ever get those settlers out of there were it to try, that there would be refusal and resistance, and that such would be the case with just about every settlement in the occupied territories. Israel is content with the status quo—which I argued over eight years ago—as are most Arab states in regard to the Palestinians, alas.

N.B. The normalization with Israel by Arab states may not only not prejudice the Palestinians but even work to their benefit, with the UAE and other Gulf states financially supporting the Palestinian Authority, investing, and the like (and which may be part of the deal with the Israelis, who will have an interest in that).

The American aspect of the Morocco-Israel deal is another matter. Not only was the US role superfluous—it was thoroughly unnecessary—but the US got nothing whatever out of it. No tangible US interest is advanced in the two states reopening liaison offices and establishing direct flights. Trump was simply doing Netanyahu’s bidding, to reinforce the latter’s election prospects and further solidify Trump’s evangelical base as he tries to stage an autogolpe before January 20th. Not only can this not be considered a foreign policy triumph for Trump—and it’s likewise with the UAE-Bahrain-Sudan deals—but, in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, it’s a big foreign policy blunder and setback for the US. The US thus becomes the first Western state (Albania excepted, if that counts) to recognize Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara.

À propos, one notes with interest the left-right consensus on Trump’s action among the handful of US academic and policy specialists of the Western Sahara question. E.g. on the left, the engagé University of San Francisco political scientist (and friend), Stephen Zunes—who’s co-authored a book on the subject—fired off a Washington Post op-ed arguing that “Trump’s deal on Morocco’s Western Sahara annexation risks more global conflict.” Human Rights Watch—which is not stricto sensu on the left (though I’d be most surprised if a single one of its American staff members did not vote for Biden-Harris)—issued a communiqué (in which acting HRW-MENA director and good friend Eric Goldstein is quoted) stating that “US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty doesn’t change territory’s status.” And FWIW, in the Uber-gauchiste Jacobin, Madrid-based writer Eoghan Gilmartin asserted that “Donald Trump has just traded Western Sahara like a Victorian colonialist.”

The left-leaning Scholars’ Circle Interviews has a worthwhile one-hour podcast conservation on the “Western Sahara conflict towards peaceful resolution,” with academics R. Joey Huddleston, Randi Irwin, Stephen Zunes, and Jacob Mundy.

Particularly interesting are the reactions from Republicans. James A. Baker III, who was the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004, penned a Washington Post op-ed bluntly stating that “Trump’s recognition of Western Sahara is a serious blow to diplomacy and international law.” And then there’s John Bolton, who knows the WS dossier comme sa poche, with a strongly worded piece in Foreign Policy, “Biden must reverse course on Western Sahara: Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty dangerously undermines decades of carefully crafted U.S. policy.”

Accompanying Bolton on the GOP right-wing is the ultra-conservative Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who has long felt strongly about the Western Sahara and been a strong supporter of Polisario, and who pronounced Trump’s action “shocking and deeply disappointing,” declaring himself “saddened that the rights of the Western Sahara people have been traded away.” As one learns in an informative dispatch in Axios by Tel Aviv-based reporter Barak Ravid, it appears that a recent dispute between Trump and Inhofe—who otherwise 100% supports the SOB—paved the way for Trump’s gift to Morocco.

Another Western Sahara/Polisario supporter way out there on the Republican right-wing is the longtime Washington conservative operative David Keene—who also happens to be Algeria’s well-remunerated Washington lobbyist—who ran an op-ed in the Washington Times (which is read exclusively on the right) explaining “Why Trump’s deal with Morocco is immoral and shamefully cynical: The people of the Western Sahara had no say in it’s making, another blow against self-determination.”

I find it intriguing that these right-wing Republicans are so harshly critical of Morocco—which has always been such a faithful ally of the United States and the West—favorable toward Algeria—which has had correct to good relations with the US but, while a leader of the non-aligned movement, tilted toward the Eastern bloc during the Cold War—and supportive of Polisario, which has otherwise been a Third World movement of national liberation and identified with the tiersmondiste camp (and with an always large stand at the French Communist Party’s annual Fête de l’Humanité; for pics of the stand, go here and scroll way down). And that these America-firster conservatives should care so much about a sparsely, exclusively Muslim-populated patch of desert in Africa—and as they have not objected to land-grabs elsewhere (e.g. Israel and its neighbors). There is not a single right-wing person in France who would break ranks with Morocco on this question or touch Polisario with a ten-foot pole. Perhaps Polisario has had an effective US lobbying operation (for the anecdote, I was acquainted with Polisario’s Washington representative back in the mid-80s, who was romantically involved with a college friend of mine; he must have been doing a good job).

The most reliable establishment commentary on Trump’s action IMHO is by Christopher Ross, who served as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy on Western Sahara from 2009 to 2017. Ross was a US Foreign Service officer, spending most of his career in the Arab world (he’s a fluent Arabic-speaker), including as US ambassador to Algeria from 1988 to 1991. Those were my years in Algiers and I saw him a number of times (I was on a Fulbright grant but otherwise had no relationship with the US embassy), at events and dinners, plus a few tête-à-têtes, at the residence and in his office, with him inviting me in to discuss the political situation in Algeria (we were much on the same page, particularly in regard to the rise of the Islamist FIS). Chris Ross represented the best of the US Foreign Service. Voilà his commentary on Trump’s action, posted by Stephen Zunes (Dec. 13th) on his Facebook page:

This foolish and ill-considered decision flies in the face of the US commitment to the principles of the non-acquisition of territory by force and the right of peoples to self-determination, both enshrined in the UN Charter. It’s true that we have ignored these principles when it comes to Israel and others, but this does not excuse ignoring them in Western Sahara and incurring significant costs to ourselves in terms of regional stability and security and our relations with Algeria.

The argument that some in Washington have been making for decades to the effect that an independent state in Western Sahara would be another failed mini-state is false. Western Sahara is as large as Great Britain and has ample resources of phosphates, fisheries, precious metals, and tourism based on wind surfing and desert excursions. It is much better off than many mini-states whose establishment the US has supported. The Polisario Liberation Front of Western Sahara has demonstrated in setting up a government-in-exile in the Western Saharan refugee camps in southwestern Algeria that it is capable of running a government in an organized and semi-democratic way. The referendum proposal that the Polisario put forward in 2007 foresees very close privileged relations with Morocco in the event of independence. It has answered the claim that it could not possibly defend the vast territory of Western Sahara from terrorist or other threats by stating that it would request the help of others until its own forces were fully in place.

It is true that the US has always expressed support for both for the UN facilitated negotiating process and, since 2007, for Morocco’s autonomy plan as ONE possible basis for negotiation. The word ONE is crucial because it implies that other outcomes might emerge and thus ensures that the Polisario stays in the negotiating process instead of retreating into a resumption of the open warfare that prevailed from 1976 to 1991. It was in that year that Morocco and the Polisario agreed to a UN settlement plan that promised a referendum in exchange for a ceasefire. Thirteen years were spent trying to reach agreement on a list of eligible voters, the last seven of them under the supervision of James Baker. In the end, these efforts failed because Morocco decided that a referendum was contrary to its (claims of) sovereignty and, in doing so, got no push back from the Security Council. In 2004, this caused Baker to resign.

The Security Council then substituted direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario as an alternative approach. Chaired by three successive UN envoys from the Netherlands (van Walsum), the U.S. (yours truly), and Germany (Kohler), thirteen rounds of face-to-face talks in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania took place from 2007 to 2019. To date, these efforts have also failed because neither party has been prepared to alter its position in the name of compromise. With the resignation of the most recent envoy in 2019 “for health reasons” but more likely out of disgust for Morocco’s lack of respect and efforts to impede his work (as they did with me), the UN Secretary-General is looking for yet another envoy. Those approached to date have demurred, probably because they recognize that Morocco wants someone who will in effect become its advocate instead of remaining neutral and that, as a result, they would be embarking on ‘mission impossible.’

If we are ever to arrive at a settlement, it will be through a drawn-out negotiating process of some kind. President Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty destroys any incentive for the Polisario to remain in that process. It also threatens US relations with Algeria, which supports the right of Western Saharans to decide their own future through a referendum, and undercuts the growth of our existing ties in energy, trade, and security and military cooperation. In sum, President Trump’s decision ensures continued tension, instability, and disunion in North Africa.

Pour l’info, my principal source of knowledge on the Western Sahara is Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, by Tony Hodges (Lawrence Hill Books, 1983). It’s a terrific book (reviewed here in the NYRB), the first one to read on the subject, in which one learns, among many other things, that Morocco has no legitimate claim to the WS—historically or legally—and that the Sahraoui people, historically mostly pastoral nomads, were largely sedentarized by the early 1970s, had developed a national consciousness under Spanish colonialism, and possessed all the attributes of a nation deserving self-determination. Whether or not Morocco will ever surrender the WS—I have my doubts—is another matter, but the conflict remains,

The parallel between the Moroccan occupation of the WS and the Israelis in the West Bank-Gaza is evident (Moroccans naturally go ballistic over the comparison). There are similarities and clear differences (e.g. the cultural proximity of Moroccans and Sahraouis is obviously closer), but on the level of human rights violations, Stephen Zunes, whose left-wing credentials are ironclad, asserted on his Facebook page last week that these are “much worse” in the Western Sahara than in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Returning to the subject of Moroccan Jews and Israel, I want to briefly mention two feature-length films I’ve seen on the subject over the past several years. One is the 2010 ‘Où vas-tu Moshé?’ (Where Are You Going, Moshe?), directed by Hassan Benjelloun, who recounts-reenacts the sudden, literally overnight exodus in 1963 of the Jewish community in his town in the Atlas mountains, which he witnessed as a boy. There was no particular problem between the communities, which co-existed cordially, but the deeply religious Jews dreamed of aliyah to the ‘land of Zion’, of which they concretely knew little, and as emigration to Israel was not authorized at the time, the collective departure was organized clandestinely by the Jewish Agency. So one day the townspeople woke up to find that the local Jews were all gone and with their shops shuttered, having slipped out of town en masse in buses in the middle of the night. It’s an interesting, original film, needless to say.

I read about the film when it opened—it came and went—but heard more about it in 2011 from a former Franco-Moroccan student of mine, who happened to be in Israel-Palestine (working with a Palestinian-oriented NGO), who was so impressed with the film (which she had seen in Canada, where it was co-produced) that she took the initiative to promote it in Israel and organize screenings, particularly in localities with sizable Moroccan communities. It received an enthusiastic reception and showed at the 2011 Maghreb film festival in Ashdod, which saw a good turnout.

The other film is a 2012 documentary, Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echoes from the Mellah, by Kamal Hachkar, a Franco-Moroccan public school teacher in Paris, whose family hailed from Tinghir, a town in southern Morocco, from which Kamal’s parents emigrated to France shortly after his birth in 1979 but which he regularly visited on family vacations while growing up. On one visit he learned, to his surprise, that Tinghir had had a Jewish community but which suddenly departed in the 1960s, to Israel, and which the younger generation in the town knew almost nothing about. Fascinated by the discovery, Hachkar decided to research his ancestral town’s Jewish past and make a documentary—he talked about it at a screening I attended in 2013 and heavily promoted the film on Facebook—which involved interviewing inhabitants of Tinghir about their memories of the town’s Jews, then tracking down the latter in Israel and traveling there to meet them. This part is quite interesting. The Tinghir Jews imagined they were going to a mythical Jerusalem in the mythical land of Zion but when they arrived in Israel they were settled in apartment blocks in soulless development towns. It wasn’t what they were expecting. When Hachkar met the Tinghir old-timers in Israel, who spoke with him in Tamazight, they welcomed him like a long-lost member of the family (watch the moving segment here of one of them on a Skype conversation with Hachkar’s father). It’s too bad it’s not likewise with other Israeli MENA Jews and their countries of origin.

Hachkar’s film was shown on Moroccan television in 2012 and screened publicly, provoking a firestorm, with Hachkar and the film denounced by Islamists and others in the anti-normalization crowd, and which was perhaps stoked by Hachkar’s rather manifest philo-semitism. Jamal Bahmad, who teaches at Mohammed V University in Rabat, has an informative post on this from February 2013 in Africultures, “Tinghir-Jerusalem-Tangier: The Jew, the imam and the camera in Morocco.” But that’s all in the past, so says Hachkar—who now lives in Morocco—in an interview last week in the Moroccan Le 360 website, with the film and its message of fraternity no longer arousing controversy. C’est bien.

Read Full Post »

He was buried today, the funeral being a private family affair as he wished (though it would have happened that way in any case given the confinement and pandemic rules). His death late Wednesday evening has naturally been the nº 1 story here the past two days, with the usual retrospectives on TV and dossiers in the press. He was a consequential president of the republic—as all French presidents of the Fifth Republic have been (with some maybe a little less so)—having come to power at the precise end of the trente glorieuses—the “thirty glorious years” (actually more like twenty-five) of postwar economic expansion—and the beginning of the seemingly endless era of slow economic growth and high unemployment, though this was not apparent when he was elected in May 1974, at age 48, following the short campaign after Georges Pompidou’s death—narrowly defeating François Mitterrand, no doubt thanks to his zinger in the first-ever French presidential debate (voilà the whole thing here).

One of the leitmotifs of pundits and the press for Giscard’s presidency is “modern”: he was a président moderne, or at least billed himself as such. And he did indeed set about to modernize France—hitting the ground running—in the early years of his septennat, instituting economic (read: neoliberal) reforms, which the left (then strong) naturally opposed, and societal ones, which the left could only support. The latter are well-known and enumerated like a laundry list: lowering the voting age to 18, legalizing abortion (in the face of the hostility of much of his political camp), no-fault divorce, full reimbursement of oral contraception by the Sécu—though one Giscard-inspired reform has been overlooked in the retrospectives: ending the censorship of films X; so when I came to Paris in 1975, ‘Gorge profonde‘ was playing at the otherwise mainstream theater (Gaumont Alésia) in my quartier. And then there were important political reforms (which, again, the left could hardly oppose): empowering a quorum of parliamentary deputies or senators to refer cases to the Constitutional Council, proposing the direct election of the mayor of Paris (for the first time since 1793; enabling Giscard’s by then enemy, Jacques Chirac, to gain a formidable power base), equally proposing direct election by universal suffrage to the European parliament in Strasbourg (realized in 1979), loosening (though not ending) state control over the broadcast media. To these may be added the creation of the collège unique (a single middle school for all 6th to 9th graders), which considerably democratized access to high schools tracking to higher education.

In the cultural realm, Giscard saved the Gare d’Orsay from being razed, wishing it to be transformed into a museum. For this, it is presently being speculated that the Musée d’Orsay may be renamed after him.

Giscard’s “modern” image didn’t last, with his arrogance, haughtiness, and royalist impulses getting the better of his attempts to connect with regular people (on this score, he couldn’t compete with Chirac), which, along with economic austerity (“rigueur” it was called) at a time of stagflation, made him unpopular in the latter years of the septennat. He was still sure that he would defeat François Mitterrand again in their 1981 rematch, though, and with elite opinion thinking likewise. E.g. the NYT’s Paris-based foreign affairs columnist, Flora Lewis, predicted a Giscard victory prior to the 2nd round, because, as everyone knew, “the Frenchman’s heart is on the left but his pocketbook is on the right, and when in the voting booth, he votes his pocketbook” (the election outcome happily buried that cliché forever). But if Giscard “won” the 1974 debate with Mitterrand, the latter clearly did the one in 1981, and getting in his own zinger while he was at it, though would have likely won anyway, as the score was not close. Giscard’s eight-minute farewell address to the French people—made while still in a state of shock—is probably his most famous (go here and, if impatient, skip to 7:30; I used to reenact the end in front of my American students, which was fun).

My own observations of Giscard are mainly from the years after his presidency—when I started to live here permanently—as he remained a high-profile political personality into the ’00s. I generally disliked him, for some of his positions (on which more below) and his persona, though readily acknowledged his brilliance. When he published a front-page tribune in Le Monde, I read it without fail. His style and the methodical manner in which he constructed his arguments were simply very impressive—though we would hardly expect less of one who graduated at the top of his class at both the École Polytechnique and ENA. I saw him speak twice, the first time in April 2005 before a packed amphitheater at the École Militaire (which seats some 600), six weeks before the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which was the subject of his talk. He was simply excellent, rien à dire. And since he was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, he concluded with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, prefacing it by telling the audience that since they were all perfect Anglophones he was going to give the quote in English, with no translation. Only in France could a politician get away with something like that. Imagine the reaction on Fox News et al if Barack Obama, even out of office, were to conclude a speech with a quote by Montesquieu or Rousseau and in the original French (not that he speaks French or any other foreign language).

There was a report on the TV news a decade or so ago of Giscard in China with a delegation of some sort, showing him give a speech in what looked to be fluent Chinese. Now that was impressive.

The second time I saw him speak was in late 2011 at the Institut Catholique de Paris, one of the establishments of higher education at which I teach, where he gave a talk on the crisis in Europe. A smaller auditorium and no quotes  in foreign languages. I regretted that he didn’t speak longer.

In my book, Giscard, in his post-presidential years, had one big strike against him and one big one for. The strike against was his discourse on immigration, crystalized in his September 1991 tribune in Figaro-Magazine, in which he referred to immigration (read: from the African continent) as an “invasion” and called for an end to jus soli in French nationality law. Giscard’s discourse shocked a lot of people, including in his own political family in Europe, as it was one normally associated with the far right (in France at least). Giscard was a moderate conservative—an ‘Orléanist’ in René Remond’s typology of the French right; in the USA he would have been an Eisenhower-Nixon Republican—but his rhetoric pointed to a more conservative side. In this respect, it may be noted that while jeunes giscardiens of the 1970s ended up moderately conservative (Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Dominique Bussereau) or centrist (Marielle de Sarnez), the older members of VGE’s political inner circle were well to the right, e.g. Michel Poniatowski, who appeared publicly with the radioactive pariah Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1990s. And à propos, VGE himself had cordial relations with Le Pen, the two men being elected to the National Assembly in 1958 with the very conservative CNIP, in whose parliamentary group they sat together for four years. And while Giscard supported De Gaulle on Algerian independence, his entourage was replete with nostalgics for Algérie française. As for the party he formed in 1962, the Républicains Indépendants, it and its successors covered the spectrum from moderate to very conservative. Pas ma tasse de thé.

The strike in Giscard’s favor was the central role he played in the construction of Europe, from his presidency of the French Republic—during which he forged a close relationship with West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt (whom I have an R.I.P. post on)—to his presidency of the Convention on the Future of the European Union, which met in Brussels from February 2002 to July 2003 and produced the European Constitutional Treaty mentioned above. Giscard’s appointment to preside the European Convention—essentially imposed by President Chirac and PM Lionel Jospin, who both, for their own reasons, wanted to get VGE out of Paris—was ridiculed by other Europeans (particularly the Brits), who saw the French ex-president as a has-been over-the-hill dinosaur from another era, but he turned out to be the right person for the job. The European Convention was a model of democracy and transparency, VGE’s leadership was dynamic, and the treaty was a good one, and it was a damned shame that it was rejected by the French electorate in the referendum that Chirac stupidly organized (as he was under no obligation to do so). I’ve already written about the ECT and May 2005 referendum here so won’t go over it again, except to assert that the nefarious culprit in the ECT’s unfortunate demise was the French radical and extreme left (toward whom I developed a special loathing during this episode). The ECT’s demise also confirmed that referendums are almost always a bad idea (I’ll grant Switzerland as an exception), as most people have no idea what the hell they’re voting on (there, I said it!). If referendums must be held, they should never offer the voters a simple one-word binary choice (yes/no, remain/leave). Make the question complex.

John Lichfield has a good piece in Politico.eu comparing Emmanuel Macron to VGE and on what the former can learn from the experience of the latter. The two men have much in common, as more than one has observed: from well-to-do families (in VGE’s case, very well-to-do), brilliant parcours scolaire, grandes écoles (ENA, of course) and graduating in la botte, brilliant early career in the grands corps de l’État (Inspection Générale des Finances for both), intellectually brilliant and imbued with high culture, strong supporters of Europe, elected to the Élysée at a young age and with a modernizer schtick that ended up not wearing well, insufferably arrogant and full of themselves…

There are naturally a few differences: VGE was a first-tier politician and with a long record (as Minister of Finance) when he acceded to the presidency, whereas Macron was unknown to the public three years before his election and had never run for public office. VGE had a political party in 1974 and sponsored the creation of a larger structure while he was president—the UDF: a confederation of five distinct centrist and conservative formations—to serve as his power base and a counterweight on the right to Chirac’s neo-Gaullists, and which outlasted his 1981 defeat, whereas Macron’s République en Marche is an empty shell that will most certainly vanish if Macron is defeated in 2022. Like VGE, Macron is expecting/hoping for a rematch with his 2nd round opponent in the previous election, albeit with a different outcome. If it comes to that—which will be really terrible for the political health of France—we can only hope that Macron—however one feels about him—will not suffer VGE’s fate in 1981. Otherwise, le déluge.

Art Goldhammer posted an à chaud remembrance of VGE at Tocqueville 21 and Jim Hoagland, who was based in Paris during VGE’s presidency (and interviewed him more than once), has an obituary in The Washington Post.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: