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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below] [8th update below] [9th update below] [10th update below]

How nice to feel good about a British election result. The last two were, needless to say, complete disasters, ça va de soi. I didn’t follow this one too closely until the final week of the campaign, as it seemed clear that Theresa May and the Tories were headed toward a landslide victory. And then there was the opposition. I have not been a fan of Jeremy Corbyn, to put it mildly, mainly for his foreign policy (notably on the Middle East and NATO), ambiguity on Brexit during the referendum campaign, support for activating Article 50, and his general 1970s gauchisme d’une autre époque. He’s much more Jean-Luc Mélenchon than Bernie Sanders. As for his economic policies, though, while some of the proposals may not be realistic, I have not, on the whole, had a problem with the overall thrust—and the Labour Party’s manifesto, reflecting the attitude of the majority of Labour MPs, was far closer to the center than Corbyn’s own views. As for the Liberal Democrats, they were pretty much out of the picture since the 2015 collapse and with party leader Tim Farron an evangelical Christian flake, or so a Lib Dem member friend informed me recently.

So had I been a Brit, I wouldn’t have had anyone to vote for. Until the past week, that is. When Roger Cohen, of all people, makes “[the] case for Jeremy Corbyn,” I read with interest and ponder the argument. And then there was something I read today, about the three big issues that motivated the droves of younger voters who went to the polls to cast their ballots for Labour: the freedom to live and work in Europe, an end to austerity, and much lower tuition fees (now £9000 a year at most universities and slated to rise further under the Tories). I entirely sympathize. And as May and the Tories so richly deserved to be punished and repudiated—for Brexit, austerity, and quite simply everything—I would have, had I been a Brit, finally set aside my distaste of Corbyn and voted Labour.

Emile Chabal, Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh, expressed the following thoughts, which I like, on Facebook today

1) Goodness, isn’t democratic politics fun?

2) I was pleasantly wrong about England, especially. Young people carried the Labour Party much further than I thought they could. And those elderly provincials were much less emphatic about Theresa than anyone expected (Canterbury! Warwick and Leamington! Peterborough!)

3) Oh my god, what an own goal for the Maybot! Egg. On. Your. Face.

4) Let’s not get carried away: this was a huge Labour success, but Labour did not win. Big question now is whether Labour can go further than this under current leadership. There are question marks about this, although not nearly as many as there were yesterday. Still, Labour’s gains prove that a positive manifesto can really gain traction.

5) Scotland was doing its own thing – it’s increasingly in a political universe of its own.

6) Whatever else this election shows, it does not say much about Brexit: neither major party made Brexit a priority and neither put forward credible negotiating strategies or plans. If I were a Labour strategist, I’d actually be quite pleased that a weakened Theresa May will have to go into the fire and suffer the consequences. Labour can simply point fingers and laugh, without having to take responsibility.

7) We ignore Northern Ireland at our peril. That applies to the odious DUP’s involvement in the impending government and Brexit.

8) Good riddance UKIP. You never mattered, you certainly don’t now.

9) Another election is very likely. And it will almost certainly return *another* surprise.

Writer-journalist James Meek had this comment on the LRB blog

Corbyn’s extraordinary achievement on 8 June is a joy to savour for many reasons: Britain turns out to be a braver, more tolerant and more hopeful place than it seemed a few days ago; the malign power of the right-wing tabloids is weaker than it seemed; austerity is over and grammar schools are off the agenda.

Corbyn’s achievement was indeed extraordinary, as Labour’s popular vote percentage (40.1) was its third highest since 1970—and the increase in its vote from that of the previous election was the sharpest since 1945. No one foresaw that. But then, the Conservative Party’s 42.3% of the vote was its best since 1983. And the Tories will continue to govern, and with the support of the très droitier DUP—founded by Ian Paisley—which bears a distinct resemblance to the Republican Party across the pond. Donc rien n’est joué.

The bottom line is, of  course, Brexit—an issue that was, incredibly enough, absent from the election campaign (as was the case in 2015). I care about the NHS, university tuition, and all, but, as a non-Brit, Brexit overrides everything. I have been asserting since the referendum that Brexit will ultimately not happen: a “hard” Brexit being so utterly inimical to the interests of the UK, with so much to lose and such enormous consequences; and a “soft” Brexit (e.g. Norwegian model) making no sense, as the UK, in exchange for remaining in the single market, will necessarily have to accept free movement of EU citizens and rulings of the European Court of Justice, in which case it had might as well remain in the EU. Brexit is quite simply crazy, which will become crystal clear to both government and public opinion as the 2019 date butoir approaches, and with a way being found, namely by holding a second referendum, to stop the damn process and rescind Article 50. That’s my intimate conviction in any case. On the matter, John Springford and Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform—the top think tank on EU matters—have an analysis on “what does the election result mean for Brexit?”

À propos, in case one missed it, see Simon Tilford’s NYT op-ed of May 29th on “why Brexit will make Britain’s mediocre economy worse.”

C’est tout pour le moment.

UPDATE: Journalist-author Rachel Shabi has a nice op-ed in the NYT on “how Jeremy Corbyn proved the haters wrong.” One little quibble, though. She mentions Corbyn’s accepting the “democratic referendum decision.” There is, in fact, nothing particularly democratic about the instrument of the referendum, and certainly not the one on Brexit, which was not binding and should have never been organized in the first place. The politically courageous thing for Corbyn to have done would have been to ignore the referendum outcome and refused to vote for Article 50 in the parliament.

On the instrument of the referendum, Mai’a K. Davis Cros, who teaches political science at Northeastern University, has an excellent op-ed in The Washington Post, “Don’t be fooled by the U.K. election: There’s nothing democratic about Brexit.”

2nd UPDATE: The Scottish Tories, who won 12 seats from the SNP, plan to break away from the Conservative Party and form their own organization. As the Scots are hostile to a hard Brexit, this will render the latter all the more improbable. Très bien.

3rd UPDATE: Yascha Mounk, writing in his column in Slate, is not optimistic that Jeremy Corbyn will stop a Brexit disaster.

4th UPDATE: George Walden—a former Tory politician and minister (and diplomat and journalist)—has a slash-and-burn broadside in The American Interest, “Mayday in the UK: Yesterday’s election results show that the UK’s political culture is every bit as debased as America’s,” in which he spares Theresa May and her party, plus Jeremy Corbyn, no quarter.

5th UPDATE: Writer-columnist Fintan O’Toole has an excellent commentary on the NYR Daily, “Britain: The end of a fantasy.” The fantasy, of course, is a Brexit in which the UK can, as the clown Boris Johnson famously put it, have its cake and eat it.

6th UPDATE: The Sunday Express reports that the DUP is committed to the principle of free movement of peoples within Europe. So much for a hard Brexit—or a Brexit at all.

7th UPDATE: Peter Mandler, who teaches British history at the University of Cambridge, explains in Dissent “why the Labour Party is not in such a mess after all.”

8th UPDATE: Judy Dempsey, who is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe. has a post on the Carnegie Europe website on “France’s rise and Britain’s demise.”

9th UPDATE: Simon Wren-Lewis, who teaches economic policy at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, has a worthwhile post-election post, on the Mainly Macro blog, on “Labour and its left.”

10th UPDATE: Journalist and entrepreneur Hugo Dixon has a post-election comment on his anti-Brexit website, InFacts, “All to fight for on Brexit – including changing our mind.”

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Jihadi terrorism, that is. The news was dominated this past week by the terrorist attack in Manchester. There is not a sentiment I can express about it that hasn’t been by everyone else. Targeting youngsters for death and maiming, and at a festive event no less: ça dépasse l’entendement. One has no words. Je ne sais pas qu’est-ce qu’on peut dire de plus.

I did not scour the internet for articles to read on the atrocity, though stumbled across a few, such as this one from The Independent, “Salman Abedi: How Manchester attacker turned from cannabis-smoking dropout to Isis suicide bomber;” Emily Crockett’s comment in Rolling Stone, “Why Manchester bomber targeted girls: As is so often the case, misogyny was woven into this act of violence;” and the report in The Telegraph that the security services ignored reports from Muslims in Salman Abedi’s neighborhood about his erratic, worrisome behavior. And this editorial in The New York Times: “When terrorists target children.”

Some ten days ago I took a group of a dozen journalists from Denmark, who work the immigration/Islamic radicalism/terrorism beat in their country, on a walking tour of “immigration and the changing face of Paris,” which I periodically lead for the Paris office of Context Travel. The leader of the group was a sharp Copenhagen journalist named Jakob Sheikh (he’s Danish-Pakistani), who has reported extensively on the radicalization of young Muslims in Denmark. Two articles of his have been translated into English, which are particularly pertinent at the present moment, “My childhood friend, the ISIS jihadist,” in Mashable (October 15, 2014), and “Meeting the foreign fighters: how does Islamic State recruit thousands of Westerners?,” in the New Statesman (December 1, 2015).

My mother emailed me the other day, asking, in the context of the Manchester atrocity, if I had done a blog post on Udayan Prasad’s 1997 film My Son the Fanatic, the screenplay of which was written by Hanif Kureishi (and inspired by his 1994 short story in The New Yorker of the same title). I have not, in fact, had a post on the film, as it’s been over ten years since I last saw it. The one thing I’ll say about it here—in addition to it being first-rate and with a great performance by lead actor Om Puri—is that it remains, twenty years after its release, one of the best cinematic treatments one will find of the religious radicalization of the youthful offspring of immigrant families from Muslim countries—here, Pakistanis in the British Midlands—and of the perplexity, indeed despair, this provokes in their parents, who seek nothing more than to work, better their families’ lives, and integrate into the receiving society. But their children feel no such need to “integrate”—whatever integration for them is supposed to entail (those who yammer on about this never say)—or to keep their heads low and not make waves, because they were born into that society and are of it. Anyone interested in the subject should see the film (which is available on Netflix). The late, great Roger Ebert’s review of it is here and the trailer is here. See also Hanif Kureishi’s piece in The Spectator last December 10th, “‘My son the fanatic’ revisited: Can one generation’s mistake be corrected by the next?”

À propos, jihadi terrorism has been the subject of some six French films—feature-length, that have opened theatrically or were initially slated to—over the past couple of years, all which I have seen. If there’s a pic on the topic, I’ll see it, no matter how mixed or negative the reviews. And the reviews are often this, as of the six or so films in question, only one gets the thumbs up from me—more or less—and may be recommended—more or less—which is Le Ciel attendra (English title: Heaven Will Wait), by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar (who also directed the 2015 Les Héritiers). Moreover, it is the only one of the six or so that found an audience (330K tix sold, which isn’t too bad for a film of this genre).

The story is of two typically French middle-class teenage girls, Sonia (Noémie Merlant, nominated for the ‘most promising actress’ César for her performance) and Mélanie (Naomi Amarger, who lives in Créteil in the film, près de chez moi), with stable, loving families (Sonia’s father is Algerian but totally laïque) and who are doing well at school, but have become self-radicalized, via the internet, into Islamic State-style jihadi Islam. The film depicts their solitary descente aux enfers into Islamic extremism, the desperation of their parents (Sandrine Bonnaire plays the mother of Sonia) when they realize what is happening, and then the efforts to deradicalize them in therapy sessions led by the anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who plays herself.

Bouzar has had a high-profile in France over the past decade, for her work on Islam and France—she publishes a book a year—and the tidy subventions she has received from the state for her association—the Centre de Prévention contre les Dérives Sectaires liées à l’Islam—and proactive work on deradicalizing French adolescents who have returned from Syria, been caught trying to get there, or contemplated doing so. For the anecdote, I saw Bouzar speak to a packed auditorium at the École Militaire, which seats 700, in January 2015 and which was streamed live to audiences throughout the world, but with her face blurred on the screen for security reasons (as if it was not already well-known to those who would want to know it). She was quite the star.

As for Bouzar’s arguments on self-radicalization and how to counter it—which I won’t try to summarize here—I found them interesting enough, though she has been severely criticized by academics and others who work in her domain, for, entres autres, her exclusive focus on juridical minors (those under age 18), emphasis on converts to jihadi Islam (including heretofore non-practicing Muslims), and of Facebook and other social media as a vector of radicalization. Bouzar and her work are controversial among practitioners and specialists, who consider her analysis of the wellsprings of jihadi radicalization to be problematic (there is also a personal side, as all of Bouzar’s university degrees were obtained after age 35, so she is not considered by some to be a bona fide member of the academic club, even though Olivier Roy was her doctoral thesis supervisor).

Back to Mention-Schaar’s film, French reviews were good (Paris press) to very good (Allociné spectateurs), though Hollywood critics who saw it at the Locarno film festival—here, here, and here—found it unsubtle, overly didactic, and with unconvincing performances. I won’t quibble with the stateside critics, though their objections didn’t bother me as much. One didactic point in the pic’s favor is that it depicted the reality of jihadi self-radicalization in this web 2.0 era by teenagers who have never set foot in a mosque or had actual face-to-face contact with real live salafis. Trailer is here.

As for the other films:

Made in France, by Nicolas Boukhrief: This was scheduled to open in theaters throughout France on November 18, 2015, and with big eye-catching posters (below) in the metro stations and elsewhere in public in the weeks prior. But then there was the terrorist atrocity of November 13th. Bad timing for the pic, the release of which was naturally postponed to a later date, and with the distributor finally announcing that it would go straight to VOD in January ’16 and not open theatrically at all. So one had to see it chez soi, on the small screen. That’s okay. It’s a by-the-numbers thriller, about a Franco-Algerian journalist named Sam (Malik Zidi) who infiltrates a jihadi cell in the Paris area (an alternative English title of the film is ‘Inside the Cell’) to land the big scoop. But then he gets caught in the engrenage—from which he cannot extricate himself—with the fanaticized cell leader Hassan (Dimitri Storoge), who is determined to commit a terrorist atrocity (spoiler alert: nothing happens), and flanked by the other cell members, all stock characters: Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed), the not-too-bright Maghrebi thug; Sidi (Ahmed Drame), the black, who’s not a bad guy deep down; and Christophe (François Civil), the Français de souche convert who’s settling personal scores. A genre film from A to Z. While entertaining, it’s not on the same pedagogical or sociological level—if one is looking for that—as Philippe Faucon’s 2012 La Désintégration. And the depiction of the cell—comprised of men who have not personally known one another for long—is of a bygone era. Jihadi terrorist cells in Europe nowadays are invariably composed of blood relatives. Hollywood press reviews—here and here—are more positive than for ‘Heaven Will Wait’. Trailer is here and interview with the director in The Guardian is here.

Les Cowboys, by Thomas Bidegain: This one, which opened two weeks after the November 13th atrocity, is less about terrorism than the sudden indoctrination of one’s child into a cult—here, salafi Islam, presumably terrorist-inclined—though which is not actually seen. It’s an odd film and from the opening scene, of a Western-style rodeo and hootenanny, with everyone dressed up like cowboys and cowgirls, contra dancing to country music, eating barbecue and burgers et le total, except that they’re all French people in the Bas-Bugey and in precisely 1994, when the story begins. Alain (François Damiens), Stetson on his head, is dancing with his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, who then vanishes from sight. Alain and his wife, Nicole (Agathe Dronne), find a letter she has written them, saying that she has moved on to another life and bids them adieu. As they quickly learn, she has absconded with her petit ami, named Ahmed, who had become a salafi. She could be in Algeria—then in throes of the Islamist insurgency, though Ahmed’s Algerian immigrant parents, whom Alain knows, have no idea—the Middle East, Afghanistan, or anywhere. So Alain sets out on the obsessive quest to find his daughter, which takes him to Yemen, Pakistan—where he is helped by an American CIA type (played by John C. Reilly)—and other points on the globe, and that spans 17 years, though with him being killed in an automobile accident along the way, and with the search continued by his son (and Kelly’s younger brother), Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), who finally, maybe locates his sister in 2011.

Reviews of the film were good, including in the US, and with Damiens and director Bidegain receiving César nominations. It certainly held my attention, though I had mixed feelings about it. One understood Alain’s desperation as a father but his persona irritated me throughout, with his incessant blowing his stack and flying off the handle. And the ending left me unsatisfied. Bidegain was, as every review took care to mention, inspired by John Ford’s 1956 Western ‘The Searchers’, with Damiens obviously the John Wayne character and modern-day Muslims the savage Comanches. Having never seen ‘The Searchers’, I got it on Netflix in the US after seeing ‘Les Cowboys’. I was fully aware that Ford’s classic is considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest Westerns ever made—that, e.g., Martin Scorsese considers it one of the greatest films ever, period—but, personally speaking, thought it was crappy 1950s dreck, with wooden acting, a stupid story, and racist in the way it portrayed American Indians. And my mother, who has highbrow film tastes and knows well American cinema of the ’50s—when she was a young adult—entirely agreed with me. And no patient explanation of the film’s qualities will change our minds. Voilà. ‘Les Cowboys’, despite its flaws, is better. Trailer is here.

Taj Mahal, by Nicolas Saada. This one opened three weeks after the November 13th terrorist attacks. It reenacts the November 2008 terrorist operation in Bombay by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba—that lasted three days and killed 164 people—entirely from the perspective of an 18-year-old Franco-British girl named Louise (Stacy Martin, the protag in “Volume 1” of Lars von Trier’s preposterous 2014 ‘Nymphomaniac’), who found herself trapped during the attack in a suite at the Taj Mahal hotel, where she was staying with her parents. One hardly sees the terrorists as they maraud through the luxury hotel on their murderous campaign, the idea presumably being that one is supposed to feel the terror of a potential victim as she hides in the suite, keeping in touch with her parents, who are outside, via mobile phone.

I saw the film at an avant-première—on precisely the seventh anniversary of the first day of the attack—with the director and part of the crew present, plus members of the Association Française des Victimes du Terrorisme, who wholeheartedly endorsed the film. The intentions of the director were laudable and the film does have some merit—it was partly shot on location in Bombay—but unfortunately it’s a turkey. If one is expecting a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat thriller, this film is not it. One is struck by the blasé, low-key attitude of the parents (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Gina McKee) as they await the dénouement of the terror attack, and with their daughter at imminent risk of violent death. If it were me and my wife, we would, at minimum, be panic-stricken, if not downright hysterical. The general sentiment of Hollywood press critics is that the film was “inert” and low energy (here, here, here, and here). French reviews were more respectful—possibly because director Saada was a longtime critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, so a member of the club—though Allociné spectateurs were not so indulgent. The pic, needless to say, was a total box office failure. French audiences simply didn’t want to see such a film less than a month after November 13th. Trailer is here.

Salafistes, by François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem. This is a  71-minute documentary that opened in late January 2016 and to controversy, as the ministry of interior sought to prevent its release—arguing that it constituted an “apology for terrorism” (a criminal offense in France)—and with the ministry of culture then trying to forbid it for persons aged 18 and under (which, in France, is exceedingly rare). The film, which finally opened in two theaters in Paris, consists of actual footage, by Mauritanian co-director Ould Salem, of Timbuktu under the rule of AQIM; interviews with radical salafi theologians in Mali, Mauritania, and Tunisia; and then raw footage of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq carrying out horrendous acts, one of the more shocking being IS fanatics in their pick-ups racing down a desert highway in Iraq, machine-gunning every car they pass, just for the hell of it. In your face. My attitude during the film was who needs this? I am sufficiently well-informed on the subject, the film wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, and watching psychotic people commit acts of gratuitous sadism and mayhem—not to mention salafi theologians (or “theologians”) blather about their crackpot Weltanschauung—is just not something I enjoy doing. But various persons thought the film worthwhile, e.g. former Le Monde editor-in-chief, Natalie Nougayrède, who wrote in The Guardian that “Salafistes is gruelling viewing – but it can help us understand terror.” And Claude Lanzmann, writing in Le Monde, called the documentary a “véritable chef d’œuvre…d’une grande beauté formelle, rapide, efficace, très intelligent,” and slammed the government for trying to block or restrict its release. And The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer also recommended it. Voilà, comme vous voulez. Trailer is here.

Voyage sans retour, by François Gérard. No one saw this film, or practically. It was slated for release in September 2013 but, in the month prior, was subjected to a campaign of denigration on social media, accusing it of being “Islamophobic,” with a lawsuit filed against it by a dodgy (subsequently disbarred) lawyer and actor Samy Naceri, who had a secondary role in the pic, entering into a conflict with the director and also trying to thwart its release. Director Gérard—who is ethnically Algerian (malgré his name)—denied that his film was in any way Islamophobic but the damage was done. It opened in only a couple of independent salles in the Paris area and was gone within two weeks. Vanished into the ether. I saw it via the internet a couple of years later (and needed help from a movie streaming-savvy colleague in finding the pic). In a nutshell, it’s about a Toulousian voyou named Kad (played by Gérard), who runs afoul of a gang of dealers, is obliged to hightail it out of France to England, where he is dragooned into an international terrorist organization, ends up in India and then Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he undergoes terrorist training, and with the idea that he will return to France to commit attentats. But then in Bombay, he runs into a former teacher of his, Nadine (Marie Vincent), who happens to be living there, the two develop sentiments for one another, and with her convincing him of the error of his ways. But he is not out of the woods yet.

The film was said to be loosely inspired by the story of Khaled Kelkal, though I didn’t perceive this at all. The review in Le Monde (one of the few) maintained that while “[f]ragile certes, imparfait assurément, Voyage sans retour est un document choc sur le recrutement des djihadistes dans les banlieues françaises, ce qui le pare d’une dimension testimoniale et pédagogique estimable.” This is too nice. All in all, it is not a good film. The sequence in south Asia is not credible—and particularly the relationship with the former teacher—the acting is mediocre, and one doesn’t give the film a moment’s thought after it’s over. If one wants to see the trailer, voilà. If one wants to actually see the film, good luck.

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Democracy: the movie

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, a.k.a. the Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community, which was the precursor to the Treaty of Maastricht, a.k.a. the Treaty on European Union, signed thirty-five years later. It is no exaggeration to say that the Treaty of Rome was an event of world-historical importance; one of the most momentous of the past seventy years. To mark the occasion, I want to strongly, enthusiastically recommend a terrific 1½ hour German documentary, Democracy, that I saw for the first time last October at the Festival du Cinéma Allemand in Paris, and with director David Bernet present (the film’s title in German carries the subtitle “Im Rausch der Daten”: inside the noise of data). The subject is the legislative process within the institutions of the European Union—and the European Parliament in particular—over the General Data Protection Regulation, a process that began in 2012 and lasted three years. ‘Democracy’ is, quite simply, the best behind-the-scenes documentary one will see on how the European Union actually works—of how EU legislation is crafted and adopted—and over an issue of great importance to the 500-odd million citizens of the Union’s member states—and who, thanks to the GDPR, will enjoy greater protection in regard to their personal information on the Internet than do Americans or others. Among other things, the documentary will also lay to rest any lingering notions of a “democratic deficit” in the institutions of the European Union (of a deficit greater than that in the institutions of any given member state, in any case). Here’s a synopsis from this website (and where a trailer with English subtitles may be seen)

Few things are more unwieldy and lacking in transparency than European politics. Who’s really running the show in Brussels? What’s the true role of the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers? And how do the new laws and regulations that apply to all 28 member states get made? For two years, Democracy followed several key figures behind the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, a controversial issue among European policymakers. The film starts in 2014 with the European Parliament approving the new regulation, and then leaps two years back to the start of the negotiations. Rapporteur Jan Philipp Albrecht is the German Green Party [member of the European Parliament] tasked with steering and overseeing the entire process. We see him talking with lobbyists and civil rights activists, joining fringe gatherings and debates, participating in think tanks, talking with colleagues in the corridors of power, and reporting to EU Commissioner Viviane Reding [who held the Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship file]. Often patient but sometimes visibly frustrated, he counters opponents’ arguments about a new regulation that met particularly intense resistance from big businesses working with large amounts of personal data.

The documentary has protagonists and heroes, notably Jan Philipp Albrecht and the Luxembourgeoise Viviane Reding mentioned above, but also, among others, the citizens’ lobbyists Paolo Balboni of the European Privacy Association and Katarzyna Szymielewicz of the Warsaw-based Panoptykon Foundation. And, indirectly, Edward Snowden, who naturally makes an appearance. The stakes in the legislation were huge for big data-mining corporate interests—Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon et al—but the only lobbyist interviewed on that side was from the Cary, North Carolina-based IT company SAS; I initially thought this was a shortcoming of the documentary, but, as one learns, the big data operators (Google et al), though omnipresent throughout, declined to be interviewed by director Bernet.

After seeing the film last October, I declared to all and sundry that every citizen of an EU member state should be obliged to see it—so as to see how the EU actually works—and that the film should also be screened in university courses on contemporary Europe. When I asked Bernet how one could obtain the DVD (and with English and French subtitles), he said to look on Amazon.de, so I had a copy ordered for a course I teach on European politics to American undergraduates on a semester abroad. As it happens, we watched it in class last week, with the students finding it most interesting—and one saying that she wanted to see it again—and a good discussion ensuing. The pedagogical value of the film was confirmed.

University of Cambridge technology law and policy specialist Julia Powles had a review essay on the film in The Guardian, “Democracy: the film that gets behind the scenes of the European privacy debate,” on its debut in Germany in November 2015. The lede: “As nationalism sweeps Europe, a subtle cinematic triumph about an unlikely subject animates the hopes of transnational democracy.”

Also see the review from June 2016 in ZDNet, by journalist Wendy M. Grossman, who specializes in IT and privacy issues, in which she writes that

Democracy is almost as extraordinary an achievement as the passage of the GDPR: Bernet manages to make data protection law and legislative compromise engrossing. Who knew that was even possible?

Film critic Jordan Mintzer has a review in The Hollywood Reporter, which begins

Watching a government at work can be akin to watching flies fornicate, so director David Bernet deserves credit for making the most out of a particularly tedious bureaucratic nightmare in Democracy, a rare and insightful glimpse into the inner workings of the European Parliament…

Two thoughts. First, Democracy is an excellent antidote to the half-baked, ill-informed Euroscepticism that presently pervades public opinion in the EU’s member states. Second, it makes Brexit that much more incomprehensible. Honestly, why would the Brits want to be left out of the legislative process one sees in the film, which will necessarily affect them whether they remain in the EU or leave? It makes no sense.

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elena-ferrante-neapolitan-novels

Everyone has been talking about the apparent revelation of her veritable identity, published simultaneously, as one knows, in five different countries (in the US, in the NY Review of Books; in France, in Mediapart). Ça défraye la chronique. As for the reaction to the revelation, it’s been heavily negative, as reported in the press and that I have also noted on social media (though some argue that the revelation was both inevitable and not a bad thing). Now when I say “everyone” knows about this, it’s because everyone—i.e. everyone in my socio-educational stratum—has either read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, is presently doing so, or intends to. And, BTW, this includes Hillary Clinton, who recently revealed that she loves reading Ferrante and finds the Neapolitan novels “hypnotic” (kind of like Barack Obama telling a journalist during the 2008 campaign that his favorite TV series was ‘The Wire’: a reminder to part of his base that “I’m one of you; I share your highbrow cultural tastes”).

If, by chance, one does not yet know about the Neapolitan novels—which is actually a single novel in four parts—go here. I recently finished the second one, so still have two to go (the third, so I have been told by several friends, is the chef d’œuvre of the four). I am not a big literature person, as those who know me know, but love reading Ferrante—as do 98.5% of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who have read her. The last series of novels I so enjoyed was David Lodge’s campus trilogy, and that was some time ago. My Brilliant Friend is a page turner from page 1, so one gets into it right away (and my wife, who is a literature person, wholly agrees; she just started the first one en français and is already half way through; and the French translation is excellent, so she says, as I find the English). It is not only a vividly recounted story of the relationship between two women, from childhood onward, and with all the supporting characters, but also brilliantly depicts a society and culture at a particular moment in history, here—through the first two books—the (southern) Italian working class in the 1950s and ’60s. As social science, I find it fascinating. And it’s all very Italian, like so many epic Italian films—if I were to draw up a list, it would go into the double digits—that follow a person or group of friends over a lifetime, or a family over generations, and with repères of modern Italian history. It’s an Italian genre.

So if one has not yet read Ferrante, take this as a recommendation to do so.

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

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

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

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

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

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

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

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

M. Quatremer writes: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us continue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rappelons le scandale du Nipplegate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

l’espace public est étroitement réglementé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The editorial continues:

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elie Wiesel, R.I.P.

Elie Wiesel at Yad Vashem, 18 December 1986 (photo: AFP/Archives/Sven Nackstrand)

Elie Wiesel at Yad Vashem, 18 December 1986 (photo: AFP/Archives/Sven Nackstrand)

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I have nothing in particular to say about him that isn’t being said by everyone else. One salutes him as a witness to the Holocaust and for the role he played in instilling the memory of this—of the greatest crime in the history of the modern world—in the collective consciousness (in Europe and North America at least). As it happens, I am presently teaching a section on the Second World War in France—in which I naturally cover the Holocaust and history of antisemitism—in a course for American undergraduates on a summer program in Paris. The day before yesterday we went to the Père Lachaise cemetery, mainly to see the steles and memorials to the wartime deportees and other victims of Nazi barbarism. We lingered for a minute at the stele to the memory of those who perished at the Auschwitz III-Monowitz Buna slave labor camp, where Elie Wiesel was deported to at age 15, before the transfer to Buchenwald in the final months of the war.

Wiesel was not without blemishes, taking regrettable positions on a number of issues, e.g. supporting the Iraq war, uncritically apologizing for Israel. As Peter Beinart, entre autres, has covered that well, I won’t. The obituary in The Forward by Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, “Elie Wiesel, the moral force who made sure we will never forget evil of Holocaust,” is worth reading. Note, in particular, Berenbaum’s discussion of Wiesel’s Francophilia

Offered French citizenship upon his arrival [in France in 1945], Wiesel did not understand the question and consequently refused the invitation. His statelessness and the intricacies of traveling without a passport was the reason he stated for becoming an American citizen a decade later. Thus, unlike many survivors who immigrated to the United States, Wiesel regarded France – and not America – as the land in which he rebuilt his life in freedom.

Those who worked with him in France remembered his intense desire to learn French and to absorb French literature and the thrills of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the purveyors of French existentialism. He had a passion for music, and earned his meager living by leading a choir and to his final days he loved to sing. He was determined to master the language. Jack Kolbert wrote that “Wiesel chose to write in French just as a convert chooses a new religion.”

Wiesel wrote: “I owe France my secular education, my language and my career as a writer… It was in France that I found compassion and humanity. It was in France that I found generosity and friendship. It was in France that I discovered the other side, the brighter side of mankind.”

Wiesel was kinder than many French Jews – and even many contemporary Frenchmen and women – who recoil at the French cooperation with the Germans in the deportation of Jewish children and the betrayal of non-citizens and even French Jews.

Like Samuel Beckett, Wiesel chose to write in his adopted language French – neither Yiddish even though Yiddish was his native tongue, nor Hebrew, the sacred tongue in which he pursued his journalistic career. And not even English, the language of the land in which he lived for more the last three score years of his life.

Also see the obituary in The New York Times by Joseph Berger.

UPDATE: I asked Holocaust scholar and friend Marc Masurovsky for his thoughts on Elie Wiesel. His response:

Elie Wiesel? He created a persona and fell into the trap of that persona. I give him tremendous credit for having put into accessible words the trauma that he survived. But I fault him for not having done enough for the cause of restitution. In fact, he never spoke out on behalf of those who sought looted art. If he had, I believe that Holocaust educational institutions would have been placed in an uncomfortable position and would have had to choose whether or not to heed his message. That’s how influential he has been and will continue to be. I do credit him for having dissented with the pre-Holocaust museum board for having presented a more spiritual vision of what a Museum should look like. But then, that’s why we don’t put poets in charge of policy and politics.

Following up

One more point. The US Holocaust Memorial Council almost threw Elie out because he threw his support behind the first iteration of the New York-based Museum for Jewish Heritage, at a time when the USHMM was not even built. Also, he supported a competing design for the museum, proposed by Israeli architects which would have been a superb memorial, devoid of content.

2nd UPDATE: The well-known gauchiste political scientist Corey Robin, playing the empêcheur de tourner en rond, has fired off a dissenting view on Elie Wiesel on his blog.

3rd UPDATE: Another Holocaust scholar friend of mine, who asked not to be named here—as he doesn’t wish to publicly debate the issue—wrote this to me about Elie Wiesel:

I deliberately didn’t post anything on Wiesel, besides the Beinart piece from Haaretz. Weisel was blind to the nature and extent of Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, and what made this so lamentable was the fact that he was the public face of defending human rights and “never again.” The letters to Weisel by Arthur Hertzburg reveal the hypocrisy or lack of moral clarity on Weisel’s part. Regarding Holocaust Studies, among specialists Weisel was regarded as a pop culture bullshit artist, claiming he had read everything there is on the subject, while remaining pretty shallow when he appeared in academic forums. Of course, there was his personal experience on which to draw, but not much more than that (despite a huge expanse of scholarly analysis). On television, he was always predictable with that studied sad, perplexed expression. One of my close friends was on the original Holocaust Museum committee, and almost quit over how much campaigning there had been to get Weisel a Nobel prize, sometimes side tracking the work at hand. During the last Gaza war, I tried to get a few of the younger Holocaust scholars to join me in addressing an open letter to Weisel, very much along the lines that Hertzberg already had laid out. No one dared to do so, though they were embarrassed by Weisel’s silence and deflecting the crucial moral issues regarding how a Jewish state, born of the Holocaust, could act with such indifference to the taking of innocent lives. That said, before the Holocaust had become a major issue and a field of study, Weisel stood almost alone in keeping the subject from passing into oblivion like so much of what had happened to civilians during World War Two. Weisel personified and embodied Jewish suffering in Europe; he was an important symbol. Eventually, in my view, his moment had passed, but he could not accommodate himself to a place outside the limelight. I tended to switch the channel whenever he was on television, rather than endure his repetitions and posturing.

4th UPDATE: Writer, business consultant, and liberal Zionist Bernard Avishai has a remembrance of Elie Wiesel in The New Yorker. Money quote

Remarkably, however, there is not a word in the Times obituary about the occupation of the Palestinian territories. That is not an oversight. To the dismay of Israeli peace activists, and their supporters abroad, who’ve seen Wiesel’s unique international stature grow over two generations—and sought his support—he rarely if ever publicly raised his voice against any Israeli actions: not the bombings of Beirut in 1982; not the subsequent massacre, by Lebanese Phalangists, at Sabra and Shatila, within the perimeter held by the Israeli Army; not the disgraceful behavior of settlers in Hebron; not the encirclement by Israeli ministries of Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood; not the obstacles placed before international efforts to restore potable water and electricity to the residents of Gaza. Many of us who admired him in our youth became increasingly impatient with his inability to see the occupation for what it was. Primo Levi, also a survivor of Auschwitz, condemned Menachem Begin’s war in Lebanon as “success achieved with an unprincipled use of arms.” For Levi, evil was too explicably human to be absolute: “I feel indignant toward those who hastily compare the Israeli generals to Nazi generals, and yet I have to admit that Begin draws such judgments on himself . . . I fear that this undertaking [in Lebanon], with its frightening cost in lives, will inflict on Judaism a degradation difficult to cure . . . I sense in myself, not without surprise, a profound emotional bond to Israel, but not to this Israel.”

5th UPDATE: Riki Lippitz, cantor of the Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange NJ—with whom I was acquainted in high school (I was, and remain, friends with her sister, Lori)—shared her personal memories of Elie Wiesel on WNYC News.

6th UPDATE: Lebanese-American writer and pundit Hussein Ibish—who is presently Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington—writes in Foreign Policy that “Elie Wiesel’s moral imagination never reached Palestine: The great writer’s humanitarianism knew no bounds — except where it met his nationalism.”

See also the op-ed in Haaretz by Simone Zimmerman and Jacob Plitman—both activists in progressive Jewish organizations—”Remembering Elie Wiesel means recognizing Palestinian suffering even if he never could.”

7th UPDATE: Two pieces on Wiesel from past years, which have been making the rounds on social media: Sara Roy, senior research scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, “Response to Elie Wiesel [on his statement on Hamas],” in the gauchiste CounterPunch (September 9, 2014); and Arthur Hertzberg, “An open letter to Elie Wiesel [in regard to his declarations on the Intifada],” in The New York Review of Books (August 18, 1988) (h/t Eric Goldstein).

Père Lachaise cemetery , Paris

Père Lachaise cemetery , Paris

Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris

Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris

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More on the Brexit vote

London, June 24th (Photo: Mary Turner/Getty Images)

London, June 24th (Photo: Mary Turner/Getty Images)

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Continuing from my previous post

I came across just yesterday (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld) a comment by Nick Clegg—ex-Lib Dem leader and ex-Deputy PM—published in iNews on the eve of the referendum, “what you will wake up to if we vote to Leave…” This merits a copy-and-paste in its entirety

Are you still undecided? Are you someone who – pummelled by weeks of claim and counter-claim – has been left exhausted and annoyed? Have you been looking for answers, yet all you’ve encountered are insults and exaggeration?

Maybe you’re so fed up you think to hell with it, let’s throw caution to the wind and vote Brexit. Imagine, however, what happens next. Imagine how you will feel on 24 June?

Having woken on Friday to the news we’re quitting the EU, you will assume that those who persuaded you to take that leap of faith have a plan about what to do next.

So imagine how dismayed you will feel when you discover, instead, that Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson can’t agree among themselves what life outside the EU looks like? They may be united by a ferocious loathing of the EU, but they have no shared plan for the future.

So you will look towards our leaders in Westminster to sort out the mess. Instead, they argue among themselves: the Conservatives descend into a bloody leadership election; Parliament enters years of constitutional gridlock trying to extricate itself from the intricate legal stitching which binds us to the EU and gives us access to world markets.

Then you discover just how unprepared the Government is – that there simply aren’t enough trade negotiators in Whitehall, for instance, with the expertise to renegotiate 50 or so international trade accords.

As politicians bicker, you become increasingly unnerved by what’s happening in the economy, too: overseas investors take fright; money flows out of the country; our credit rating is slashed; the interest on our borrowing goes up; unemployment rises; sterling tanks; prices in the shops go up.

Nicola Sturgeon soon announces that preparations have started for a second independence referendum, claiming it is the only way to keep Scotland in the EU. And this time most commentators think that she will win.

Still, at least they will finally sort out our borders, right? After all, ending mass immigration was the Brexiteers biggest claim of all.

So imagine how you’ll feel when you discover that they don’t have a plan for that either? Some argue for a new land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to stop EU immigrants coming in through the “back door”. Others that a new border would harm the peace in Northern Ireland. The Australian points system which they advocate is no solution either – it has led to immigration levels twice as high as in the UK.

Panic starts to spread among the 1.3 million Brits who live, study and retire elsewhere in the EU. Spanish politicians start to complain about paying for public services used by British pensioners. If we start excluding Spanish doctors and nurses, why should they keep paying for our pensioners?

And then there’s that faintly queasy feeling you get when you see Donald Trump on the TV, visiting the UK on Friday, declaring his joy at the Brexit vote.

Meanwhile Angela Merkel invites President Obama to an emergency summit to discuss the fallout – the UK is, of course, excluded from what soon emerges as the new “special relationship” between the US and Germany.

The Brexiteers say you will “regain control”. But it won’t feel like that. Instead, the economy lurches to recession; there’s upheaval in Westminster; no plan to allay concerns about immigration; another referendum in Scotland; a steep slide in Britain’s standing in the world.

Our wonderful country adrift – not in control. And for what? Nigel, Michael and Boris still won’t be able to tell you why.

Talk about prescience.

On the wonderful United Kingdom adrift and no one being in control, The Economist’s Bagehot columnist posted a breathtaking commentary yesterday evening, “Britain is sailing into a storm with no one at the wheel.” No copy-and-paste here. Just click on the link and read the whole thing.

The tagline of Bagehot’s column is “Anarchy in the UK.” That this could be said about the United Kingdom is scary, indeed terrifying. If the UK—one of the most serious polities in the history of the modern world—can descend into political anarchy, then, well…

The “anarchy” in the UK is going to continue for months, no doubt about that, until David Cameron’s successor moves into 10 Downing and invokes Article 50 (thereby causing the £ to fall even further, roiling financial markets, and triggering or aggravating all sorts of other calamities). Or does not invoke it. And as I’ve been saying since last Friday, I am convinced that Article 50 will not be invoked. Brexit will finally not happen.

On the legal/constitutional side of the matter, see this nine-minute video explanation by University of Cambridge public law professor Mark Elliot, on the Public Law for Everyone website (his several posts on Brexit have been usefully collected on one page). See also the analyses by David Allen Green, who blogs on law and policy at the FT and his Jack of Kent blog: “This is what sovereignty looks like – where we are with Article 50,” and “Article 50 and the start of a political stalemate.” In the former post, he reminds us that

The referendum on EU membership was advisory not mandatory. It was deliberately drafted by Parliament not to have any legal consequences. (The last UK-wide referendum, on the AV voting system, did have such a binding provision, but this time Parliament chose not to include one).

As such, the result of the poll has no more legal standing than the result of a consultation exercise. It was a glorified opinion survey, and that is what Parliament intended it to be.

In the latter post, he says this

It would appear that no UK politician, including those who headed the Leave campaign, is in any rush to press the “red button” of the Article 50 notification. The now departing Prime Minister David Cameron says it is up to a successor. One likely successor, Boris Johnson, says there is no haste. The red button will be positioned behind a locked door in Downing Street with a protective case placed on top. It is not going to get pressed by accident, if it is ever going to get used.

And what will happen without the button being pressed may be a political phoney war. It may well be that nothing happens at all: that the referendum result just hangs there, and things carry on an institutional and supranational basis much as before.

And there are events which could make it plausible that the notification button is never pressed. (…)

One such event would be the PM deciding that Article 50 will be invoked only if approved by a vote of the House of Commons, 75% of whose current deputies are Remainers. In such a vote, MPs would necessarily be free to vote their conscience. As parliament in the UK is sovereign and reflects the will of the people—having been elected by the people—it is difficult to see how one could credibly argue that, in the event of a vote rejecting Article 50, it is countering the will of the people as expressed in an advisory referendum. And seriously, will the next PM and his/her majority in the Commons willingly provoke a crisis with Scotland and the Ulster Catholics—leading to the possible breakup of the UK—simply to respect the “will of the people” as expressed in an advisory referendum that should have never been held in the first place, and for a cause—Brexit—that the majority of MPs oppose?

On the matter of the referendum—and the institution of referenda more generally—Kenneth Rogoff had a totally excellent, must-read day after commentary in Project Syndicate, “Britain’s democratic failure.” Rogoff begins

The real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union was not that British leaders dared to ask their populace to weigh the benefits of membership against the immigration pressures it presents. Rather, it was the absurdly low bar for exit, requiring only a simple majority. Given voter turnout of 70%, this meant that the leave campaign won with only 36% of eligible voters backing it.

This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence – far greater even than amending a country’s constitution (of course, the United Kingdom lacks a written one) – has been made without any appropriate checks and balances.

Does the vote have to be repeated after a year to be sure? No. Does a majority in Parliament have to support Brexit? Apparently not. Did the UK’s population really know what they were voting on? Absolutely not. Indeed, no one has any idea of the consequences, both for the UK in the global trading system, or the effect on domestic political stability. I am afraid it is not going to be a pretty picture.

Further down

Is it really enough to get 52% to vote for breakup on a rainy day?

In terms of durability and conviction of preferences, most societies place greater hurdles in the way of a couple seeking a divorce than Prime Minister David Cameron’s government did on the decision to leave the EU. Brexiteers did not invent this game; there is ample precedent, including Scotland in 2014 and Quebec in 1995. But, until now, the gun’s cylinder never stopped on the bullet. Now that it has, it is time to rethink the rules of the game.

The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term. Modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and to avoid making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles.

That’s why enacting, say, a constitutional amendment generally requires clearing far higher hurdles than passing a spending bill. Yet the current international standard for breaking up a country is arguably less demanding than a vote for lowering the drinking age.

Exactly. Now one may object to Rogoff that the 50%+1 rule of the referendum was accepted by all—that this was the rule of the game—and one cannot change that rule after the fact simply because one does not like the outcome. But that still begs the question as to the legitimacy of such a plebiscite—with consequences so devastating and unanticipated by the electorate—and why it should be accorded primacy over the sovereignty of parliament and on such a critical, complex issue no less—and in a polity with no plebiscitary tradition. Even in France, where the instrument of the national referendum is in the constitution and been employed ten times over the past six decades, parliament has the final word. In France—where Bonapartist reflexes persist—an issue of constitutional import cannot be decided by referendum only; it must be approved by parliament meeting in joint session and with a three-fifths majority. In the United States, national referendums are, of course, non-existent, and with qualified majorities in effect necessary for all major pieces of legislation, not to mention obligatory for constitutional amendments and treaties. And in Germany, there is no such thing as a referendum.

The general view at the moment is that, regardless of the arguments spelled out above, it is politically inconceivable that the PM or House of Commons would go against the “will of the people” and reject Brexit, and that those who say otherwise are engaging in wishful thinking. The above-cited Michael Elliot has said so himself. But politically inconceivable is not legally inconceivable, and what appears politically inconceivable today may appear less so in four months, if/when the public mood has changed and the calamitous consequences of Brexit have become crystal clear to everyone, including UKIP voters.

On credible scenarios for Brexit not happening, there’s the one by a Guardian reader, which has been viewed by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of readers over the past three days in social and regular media. And political scientists Richard Ned Lebow and Simon Reich—of King’s College London and Rutgers University-Newark, respectively—have a good piece in Washington Monthly on “How Britain can break from Brexit: A roadmap for how Britain can walk itself back from its disastrous referendum.”

The bottom line: If the polls in October show a portion of Leavers regretting their vote and a clear majority for Remain, Brexit will not happen. The Article 50 button will not be pushed.

More to follow.

UPDATE: In case one missed it, Guardian columnist Nick Cohen had a great commentary, dated June 25th, on the leaders of the Leave campaign, “There are liars and then there’s Boris Johnson and Michael Gove: The Brexit figureheads had no plan besides exploiting populist fears and dismissing experts who rubbished their thinking.”

Also see, ICYMI, the enquête in Politico by Tom McTague, Alex Spence, and Edward-Isaac Dovere, “How David Cameron blew it: The behind-the-scenes story of a failed campaign to keep Britain in the European Union,” which is as damning in its assessment of Jeremy Corbyn as it is of the soon-to-be former PM.

2nd UPDATE: Ben Judah, who reported for Politico on the British public mood during the campaign, has offered extensive observations on his Facebook page. Having talked with hundreds of voters in Angleterre profonde, he came away convinced that immigration and identity were central in the motivations of Leave voters

Why is this anger at ethnic change flaring of such intensity?

This is the Leave campaign I saw on the ground.

I met dozens of activists and MP from both sides.

This was how Brexiteers framed the referendum.

This was a referendum on whether or not Britain remains part of a German-controlled banker-run bureaucratic pseudo-Union that will inevitably end British democracy, roll up Britain as a state and flood the country with unlimited numbers of Turkish and Eastern European migrants, ending the England we know.

These were the consequences of such rhetoric.

As a result I met simply hundreds of devastated people horrified to have learnt thanks to the messaging of the Leave campaign that Britain was really under camouflaged German diktat.

But such sentiments don’t exist in a state of nature. They have to be stoked up

The psychological mechanism at play reminded me of a conspiracy theory. It was as if something evil and secretive had been revealed.

I have come this conclusion because I was simply incessantly told by hundreds of frightened and vulnerable people that they had only just learnt on national TV and in the tabloids that the problems of their daily lives were the result of immigration.

There was desperation among many voters, as a result of this messaging, to save the England they loved and the public services they depended on. The majority of those I met had come to believe that a tidal immigration from the European Union was imminent due to what they believed was impending Turkish membership.

This process, of tele-populists frightening a vast chunk of the population reminded me of what I have seen reporting in two other countries I know well – Russia and Ukraine. Over and over, I was told my people with poor access to quality information that their way of life was facing extinction.

To a certain extent, given the historical scale of demographic changes, this did not surprise me.

What did, however surprise me, was the less dominant but nevertheless widespread belief that Britain was somehow liberating itself from Germany. Why was this so?

Politicians in this country like to speak of the “Air War” – or political messaging from above – and the “Ground War” or political campaigning from below. The Air War, through repeated comparisons of the EU to Hitler’s Germany, made by the Air War’s commanders (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage) implanted this idea in a poorly educated population’s head. The Ground War, which I witnessed, was direct. Activists and campaigners ceaselessly repeated that – “this was not what our fathers and grandfathers fought for” – or that – “A vote to Remain is a betrayal of our forefathers.”

Again, this Ground War worked somewhat like a conspiracy theory in the heads of those convinced by it: it had been revealed to them that Britain was under Germany rule. This is was successfully rammed home by the Air War with the slogan – “This is our independence day.”

Tele-populists. Demagogues. Playing on peoples’ fears. What a travesty it would be if those who engaged in this were rewarded with victory.

All the more reason for parliament to reject Brexit.

3rd UPDATE: Sean O’Grady—the deputy managing editor of The Independent—has a rather interesting commentary—in which one finds some of the arguments spelled out above—”Even though we voted for it, a Brexit won’t happen in the end. Here’s why.” The lede: “I voted Leave – but, looking at the reasons, it’s undeniable that we’ll stay in the European Union after all.” Money quote

Before long this uncertainty will feed through even more concretely from the slightly abstract world of financial markets and exchange rates through to jobs, savings, and, above all, the value of people’s homes, which is where most people’s wealth is stored (especially some of the less well-off voters who opted for “Leave”). This is really why I suspect Brexit won’t, in the end, come to pass – because most voters can’t afford it in the short run, whatever the longer term advantages.

FT columnist Gideon Rachman also “[does] not believe that Brexit will happen.” The lede: “There will be howls of rage, but why should extremists on both sides dictate how the story ends?” Rachman and other Brexit doubters think there will be a second referendum—that this could settle the matter—but I’m doubtful. A second vote would backhandedly legitimize the first and unless it requires a qualified majority (e.g. 60%), be too risky. Better to just go with the British tradition and assert the sovereignty of parliament.

4th UPDATE: So who will succeed David Cameron at 10 Downing Street? This guide on the BBC News website is useful. Not that I know a thing about this but somehow I don’t think it will be Boris Johnson, that a majority of Tory MPs—who are Remainers—would select him as one of the two or more candidates to be submitted to a vote of party members. And can one really see BoJo pressing the Article 50 button and then going to toe-to-toe with J-C Juncker, Angela Merkel & Co? As for the other possible candidates, Stephen Crabb could be interesting.

5th UPDATE: Andrew Moravcsik had a Facebook exchange the other day with a conservative reader, who opined that “[t]he number one reason to leave the EU is valid! British citizens should wish to grab power back from bureaucrats.” Personally speaking, I am so sick and tired of the pablum about the supposed “bloated EU bureaucracy,” which comes mainly from conservative Eurosceptics who lazily, reflexively mouth this because it’s just this notion out there that they all repeat because, well, everyone repeats it. Andy’s response set the record straight

I am sorry, but this is a laughable position, factually speaking. The bureaucrats? About 25,000 people work for the EU bureaucracy, less than a medium-sized city. The EU disposes of less than 2% of European public spending, almost all of which is non-discretionary, because the (directly elected) member states specify specific purposes in advance, and most of which is just recycled back into the same country. The EU Commission, the only body not run by directly-elected officials, has been declining in power for 30 years–thanks in part to British pressure. Only in a few areas (like banning state subsidies, which Margaret Thatcher and every UK government since, has strongly supported) does it have any autonomous powers. The all-powerful organization is the Council of Ministers and European Council, comprised of (directly elected) heads of government, and ministers from the member states. A bit of power comes from the (directly elected) Parliament. All laws are implemented nationally, not by EU officials. Finally, there is a small amount of independence for the court, as in most countries, but even here everything is interpreted and implemented by national courts. And let’s not forget that all decision-making is essentially by quasi-consensus now–not really by majority, as the formal rules state–so individual countries have considerable power to block legislation–far more than minorities in the UK. The only exception to all this is the Euro, but–because the EU respects each country’s sovereign and democratic right not to participate in the Euro and to control its own borders by not being part of Schengen–that is not an issue for the UK. Hardly a bureaucratic system! But the fact you believe it to be such is good evidence of how successful Messrs. Johnson and Gove have been at convincing people to believe the big lies.

Touché! Couldn’t have said it better myself.

6th UPDATE: See the very good analysis, “Looking behind the Brexit anger,” on Flip Chart Fairy Tales, a sharp business blog of a blogger named Rick.

See as well the very good analysis by LSE director Craig Calhoun, “Brexit is a mutiny against the cosmopolitan elite,” in Huff Post’s The World Post.

7th UPDATE: Alex White, director of country analysis at the Economist Intelligence Unit, has a sobering assessment, in 24 Twitter tweets, of what Brexit will mean.

8th UPDATE: A prominent personality in the Conservative Party gave an off-the-record talk yesterday (June 29th) to the managerial personnel of a London firm for which he is a “special adviser.” He said the following, according to an interlocutor of mine who was privy to the talk:

– The new Conservative party leader will be under immense pressure to issue the article 50 notification shortly after appointment on 9 September.
– This pressure will come both from the electorate (NB leave voters here already getting very agitated) and from other EU leaders.
– His view is that the notification will be issued within a week or so of appointment.
– Parliament will be asked to approve the notification. He cannot see Parliament not doing so given the clear mandate from the people to withdraw from the EU
– No prospect of a second referendum on the same issue.
– No prospect of a general election. No one wants a general election and the Conservative party still has four years to run so no incentive to call one. Opposition party in disarray so no incentive either.

My questions to my interlocutor:

Three questions I would put to [the speaker]: 1. Will Article 50 be invoked before or after a vote of parliament? 2. What happens if public opinion polls show a clear shift toward Remain and with Leave voters expressing regret? 3. Is it conceivable that Article 50 notification will be issued without prior concertation with Scotland?

I agree that there will be no second referendum and no early election.

His response:

His view was that the new PM will get Parliament to approve the article 50 notification. His view was also that the large majority of MPs have no appetite for doing anything other than implementing the will of the people.

I don’t think they will care about what the polls say!

On the Scotland point I’m sure there will be consultation and of course MPs from Scotland will have their say in Parliament. No doubt some will also vote against article 50 notification.

I am becoming a little less confident in my categorical assertion that there will be no Brexit.

Wait and see. On verra.

9th UPDATE: A few good pieces I’ve read today (June 30th): “The EU is democratic. It just doesn’t feel that way,” By Amanda Taub, in the NYT; “Brexit, seen from the top of Europe,” by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker; “Brexit’s false democracy: What the vote really revealed,” by Georgetown University professor Kathleen R. McNamara, in Foreign Affairs; “Post-Brexit, the U.K. is in its worst political crisis since 1940,” by Johns Hopkins-SAIS professor By Matthias Matthijs, in WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog.

10th UPDATE: Simon Tilford, deputy director of the indispensable Centre for European Reform, has one of the best commentary-reflections on the Brexit vote that I’ve seen, “Dear EU leaders, please handle Britain with care.” In hypothesizing that the UK may seek an EEA/Norway-style arrangement with the EU—and possibly asking to rejoin the EU down the road—he submits that a “chastened, more modest Britain can emerge from this debacle…” That would be salutary indeed.

If one is interested to see what an intellectually high-powered debate on a Facebook comments thread (and its sub-threads) looks like, see this one on the Brexit, initiated June 30th, on Andrew Moravcsik’s timeline, with the participation of professors of international relations and modern Europe.

11th UPDATE: Turkuler Isiksel of Columbia University’s political science department has a sharp post (July 1st) in WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog, “The British people have spoken. But what exactly did they say?,” in which she weighs in on the pitfalls of the instrument of the referendum. Money quote:

Here’s the problem: Most referendums do not allow for specifying alternatives, giving and weighing reasons, or ranking preferences. And they give no indication of what tradeoffs the electorate is willing to tolerate, or guidance on how to proceed with the vast number of decisions that must be made to implement the people’s will.

Referendums commit leaders to a mandated outcome, regardless of the costs and consequences. And this makes it tougher for democratically elected legislatures to deliberate, compromise and forge consensus.

Phillip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations—who served in various foreign policy posts in the Clinton and Obama administrations—makes a similar point in a piece (July 1st) in Politico.eu, “How Britain stays in the EU.”

The main problem with the June 23 referendum was not its rules, or the false promises of the Leave campaign. The problem was that it offered a choice between a clear alternative — remaining in the European Union according to existing rules and the specific deal that David Cameron negotiated in February 2016 — or leaving it in favor of some unspecified, unknowable alternative. This was not a fair fight: Political scientists have long known that in any election between a specific candidate and a generic “Mr./Mrs. X,” the latter always wins. It is only when both sides are obliged to put up an actual and specific alternative that an accurate test of public preferences can be made.

The lede of Gordon’s piece is “If the withdrawal process is long and protracted, Brexit could very well end up getting reversed.” Inshallah.

12th UPDATE: Philip Abbot, professor emeritus of international public law at Cambridge University, has a must-read opinion piece (June 30th) in The Guardian, “Forget the politics – Brexit may be unlawful.” The lede: “Panic not: there are good reasons to believe the government’s decision to withdraw from the EU would not be legal, and that the UK is not going anywhere.” Inshallah.

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