Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Credit: FT

Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has won his expected landslide victory, Trump is ratcheting up the demagoguery to levels unseen in history by an American president, hard Brexiteers are determined to take the UK over the cliff, Matteo Salvini is topping the polls in Italy, Emmanuel Macron in France is blowing it big time but with no alternative on the horizon who would not be much worse than he, Angela Merkel is on her way out and who knows what will follow, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will rule their respective countries for the rest of their natural lives if they so wish, et j’en passe. Ça va de mal en pis. We are not living in good times.

In this vein, I cannot recommend highly enough Anne Applebaum’s sobering essay in the October issue of The Atlantic (which went online in mid-September), “A warning from Europe: the worst is yet to come.” The lede: “Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.” This is one of the most important pieces I’ve read over the past several months. If you haven’t read it, please do so. Now.

To this must be added the essay by Christopher Browning—the Frank Porter Graham ­Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—in the October 25th issue of The New York Review of Books, “The suffocation of democracy.” Browning begins:

As a historian specializing in the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, and Europe in the era of the world wars, I have been repeatedly asked about the degree to which the current situation in the United States resembles the interwar period and the rise of fascism in Europe. I would note several troubling similarities and one important but equally troubling difference.

And then there’s the reflection by Thomas Meaney—visiting fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna—in the New Statesman (September 12th), “The dark European stain: how the far right rose again.” The lede: “Faced with Trump and populist nationalism, liberals are quick to proclaim the return of fascism. But other disturbing historical echoes are going unnoticed.”

I have more but will leave it there for now. Bonne lecture 😦

Read Full Post »

I don’t know if there’s a commonly accepted definition of a “rogue state” but this one I found seems right: “a state that conducts its policy in a dangerously unpredictable way, disregarding international law or diplomacy.” If this does not accurately characterize the Trump regime’s foreign policy, and particularly since the declaration on the Iran deal last Tuesday, then I don’t know what does.

Adam Garfinkle of The American Interest has a typically savant analysis—as well as typically long-winded—on “The meaning of withdrawal: Seven key questions to ask about Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran Deal,” which he begins with the observation that “enough electronic ink has been spilled in efforts either to explain or to spin what has happened to fill a virtual ocean basin.” As he and others have added amply to that basin, I will not do so myself—and particularly as the story is a week old—so will simply link to selected pieces on one of the more roguish aspects of Trump’s decision, which is its impact on America’s historic allies in Europe—and the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance—in view of the extraterritoriality of American law, here the imposition of secondary sanctions unilaterally decided by the US. Secondary sanctions are an old story, of course, and with both Republican and Democratic administrations culpable—I recall telling my French students back in 2000 about the Helms-Burton Act and ILSA (both signed into law by President Clinton), and with a couple expressing open indignation—but Trump and his henchmen have pushed the unilateralism to a whole new level.

Everyone’s seen by now the US ambassador to Germany’s now infamous tweet after Trump’s announcement:

How to react to this arrogant diktat? Der Spiegel has an editorial in its current issue with the arresting title, “Time for Europe to join the resistance.” Money quote:

Every Wednesday at 11:30 a.m., senior DER SPIEGEL editors gather to discuss the lead editorial of the week and ultimately, the meeting seeks to address the question: “What now?” Simply describing a problem isn’t enough, a good editorial should point to potential solutions. It has rarely been as quiet as during this week’s meeting.

Europe should begin preparing for a post-Trump America and seek to avoid provoking Washington until then. It can demonstrate to Iran that it wishes to hold on to the nuclear deal and it can encourage mid-sized companies without American clients to continue doing business with Iranian partners. Perhaps the EU will be able to find ways to protect larger companies. Europe should try to get the United Nations to take action, even if it would only be symbolic given that the U.S. holds a Security Council veto. For years, Europe has been talking about developing a forceful joint foreign policy, and it has become more necessary than ever. But what happens then?

The difficulty will be finding a balance between determination and tact. Triumphant anti-Americanism is just as dangerous as defiance. But subjugation doesn’t lead anywhere either – because Europe cannot support policies that it finds dangerous. Donald Trump also has nothing but disdain for weakness and doesn’t reward it.

Clever resistance is necessary, as sad and absurd as that may sound. Resistance against America.

One doubts there’s any sector of mainstream opinion—public and elite—in most countries in Europe that is not of this view. When geopolitical analysts like Bruno Tertrais—who’s as Atlanticist as they come in Paris—writes that “[l]a fermeté vis-à-vis de Washington s’impose d’autant plus qu’elle soudera les Européennes davantage qu’elle ne les divisera,” then one knows that the US really is isolated in Europe.

Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, in explaining “Why Germans are getting fed up with America,” had this

Now, another incomprehensible economic spectacle is unfolding parallel to Trump’s pressure on European steel and aluminum exporters. National Security Adviser John Bolton is threatening sanctions against European companies for dealing with Iran — and, at the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is promising U.S. investment in North Korea if it denuclearizes. Wasn’t that what the Iran deal was about?

“So, American firms will soon be able to do business in North Korea, but not European ones in Iran,” commentator  Mark Schieritz wrote on Twitter. Schieritz published a column in the weekly Die Zeit on Sunday arguing that the U.S. was no longer a partner but a rival for Europe. He argued that time had come for Europe to confront the U.S. and respond to its “blackmail” in a tit-for-tat format — something the more sober Spiegel editorial didn’t advocate.

In the short and medium term, however, there’s not much that European states—or even the EU acting as one—can do to effectively counter US imperialism—there, I said it!—as the FT reminded its readers

One former senior US Treasury official predicted that governments will be unable to persuade a European bank or company to continue doing business with Iran given the risks of being shut off from the US financial system. “You will see over-compliance, much in the way we have seen in recent years. That is true for the Europeans, Japan, South Korea. The only question mark is China, and perhaps Russia,” this person said.

European executives conceded in private that it would be hard for any multinational company with businesses and financial ties to the US to remain active in Iran. They pointed to the $9bn US fine imposed on BNP Paribas, the French bank, in 2014 for violating sanctions against Iran, Cuba and Sudan, as evidence of the risks. (…)

Some EU officials have already become resigned to European companies suffering the economic consequences of Mr Trump’s decision. “I’m discovering every day how much Europe can endure pain from its American partner,” said one European official. “The question is how much more can we endure.”

Back to Adam Garfinkle: in answering his question, “A trans-Atlantic breach too far?,” he thus offered

It could be, at least for a while.

There is a history here. First came the U.S. withdrawal from the TTP, but with implications for the T-TIP; then came the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; along the way was the Brussels Summit at which President Trump refused to explicitly endorse Article V of the NATO Treaty; then the “easy to win a trade war” remark and the tariffs—and now this.

But not just this: Mark the way of this. Emmanuel Macron comes to the United States, and we all know his view of the Iran deal. He puts it to Trump; Trump smiles and is cordial. Angela Merkel follows, with the same view. Trump harrumphs, and she goes home. And then Trump ignores them both, doing it even sooner than the May 12 deadline requires, so that no one can miss the intended humiliation. It’s reminiscent of how Trump handled Mitt Romney before the inauguration, dangling the State Department job before this prominent member of the establishment, the Republican Party establishment at that, before humiliating him as well.

The press in the United States and in Europe is now referring to this as a “snub.” It goes much deeper than that. It is personal, because Trump makes everything personal. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump really does ultimately support Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, and the likes of Nigel Farage in Britain. How comfortable AfD types would have felt in Charlottesville this past summer, among what Trump called some “fine people.” Just as the vast majority of what seems to be foreign policy in the Trump Administration is just signaling for domestic political purposes in Trump’s quest to realign American politics, so his manipulations of NATO-European leaders seems tailored to encourage certain political outcomes in those countries. (So Teresa May was smart not to come to Washington in recent weeks.) To the extent there is a “nationalist internationale” reminiscent of its 1930s’ fascist forerunner, Trump seems to be aware of and subtly supportive of it….

Peter Beinart, in a spot-on piece in The Atlantic, “The Iran deal and the dark side of American exceptionalism,” has this spot-on observation

The United States is today led by insular, self-satisfied men who demand that other nations fulfill their commitments to the United States while denying that the United States has reciprocal commitments of its own. In their hands, American exceptionalism is a danger to the world.

Let’s just say US imperialism.

One of the best analysts of US foreign policy—and particularly of the Iran deal—if one doesn’t know, is Daniel Larison of The American Conservative.

And don’t miss my dear friend Adam Shatz’s post in the LRB blog last week, “The drift towards war.”

French commentators across the board have all been saying more or less the same thing about Trump’s decision, and with which I am naturally in agreement, though there are some misconceptions. E.g. Hubert Védrine, who epitomizes the dominant gaullo-mitterrandiste current in the French foreign policy establishment, said a couple of things on France Inter last Wednesday that require correction. One was that the “American deep state” (l’État profond américain)—”tout un système américain”—does not want to see Iran return to the “jeu international,” or for Iran to reform or modernize. This is nonsense. First, there is, in point of fact, no American “deep state.” I’ve used this expression myself, more or less tongue-in-cheek, but it really does not exist. There is no grand corps of lifelong civil servants embedded in the agencies of the US federal government who know one another, share the same world-view, and act in concert to influence policy or impose their will, and particularly in foreign policy. As anyone who has taken American Politics 101 in his or her freshman year in college knows—or is simply minimally informed on how the American state works—the 6,000-odd top positions in the federal government are staffed via the spoils system with every incoming administration, and with the political appointees leaving when that administration gives way to the next. Structurally speaking, an American “deep state” is not possible.

Secondly, on the notion that lots of people in Washington want to keep Iran frozen out: a number of analysts here—e.g. Védrine, Bruno Tertrais cited above—have said that Americans have not forgotten the 1979-80 hostage crisis or forgiven Iran for this (and with Védrine adding the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut). I think this is greatly exaggerated. Americans under age 60—some right-wing Republicans aside—are not hung up on this. And it is likely that what most Americans by now know about what happened in Tehran in 1979 comes from the movie Argo. Anti-Iranian sentiment in Washington has, in fact, been fueled by the virulent anti-Americanism of the ayatollahs and those who rule Iran with them. If the Iranians were to suddenly moderate their policy and overall rhetoric toward the US and Israel—if it were clear that the reformers in Tehran were on the way to vanquishing the hard-liners—the positive response would be immediate.

Védrine’s second problematic statement had to do with the “alignment between American neo-conservatives and the [Israeli] Likud,” and which, Védrine added, led to the Iraq war. If the notion of an American “deep state” is a myth, so is that of the so-called neo-conservatives (a.k.a. neocons). Their existence—as some kind of cabal, with an esprit de corps—was already greatly exaggerated in 2003 but to speak of neocons in 2018 is downright absurd. If one wants to insist that the neocons are alive, well, and continue to throw their weight around on foreign and defense policy, I will ask, at minimum, that one identify the top five neocons who are wreaking policy havoc today—I want their names—and specify what makes them “neo-conservative” (as opposed to conservative tout court; what’s the “neo” all about?). As for the Likud and its leader, Bibi Netanyahu, it goes without saying that they are celebrated in the Republican Party. But they do not call the shots. The US did not attack Iraq in 2003 for the benefit of Israel.The tail does not wag the dog. Come on. Even in the neo-conservative heyday in the 1970s, when neo-conservatives really did exist (Norman Podhoretz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle et al), they were America Firsters whose overriding obsession was the Soviet Union and the Cold War, not Israel.

À suivre.

 

Read Full Post »

The Catalonia referendum

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

Everyone, or so it seems, was appalled by the behavior of the Spanish police in Catalonia yesterday, not to mention by the attitude of PM Mariano Rajoy. Now I personally deplore the notion of Catalan independence, as I am vigorously opposed to all secessionist movements in advanced democracies (Scotland, Quebec, Flanders). I don’t see why multinational states can’t work when cultural and language rights are recognized and upheld, and there is no discrimination against or barriers to advancement—in the political system and other domains—of members of the constituent nations. But if I were a Catalan opposed to independence, I don’t know what I would think after what happened yesterday. If the prime minister in Madrid is going to start acting like Slobodan Milošević, then that’s a problem—and could ultimately lead to the breakup of Spain, which would be disastrous, for Spain and for Europe.

I am not an expert on Spain, loin s’en faut, so am trying to inform myself like all other non-specialists. In lieu of sounding off with my personal opinions, I will link to good analyses by specialists and other knowledgeable persons that I’ve come across in the past two or three days.

One that is particularly good is by two researchers, Nafees Hamid and Clara Petrus, at the social scientific research organization Artis International, who have a piece in The Atlantic, “How Spain misunderstood the Catalan independence movement.” The lede: “Rather than resisting the vote, it could have supported it and demonstrated its faith in democracy.” Indeed.

Also in The Atlantic is an explanation by senior editor Krishnadev Calamur explaining “The Spanish court decision that sparked the modern Catalan independence movement.” The lede: “The community has a long history of autonomy—but one incident in particular helped set the stage for Sunday’s referendum.”

Isaac Chotiner of Slate has an informative interview with Sebastiaan Faber, who teaches Hispanic studies at Oberlin College, “What happened in Catalonia? Why the independence referendum turned violent.” Faber is the author of a worthy-looking forthcoming book, Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography.

David Mathieson, a Madrid-based historian and founder of Spanish Sites—whose historical tours of Madrid and environs look very cool—asserts in the New Statesman that “Like Brexit, the Catalan independence vote isn’t quite as democratic as it seems.” The lede: “The regional government isn’t blameless for the chaos ahead of Sunday’s referendum.”

Omar G. Encarnación,who teaches politics at Bard College, explains in Foreign Affairs “Why Catalan independence won’t happen anytime soon.”

NYT Spain correspondent Raphael Minder has a good NYT op-ed/news analysis, “The fight for Catalonia, whatever that means.”

In a tribune in Le Monde, writer Javier Cercas, who teaches Spanish literature at the University of Girona—a Catalan nationalist stronghold—submits that “L’indépendantisme catalan est un populisme.”

Also in Le Monde is a tribune by  University of Perpignan public law professor Jacobo Rios-Rodriguez, who insists that “Le droit international n’autorise pas l’indépendance de la Catalogne.”

Bernard Guetta’s Géopolitique commentary on France Inter this morning, “La catastrophe barcelonnaise,” was pretty good.

For background—and from a pro-independence standpoint—I found in my archives an article in Foreign Affairs from September 2014 by Princeton University political scientist Carles Boix and J.C. Major, founder of the Col·lectiu Emma/Explaining Catalonia website, “The view from Catalonia: The ins and outs of the independence movement.”

Finally, read Yascha Mounk’s latest column in Slate, “History returns in Catalonia.” The lede: “The weekend’s scenes in Barcelona send a troubling message about the future of liberal democracy.”

UPDATE: Barcelona-based reporter Stephen Burgen has a rather interesting report in The Guardian, “In Catalonia’s ‘red belt’ leftwing veterans distrust the separatists.” The lede: “Nationalism is not the answer to Spain’s problems, say an older generation who fought against General Franco.”

2nd UPDATE: This is worth reading: “El País analyzes 10 claims commonly made by separatists to support their cause.” Some of it is a little over the top but it’s convincing on the whole.

3rd UPDATE: Sebastiaan Faber and Bécquer Seguín, of Oberlin College and Johns Hopkins University respectively, have a commentary (October 4th) in The Nation, “The Spanish government just energized Catalonia’s independence movement.”

4th UPDATE: Le Monde has a dispatch, datelined October 7th, “Le réveil de la ‘majorité silencieuse’ catalane: Les opposants à l’autodétermination de tous bords politiques devaient se retrouver dimanche, à Barcelone.” À propos, Le Monde had a noteworthy article, datelined September 29th, “En Catalogne, la grande angoisse de la majorité silencieuse opposée à l’indépendance,” in which the reader learns that “[l]a population hostile au référendum essuie pressions et insultes.” To put it in simple English, persons opposed to Catalan secession—more numerous before the referendum than those for it, according to polls—were being showered with insults and shunned by the pro-independence camp, including by friends and family. Reminds one of the social media treatment meted out to Hillary Clinton supporters by the Bernie Bros. If partisans of Catalan independence resemble the latter in their (in)tolerance for the opposing viewpoint—and this looks to be the case—then my opposition to independence and support for Spanish unity, malgré Rajoy, is further reinforced.

While one is at it, also see the interview in Le Monde, datelined September 29th, with Barbara Loyer, who is a specialist of Spain and director of the Institut Français de Géopolitique at the Université Paris-VIII, “‘La Catalogne est depuis longtemps le maillon faible de l’Espagne’.”

5th UPDATE: Bard College’s Omar G. Encarnación has another informative article, this in Foreign Policy (October 5th), “The ghost of Franco still haunts Catalonia.” The lede: “Mariano Rajoy’s use of violence against separatists wasn’t an aberration. It was an authentic expression of Spanish conservatism.”

Read Full Post »

[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.”

Read Full Post »

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 named Karim Achoui 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.

Read Full Post »

Democracy: the movie

[update below]

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…

Et en français, see the reviews of the documentary—which opened commercially in France in November 2016 (it was not a box office hit, needless to say)—in Le Monde and Libération, with the latter’s critic, Amaelle Guiton, thus concluding

…en faisant des affrontements qui se jouent au cœur de la machine Europe une matière sensible – et passionnante ! –, Democracy se révèle, en particulier par les temps qui courent, un travail d’utilité publique.

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.

UPDATE: Project Syndicate has a pertinent piece (August 18th) by Christopher Smart of Chatham House, “The clash of the data titans,” that mentions the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. The lede: “Most economic activity today depends on data, much of it gathered and analyzed across borders. And yet the European and American policymakers now deciding the rules on how data should be exchanged and stored are focusing more on privacy considerations and national-security concerns than on efficiency and innovation.”

Read Full Post »

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.

la-saga-napolitaine-d-elena-ferrante-est-l-un-des-grands_4134111_1000x500

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: