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Babylon Berlin

This pandemic is becoming boring. Today is like yesterday and each week resembles the last. My agenda has never been so empty, not since I started keeping one in my early 30s. As the American programs in Paris have shut down, I have no classes on that end, and don’t teach at the Catho in the spring. Forays to the supermarket and health-related appointments are noteworthy events, as are webinars and WhatsApp/Zoom/Skype/Viber calls with friends. With restaurants and cafés closed since last October plus the 7 PM curfew, meeting with people or receiving guests chez nous is complicated. And eventual RDVs in a park, weather permitting, have their own challenges, notably if one has to go to the loo (I know people who have left demonstrations and other events in Paris early for this reason alone). So I hardly see anyone in person. But I can’t complain too much, as I have a nice apartment in a nice banlieue, plus a family (at home and nearby) and cat, and know well that countless other persons are in the same boat. Nous sommes tous logés à la même enseigne.

One thing I obviously haven’t done over the past six months is go to the cinema (so there will thus be no Oscars post this week, as I have seen almost none of the films that have been nominated). One consequence is that I’ve watched a number of TV series since the first confinement, including some that have been out for years (e.g. I finally made my way through all seven seasons of ‘The Sopranos’). One that I just finished (three seasons so far, with a fourth to come) is the excellent German series Babylon Berlin—a neo-noir police-political thriller set in Berlin in 1929—which I had bookmarked a couple of years ago following stellar recommendations from highbrow persons I see on social media (it’s on Canal+ in France and Netflix in the US), though what prompted me to start watching was Ross Douthat’s March 30th NYT column “‘Babylon Berlin,’ Babylon America?: How watching a TV show about Weimar Germany can help us interpret our own era.” Not that the conservative Douthat is a reference for me—and here he overstates an eventual parallel with the USA of today—but if he’s going to give the thumbs up to a series on a period of history of interest to me—and which I teach to students—then I do need to check it out.

As I tend not to read reviews before seeing a film or series, I learned afterward, from a post on the Deutsche Welle website, that this one is “the most expensive non-English drama series ever produced,” and certainly the most expensive-ever German one, involving, as Le Monde’s Berlin correspondent Thomas Wieder reported in a dispatch on this “folle série allemande,” 180 days of shooting, 300 sets, 5,000 extras, and a budget of €40 million—not to mention three creators-writers-directors (Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, Henk Handloegten)—and for the first two seasons alone (“Jamais une série télévisée allemande n’avait donné lieu à une telle débauche de moyens.”). It also yielded no less than two reviews in the NYRB (which I entirely missed at the time), one by Noah Isenberg in the NYR Daily dated April 28, 2018, the other by Alessandra Stanley in the May 24, 2018 issue.

It’s a spectacular production indeed. Quoting Isenberg:

The result is a show with lavish production values, a talented cast and crew, and a meticulously reconstructed setting. At its center is Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a handsome young shell-shocked war veteran with a heroin habit, who moves from Cologne to join the Berlin vice squad in its effort to crack a pornography ring. His partner, the hardboiled Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), has an imposing build, a diabolical laugh, and an intimate acquaintance with the city’s criminal world. But the show’s most street-savvy, and engaging, character is Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a determined young woman in a brilliant emerald-green hat who manages to go “everywhere,” as she announces the first time she appears onscreen, climbing up the ranks from temporary typist to detective, despite her lower-class origins.        

Babylon Berlin is based on Volker Kutscher’s enormously successful Gereon Rath mystery series, which was a bestseller first in Germany and now around the world (a graphic novel rendition, by Arne Jysch, appeared in English last month). The show’s first two seasons are drawn largely from Book One, Der nasse Fisch—literally “the wet fish,” a term used by German detectives to refer to an unsolved crime. Kutscher opens with an aptly chosen epigraph from Walter Rathenau, Weimar Germany’s foreign minister, who was brutally assassinated by a proto-Nazi underground terrorist group in 1922: “Athens on the Spree is dead, Chicago on the Spree is rising.” The mix of internationalism, mob violence, and corruption in the world that Kutscher depicts, and the universal language in which it communicates, couldn’t be clearer. “We don’t have it so bad,” insists Bruno Wolter early on in the novel. “We get to gad about the night spots of the most exciting city of the world, which is also the most disreputable.” It’s precisely that combination of the exciting and the disreputable that makes both the novel and the television series so irresistible.

And this introduction to the story by Stanley:

Babylon Berlin is set in the spring of 1929, near the end of the period known as Weimar’s Golden Years—after the worst of the post–World War I hyperinflation and before the Wall Street crash that brought back mass unemployment. Yet the series is exultantly dark. Powerful gangsters rule the streets. Communists and ultranationalists are at war with one another and with the Republic’s fragile democracy. The Nazis are still dismissed as a fringe group. The most imminent threat comes from the Black Reichswehr: military and ex-military revanchists, nationalists, and business tycoons who think the politicians who signed the Versailles Treaty stabbed them in the back. Nightclubs and cafés are full, but sidewalks are lined with crippled World War I veterans begging for handouts; homeless women and children sleep on the street.

Further down:

The heroes and villains of Babylon Berlin of course don’t know that they are dancing on the edge of the abyss. Nazis don’t appear in full until the fifteenth episode, when a mob of brownshirts wearing swastikas harass a Jewish politician. Most of the characters’ movements are viewed in the moment, without the portentous hindsight that hovers over so many films about the period, such as Cabaret. But the warning signs are all there, including the misplaced good faith of German Jews who underestimated the danger lurking ahead. August Benda, the head of the political police, is a Social Democrat and a Jew intent on protecting the Reich from right-wing conspirators, only to discover that the fix is in and goes all the way to the top. A general Benda had hoped to arrest for building up a private army, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, isn’t worried because he knows he has the support of President Paul von Hindenburg. When the general says with a sneer, “Please leave national matters to the people whose soil you are on,” Benda looks startled. He hasn’t yet heard this kind of anti-Semitism expressed so directly to his face.

Isenberg concludes:

Part of what makes Babylon Berlin so engrossing is that it captures the era with such flair, efficiency, and seeming authenticity—from the scenes of nightlife to those of pitched political battle. Some of the colorful characters that populate the series, such as the crooked military officials and the members of the Schwarze Reichswehr, intent on overthrowing the republic, may be familiar to us from the 1920s canvases of Otto Dix or the political satires of Kurt Tucholsky. The queasy allure of the Weimar period, with its decadence, underlying threat of violence, and palpable sense of gathering doom, has never fallen out of fashion. But Babylon Berlin brings a fresh perspective to images and material that might otherwise seem shopworn, and its frenetic rhythms are particularly apt for a moment when we appear to be dancing our own convulsive tango on the edge of a fiery volcano.

The reenactment of the era is indeed impeccable—there are apparently a few anachronisms, though which only those with highly specialized knowledge, e.g. of gun models, will detect—and a number of the scenes did indeed happen, e.g. the 1929 May Day massacre of KPD militants by the police (though I’m not sure if Soviet agents carried out a massacre of Trotskyists in the heart of Berlin; also, no airplane at that time could have made a roundtrip flight from Berlin to Lipetsk in Russia without a refueling stop; admittedly a detail). The casting and characters are likewise pitch perfect (I personally developed a soft spot for Charlotte Ritter, the aspiring policewoman and flapper-by-night). The cabaret scene of the period is not my tasse de thé but the music and choreography—at the Moka Efti club and on the film set in season 3—are tops (and with Bryan Ferry making a cameo appearance). Keeping up with all the characters in the multi-layered plot is a challenge but one stays riveted. And each of the 45-minute episodes ends on a note that makes one want to see the next.

Peter Tregear of the University of Melbourne has a post in The Conversation on “Babylon Berlin and why our fascination with 1920s Germany reveals the anxieties of our times.”

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Pandemic lockdown: week 6

Paris, Bd Montmartre (Grands Boulevards),
Tuesday April 21st, 2:30 PM

[update below]

Or is it week 7? Each week resembles the previous one, as it does the next, and will until the May 11th D-Day, when the confinement will end, so Emmanuel Macron solemnly announced to the nation on April 13th. Not that life will revert to the status quo ante, of course; with restaurants, cafés, and cinemas closed until further notice, and with the continued necessity of social distancing (so no dinner parties anytime soon), I personally will not be venturing into the city too often.

As it happens, I went into Paris this past Tuesday, for the first time since the confinement began on March 17th, to take my wife in the car to her place of work, in the heart of the city (2nd arrondissement), where she had to pick up some IT equipment for her telework at home. I normally never, ever drive into the center of Paris during the week, let alone in the mid-afternoon, what with traffic, the near impossibility of parking, and simply the convenience of public transportation. As the traffic was light, to say the least, the voyage door-to-door took half an hour (normally it would be two to three times that). Driving through the empty city on a weekday afternoon, with everything closed and hardly anyone walking about—and despite the beautiful weather: sunny in the 70s F/mid-20s C, which is what it’s been for much of the month—was eerie, borderline apocalyptic. It’s as if the city had been hit by a neutron bomb. I know that it is likewise most everywhere else in the world but Paris is my city and where I live. Here are some images, taken by my wife from the car.

Hôtel de Ville

Rue de Rivoli (at the Louvre)

Boulevard Montmarte

Bd des Italiens & Bd Haussmann

Place de la Bourse

Rue Saint-Antoine

Place de la Bastille

My overriding sentiment at the apocalyptic spectacle of the empty city was sadness mixed with dread fear—for the future and of everything: the world economy and the consequences of the pandemic for humanity, France, Europe, America, my family (in the US and here: e.g. my 26-year-old daughter recently started her first career-type job and which is a good one, with a small company whose business is heavily dependent on international mobility and a strong globalized economy), for my own self and personal finances…

My anxieties and fears are that of several billion other people, that’s for certain.

Like everyone, I read numerous articles daily on the pandemic and watch/listen to the usual news programs and talk shows (for me, French public radio and TV). I can barely stand to read savant and other pundit speculation about what will happen down the road, as it only adds to the anxiety, but do nonetheless. E.g. one bleak piece read this weekend, which is surely on target in its prognostications, is by Jonathan V. Last, executive editor of The Bulwark (a new mouthpiece for anti-Trump conservatives, mainly orphans of the defunct Weekly Standard), “We cannot ‘reopen’ America.” The lede: “No matter when government stay-at-home orders are revoked, the American economy will not reopen. Because the source of the economic shock is not government orders. It’s the pandemic.” Last focuses on just two probable consequences of the pandemic: on the city of Las Vegas and on movie theaters, the former entirely dependent on tourism—and of the kind for which social distancing is not possible—the latter with the narrowest of profit margins even in the best of times. In short, Las Vegas risks being wiped out, with all the social consequences for the people there. Vegas will be an extreme case but towns and cities—whole countries—the world over whose economies are so dependent on tourism—Paris and France among them—will find themselves in much the same boat. As for movie theaters, most of them in America will likely not survive the pandemic. Such will hopefully not be the case in France, as the state may be counted on to save them. Hopefully.

Another bleak piece read this weekend is Andrew Sullivan’s weekly column in New York magazine, “We can’t go on like this much longer.” Sullivan, who has already had experience with pandemics (HIV), is despairing for the future. He begins:

I began to lose it this week.

And concludes:

[Trump] is an incoherent, malevolent mess of a human being. I used to be disgusted by him. I am now incandescent with rage at him and the cult that enables his abuse of all of us.

And so we wait. Absent a pharmaceutical miracle, we are headed, if we keep this up [i.e. Trump’s leadership], toward both a collapse in the economy and an inevitable second wave that will further cull the population. Yes, I’m a catastrophist by nature. I hope and pray something intervenes to save us from this uniquely grim future. But I learned something from the AIDS years: Sometimes it is a catastrophe. And sometimes the only way past something is through it.

France is fortunate not to be led by a madman like Trump, though the failings of Macron and the French state have been considerable. More on that another time,

In the same vein as Jonathan Last and Andrew Sullivan, Politico’s John F. Harris has a not-too-optimistic commentary, “Stop looking on the bright side: We’ll be screwed by the pandemic for years to come.” The lede: “Unfortunately, the history of the past generation justifies pessimism about the next one.”

In an academic vein, the very smart Columbia University historian Adam Tooze has a lengthy essay in the April 16th issue of the LRB, “Shockwave,” in which he weighs in “on the pandemic’s consequences for the world economy.” His closing words:

The worst is just beginning.

Also in the April 16th LRB is the latest very smart essay by dear friend Adam Shatz, “Shipwrecked,” in which he discusses Covid-19 in America through the prism of Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf’s latest book, Le Naufrage des civilisations.

And in the vein of relevant contributions by dear friends, Human Rights Watch MENA division Deputy Director Eric Goldstein was interviewed on the HRW website (April 16th), “When health care is decimated by war: COVID-19 in the Middle East and North Africa.”

There is so much more to say.

La prochaine fois.

UPDATE: The morning after posting, I learned of the death to Covid-19 of Henri Weber (age 75), who was a major figure on the French left of the past five decades: in May ’68, then the Trotskyist LCR, before joining the PS in the 1980s and converting to social-democracy. I had the opportunity to speak with him on the phone in 2017—a mutual friend put me in touch—to seek his help in organizing a visit for one of my classes (American students) to PS HQ on Rue de Solférino. He was warm and friendly and made the visit happen. A good man (and with good politics). When the bookstores reopen for business, I’ll pick up a copy of his autobiography, Rebelle jeunesse. R.I.P.

Follow-up: Laurent Joffrin has a remembrance in Libération, “Henri Weber, cheville ouvrière de la social-démocratie.” And Thomas Legrand in his Édito politique on France Inter.

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Pandemic lockdown: week 1

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

We’re still in the first week of confinement here in the Hexagon, which went into effect on Tuesday at noon. One can still go out but only with this form issued by the Ministry of Interior (printed out or copied by hand), checking the box of one of five authorized reasons: to go to work (if you can’t telework from home, and with a certificate from your employer), go food shopping or to the pharmacy (and close to home), for health reasons (to see a doctor or veterinarian; we’ve already had to do the latter), for “imperative” family reasons (to aid elderly or infirm family members or take children to a sitter), or to engage in solitary physical activity close to home (or walk a dog). My wife and I are teleworking (me teaching my classes via the Moodle platform, to students who are now mainly back in the US), as is my daughter (now 26) and her bf in their small one-bedroom apartment in Paris. As I already had my own personal lockdown seven years back—not stepping outside for five weeks—this is not a new experience for me.

I’m not going to linger on my own situation or thoughts, as everyone is in the same boat and thinking largely the same things. As for my worries and fears—for the economy (local and global), family and friends, and my own situation and future (not rosy)—they are shared by several billion people across the planet (the news today says that one billion are presently on lockdown). This is the biggest black swan event of the lifetime of everyone reading this. However the pandemic plays out, it is a certainty that the world will not be the same afterward.

Speculating on what the post-pandemic world may look like, the very smart and always interesting intellectual and writer Pankaj Mishra had a must-read two-part column in Bloomberg Opinion earlier this week: “Get ready, a bigger disruption is coming: The Covid-19 pandemic reflects a systemic crisis akin to the seminal crashes of the 20th century” & “Coronavirus will revive an all-powerful state: Much maligned in recent years, big government will come back—and with it, the potential for both greater good and evil.” If one can’t open the links to Mishra’s important piece, please let me know and I’ll copy-and-paste the text in the comments thread below.

Historian Adam Tooze, who is equally very smart and always interesting, has an equally must-read op-ed in The Guardian, “Coronavirus has shattered the myth that the economy must come first.” The lede: “Since the 1990s, faith in ‘the market’ has gone unchallenged. Now even public shopping has become a crime against society.”

Journalist and Politico founding editor John F. Harris—who is also smart—had a good column the other day, which spoke in particular to the current generation of university students, “The pandemic is the end of Trumpism: For a rising generation, a crisis fueled by frightening science foreshadows the coming conflicts.”

In Politico also see the forum, “Coronavirus will change the world permanently. Here’s how.” The lede: “A crisis on this scale can reorder society in dramatic ways, for better or worse. Here are 34 big thinkers’ predictions for what’s to come.”

Shifting gears to the here and now, one has perhaps read about the 180° flip this past week of Trump State Television, a.k.a. Fox News, in its coverage of the coronavirus (watch here). As to the chutzpah of Fox’s propagandists, of them doing this 180° with straight faces, David Frum, in his latest column in The Atlantic, drew an apt historical parallel with the American Communist party (and other Comintern affiliates) during the Stalin era changing the party line 180° from one day to the next on WWII following the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union (and, prior to that, in 1935 with the call to form anti-fascist ‘popular fronts’ with social democratic parties—heretofore tarred as “social fascists”—and in August 1939 with the proclamation of neutrality toward Nazi Germany following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Moscow-line CPs never felt it necessary to explain, or even acknowledge, their revirements, let alone apologize for their past positions. The party line had changed and that was that. Likewise in Trump World.

Haaretz’s excellent US editor Chemi Shalev, in an analysis of Benjamin Netanyahu’s brazen power grab presently underway, speculated on the possible action of Bibi’s American alter ego, “Americans beware: Trump could emulate Netanyahu’s coronavirus coup.” The lede: “The United States is facing greater coronavirus upheavals than Israel, led by a president who has less respect for democracy and the rule of law.” Money quote:

But even if someone other than Trump was president, and he or she had not wasted precious weeks preparing for the coronavirus onslaught, the United States would still be facing an uphill battle, compared to Israel, in containing the plague. It is an immeasurably larger country with a far more dispersed and diverse population. Its public health system is a sham and a shame.

And unlike Israeli society, which can be described as permanently mobilized and has experienced national mobilization and country-wide lockdowns in its recent past – weathering Iraqi missiles with no response in the 1991 Gulf War comes to mind – Americans have never experienced such a direct threat to their homeland, not even in World War II. And while Israelis may grumble about their government, they see no alternative. Millions of Americans, on the other hand, truly view the federal authorities as their enemy.

It was enough to hear a Washington Times columnist on Fox News last week praising a coronavirus-inspired rush on guns and ammunition in Midwestern states as a “healthy sign” to realize that while it is Israelis who are seen as unruly and undisciplined, parts of the United States may simply be unmanageable. Corona is bound to come knocking at their door.

Given these two factors – a leader who rejects any check on his presidential authority and a coronavirus crisis that could soon grow out of control – Americans should beware a Trump who decides to emulate Netanyahu. The U.S. president, who now fancies himself a “Wartime President” with all the emergency powers that accompany the title, will go farther and more radical than Netanyahu would ever dare. But if the Israeli prime minister’s flirtation with tyranny inspires Trump, the battle to maintain American democracy and rule of law will be far fiercer than anything Israel is set to experience.

Scary.

Everyone is aware of the labeling of the coronavirus by the Trump regime and its propaganda organs as the “Chinese virus.” Not to diminish or relativize this blatant racism and xenophobia, but one must not ignore the responsibility of the Chinese regime in the coronavirus becoming a global pandemic, as Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid writes in The Atlantic, “China is avoiding blame by trolling the world: Beijing is successfully dodging culpability for its role in spreading the coronavirus.”

I’ll write next time about the French state and the pandemic. In the meantime, I recommend the blog of Parisian Claire Berlinski, who lives in the heart of the city and is in lockdown comme tout le monde.

UPDATE: Yuval Noah Harari—whose Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind everyone has read—has a ‘long read’ essay in the FT on “the world after coronavirus” that everyone needs to read. The lede: “This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come.” Money quote:

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

 

2nd UPDATE: Sofia-based political scientist Ivan Krastev—who is always worth reading—has a worthwhile essay in the New Statesman, “The seven early lessons of the global coronavirus crisis: Governments will eventually be forced to choose between containing the spread of the pandemic at the cost of destroying the economy, or tolerating a higher human cost to save the economy.”

3rd UPDATE: The Foreign Affairs website has several articles that should be read, one by the well-known economist Branko Milanovic, “The real pandemic danger is social collapse: As the global economy comes apart, societies may, too.”

Another is MIT economist Daron Acemoglu’s “The coronavirus exposed America’s authoritarian turn: Independent expertise always dies first when democracy recedes.”

4th UPDATE: Naomi Klein—whom I have not been a fan of—has a very good 27-minute video in which she “[m]akes the case for transformative change amid [the] coronavirus pandemic.”

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On the coronavirus pandemic

Credit here

If you want to read something that will make your day, take a look at the ‘long-read’ piece in the online magazine spiked (h/t John Judis), by the very smart Princeton University economist Ashoka Mody, “Italy: the crisis that could go viral. Coronavirus threatens to turn Italy’s economic and financial crisis into a global one.”

This coronavirus pandemic is getting quite scary, less for the eventual public health consequences—not to minimize these—than for its impact on the world economy—and on the lives of each and everyone of us.

To this may be added what is looking like an overreaction, albeit inevitable, of the public authorities in France and elsewhere. As my (Paris-based) friend Claire Berlinski tweeted yesterday:

The coronavirus mass hysteria reminds me of the aftermath of 9/11. Wouldn’t it be good to remember that overreactions to real but manageable threats can be far more dangerous than the threat itself?

The (under)reaction of the regime in Washington and its propaganda apparatus is another matter entirely.

The United States will face some particular challenges when the epidemic starts spreading, as The Atlantic’s Amanda Hull explains, “The problem with telling sick workers to stay home: Even with the coronavirus spreading, lax labor laws and little sick leave mean that many people can’t afford to skip work.”

Also independent journalist Carl Gibson in The Guardian: “Millions of uninsured Americans like me are a coronavirus timebomb: I haven’t gone to the doctor since 2013. When you multiply my situation by 27.5 million, that’s a scary prospect.”

Medicare-for-all and a labor code à la française anyone?

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Sad day

Credit: John Thys/Getty

A profoundly sad day, one should say. That’s what yesterday—January 31, 2020—was, with Brexit finally done (it was another kind of day outre-Atlantique—an outrageous one, with the US Senate Republicans voting to protect the criminal in the White House—but we won’t get into that here). I predicted after the 2016 referendum that Brexit would finally not happen, and held to that until last December’s general election, banking on a second referendum that would necessarily result in a ‘remain’ victory. Guess I was a little off. But I will insist, as I have all along, that there is no valid argument for Brexit. Not a single one. None whatever. And this assertion is only confirmed when listening to or reading pro-Brexiters, as in this NYT piece by journalist Tanya Gold, who checked out the Brexit celebration party in London last night and sought to engage the revelers in discussion. A lot of blather about “sovereignty”—whatever that’s supposed to mean in our globalized world—”taking back control,” and other vacuous slogans. Little England’s Trump base.

The UK will, of course, now be free to conclude a free trade agreement with the USA, and with Trump dictating the conditions: chlorinated poultry, hormone-treated beef, the NHS thrown open to the US pharmaceutical industry and  its pricing practices, et on en passe. Somehow I don’t think BoJo will take this leap.

The best commentary one will read on yesterday’s day in infamy is by novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan, published today in The Guardian, “Brexit, the most pointless, masochistic ambition in our country’s history, is done: The magic dust of populism has blinded reason, and damage and diminishment lie ahead.” This passage is nice:

Take a road trip from Greece to Sweden, from Portugal to Hungary. Leave your passport behind. What a rich, teeming bundle of civilisations – in food, manners, architecture, language, and each nation state profoundly and proudly different from its neighbours. No evidence of being under the boot-heel of Brussels. Nothing here of continental USA’s dreary commercial sameness. Summon everything you’ve learned of the ruinous, desperate state of Europe in 1945, then contemplate a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. Until Friday this was where our grown-up children went at will to live and work.

That’s over…

Why any state would renounce the free movement and right to live and work for its citizens in the 27 European Union member states is beyond comprehension. And particularly as the UK gains nothing in return from being outside the EU. As McEwan reminds us, none of the Leavers’ visions of a ‘Global Britain’ or other such ambitions were in any way thwarted by membership in the EU—and a privileged one at that, with the UK’s opt-outs from the single currency and Schengen. And absolutely none of the problems in the UK that fueled Brexiter sentiment were in any way a consequence of it being in the EU. As for the influx of migrants from Poland and other post-2004 enlargement states, it was the UK’s sovereign decision to immediately open its labor market to nationals of those states, whereas all the other EU member states save Ireland maintained restrictions for at least two years. No one in Brussels told the Brits what to do. But I know I’m preaching to the choir on all this, as it’s just so obvious.

Another reminder from McEwan:

The door out of Europe was held open by Corbyn for Johnson to walk through. In this case, if you travelled far enough to the left, you met and embraced the right coming the other way.

Unless something big and unexpected happens, this will be the last time I will post on the UK and EU until at least the end of this year.

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The inevitable Brexit

[update below]

The UK general election is two days away and I am crossing my fingers—hoping against hope—that it will result in a hung parliament—though without the Tories, like last time, being able to form a government with the DUP (or any other party). A Labour-LibDem-SNP-Plaid Cymru-Green majority would be able to put an end to the Brexit folly, with a second referendum and inevitable Remain victory. After which another general election would be held and the world outside the UK wouldn’t care one way or the other who came out on top.

But I’m realistic enough to know that this is not the likely scenario. The Tories are well ahead in the polls and, barring a polling failure of the first order, will win a comfortable majority in the House of Commons—and with the UK leaving the UK next month and Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street to the end of 2024. And the responsible party for this calamitous outcome will be the unreconstructed 1970s communist Jeremy Corbyn, who is Britain’s answer to Georges Marchais, though less entertaining in front of a TV camera (and two decades and some after the French Communists abandoned Marchais’ political vision). If the Labour Party hadn’t changed its leadership election rules in 2014—thereby enabling far leftists to hijack the party—the UK would most certainly not be in this Brexit mess. Maybe more about that another time.

Like lots of people, I have been appalled by BoJo and dismissive of him, viewing him as a sort of Trump wannabe. But I’m rethinking this after having read a lengthy portrait of him—”a great read,” as one friend emailed me; “brilliantly written,” so another tweeted—in New York magazine (December 9th issue) by Andrew Sullivan, “Boris’s blundering brilliance.” The lede: “Brexit has given the U.K’s self-seeking Prime Minister the opportunity to show he actually knows what he’s doing.” The piece is indeed a must-read. Sullivan may be interesting or irritating but, on this specific question, I instinctively trust him, as he is a product of Oxford, crossed paths with BoJo there, and as a working class ex-Tory (and anti-Brexit), has a critical distance on the matter. Sullivan presents BoJo as almost a social democrat—pragmatic in any case and hardly an ideologue—who will not sell Britain out to Trump’s America. I want to believe Sullivan here. The proof will be in the pudding. But Sullivan does convincingly argue that BoJo is not a right-wing populist in the mold of Trump, Orban, Salvini et al. And certainly not Marine Le Pen.

This YouTube video of BoJo reciting a passage from The Iliad in ancient Greek certainly proves that he is no Trump.

Regardless of what Sullivan says, the rhetoric coming out of the Brexit camp on the economy and social policy has been worrisome indeed, with talk of a “Singapore-on-the-Thames,” a free trade agreement with the US—that would lead to the gutting of the NHS, entre autres—and regulatory and fiscal dumping on a massive scale at the doorstep of the European Union. On this neoliberal vision/nightmare, one thinks of the last two films by the très engagé Scottish director Ken Loach. The most recent, which opened in France in October, is Sorry We Missed You, about a working class family (in Newcastle) in which the husband/father has lost his steady job and forced to become an independent contracter, and with the wife/mother working impossible hours—and neither earning enough to make ends meet. It’s the most incisive cinematic critique—denunciation, in fact—of the “Uberization” of our neoliberal economies that I’ve seen. Workplaces in France are not what they are in Great Britain such as depicted in the film—where no one mentions a Code du Travail—but if Emmanuel Macron were to get his way, it will only be a matter of time.

The other Loach film is I, Daniel Blake, which won the 2016 Palme d’Or. The protag in this one is a 59-year-old manual laborer (also in Newcastle) who is put on disability and thus entangled in the social service and unemployment agency system, which have been privatized and whose organizing principle is thus the bottom line—not in actually accompanying clients—and getting public charges off the dole. The film is a biting critique of precisely that: the privatization, or outsourcing to profit-making enterprises, of social service delivery, which had been—and should still be—assured by public employees. Having had personal experience with this here in France, where the state functionaries are dedicated professionals and whose objective is to help you, the citizen, I feel more strongly than ever that this sector must remain public and never be allowed anywhere near the private sector. Again, if Emmanuel Macron were to receive carte blanche, France would resemble its neighbor outre-Manche before too long.

Ken Loach is a gauchiste—more so than I—no doubt about that, but he makes good movies and that do not descend into caricature, bons sentiments, or manichaeism in their social critiques.

À suivre.

UPDATE: So the election resulted in the predictable Conservative victory, with a modest 1% increase in the Tory vote over 2017—a defeat for Theresa May—but a landslide in seats, which is all that counts. A huge victory for Boris Johnson and the incontestable brilliance of his strategy—of smashing Labour’s famous ‘red wall’ and uniting the entire Leave camp behind his leadership. And a corresponding debacle for Labour and the calamitous Jeremy Corbyn, who is incontestably responsible for the counter-performance. When a party’s share of the vote plunges from 40% to 32% in the space of two years—and witnesses its greatest loss in seats since before most people reading this were alive—the party leader is necessarily responsible. Nick Cohen nailed it in an instant post-mortem comment in The Spectator, “The polling that shows Corbyn is to blame for Labour’s decline.” It begins

The reason Jeremy Corbyn is not preparing to lead the first majority Labour government since 2010 is Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader is proving the falseness of the cliché that ‘oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them’. Unless enough people are convinced of an opposition’s competence and decency it will not take power, even when all it has to do is beat the mendacious rabble that make up today’s Conservative party.

Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition did not win a majority and could never win a majority because millions could not vote for the incompetent and indecent Jeremy Corbyn. It’s that simple.

I am not just repeating anecdotal evidence from Labour MPs and canvassers. A vast poll of 12,000 voters, released tonight, showed Jeremy Corbyn was by far the single biggest reason voters gave for deserting Labour. Of those who voted Labour in 2017 but were less than 50 per cent less likely to vote Labour now, Deltapoll found the overwhelming reason people gave was they ‘don’t like Jeremy Corbyn’ with 46 per cent agreeing with that blunt statement.

As tonight’s epic defeat shows, Labour could not win because of Jeremy Corbyn and the rancid political clique he led. Do not underestimate the scale of the rout for a moment. Johnson’s triumph is absolute. The Conservatives could be in power for most of the 2020s because a bunch of student politicians and narcissist performance artists destroyed a once viable party.

To continue reading Cohen’s comment, go here.

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee likewise nailed it in her post-mortem column, “Devoid of agility, charisma and credibility, Corbyn has led Labour into the abyss.” The lede: “Yes, the manifesto was magnificent. But Corbyn has allowed his party to be riven by sectarianism, antisemitism and Brexit.”

For his part, The Observer’s political editor Toby Helm wrote, “I saw for myself just how hostile many voters were to Jeremy Corbyn.”

Paul Mason has an incisive comment in the New Statesman, “Corbynism is over – Labour’s next leader must unite the centre and the left: Only a pluralist movement can counter a dangerous alliance of conservatism and authoritarian nationalism.”

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Today is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, which is receiving a fair amount of media attention here in France. As I told my American students this week—born a decade after the event—it was, geopolitically speaking, one of the most important events in my lifetime, not to mention exhilarating (I further specified that states that put up walls on their border normally do so to keep people from entering, but the Berlin wall was to prevent people from leaving). I followed the unraveling in East Germany from Algiers, where I was living at the time, via the BBC World Service (on my shortwave radio), International Herald-Tribune, and Le Monde (when I could find it): the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border to fleeing East Germans, the demonstrations in Leipzig, and the sudden opening of the wall on the night of the 9th-10th. Unlike the Tienanmen Square movement in Peking five/six months earlier—which I was also riveted to via the BBC—this one did not end tragically.

For the anecdote, I went through the Berlin wall once, in August 1974, with my friend and traveling companion, along with a couple of Swedish girls we met at the youth hostel in West Berlin. One could visit East Berlin for the day without a visa (and that included US military personnel). So we went through Checkpoint Charlie in the morning and headed by foot to the center of the eastern side of the city, through a couple of blocks of buildings that were abandoned or hadn’t been rebuilt since the war. On the Unter den Linden we crossed a guy around my age (late teens) standing at a table, maybe selling or distributing something. He asked me in a hushed voice, and in English, if I had a map of West Berlin (the city stopped at the wall on maps available in the east). I said no or shook my head. Who knows, it could have been a set-up. Crossing back to the west at Checkpoint Charlie, around 6 PM, we watched the East German border guards slide a big mirror on wheels under the cars, to see if anyone was clinging underneath. What a system.

As it happens, there have been several very good films over the past two years on East Germany, of the nature of its system—of “actually existing socialism,” as the Hungarian philosophers Agnes Heller and Ferenc Féher tagged Eastern Bloc communism—and people trying to flee it. One is Balloon (the title in both German and English; the French title, Le Vent de la Liberté—the wind of freedom—is better), directed by Michael Bully Herbig and which opened here in April. It’s set in 1979 and based on a true story (there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page on it), of two families (of eight people) in a town in the hilly, forested southwestern GDR (in Thuringia), who concoct a plan to flee to the West in a hot air balloon, which the two men—who work together in a factory, one an electrician, the other who knows how to sew—have the skills to make. The attempt fails, however, as the balloon hits the ground just short of the border (with its electrified barbed-wire fences and minefields). They manage to make it back to their homes in the dead of night undetected but when the balloon is discovered, the Stasi launches a massive manhunt to find out who it was who tried to flee. The importance accorded to it at the summit of the East German state and mobilization of manpower and resources to tracking down the culprits—simple, otherwise non-political law-abiding people—takes one’s breath away. Knowing that they are in danger of being discovered, the families decide to confection another balloon and try again, with acquiring the materials without arousing suspicion riskier than ever. So it’s a race against the clock as the Stasi closes in on them, and which is hot on their heels as they take off from the forest in the second attempt (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending). It’s a terrific movie; a riveting, edge-of-the-seat thriller (the high-octane final scene recalls that of the movie ‘Argo’). A slam-dunk for AWAV’s Top 10 of the year. It seems not to have been released in the US or UK yet, though no doubt will be at some point. Trailer is here.

Another first-rate film, which opened in France in May 2018, is The Silent Revolution (In France, La Révolution silencieuse; the German title translates as ‘the silent classroom’), directed by Lars Kraume and also based on a true story (of course), this one set in autumn 1956 In Eisenhüttenstadt (then called Stalinstadt), at an elite high school, where the students are all members of the Communist party’s youth league, being tracked for elite careers and presumably with party membership. Two students, learning via RIAS—which listening to in the GDR could get one into trouble—about the reality of the Hungarian revolution underway—of the mass nature of the uprising and the bloodiness of the Warsaw Pact intervention—inform their classmates (equivalent of 12th grade), who decide to hold a minute of silence before class begins for the Hungarian victims. When the school authorities demand to know what the minute of silence was all about, the students make up a story that it was for the Hungarian soccer star Ferenc Puskás, who had reportedly been killed. But the reports of Puskás’ death were false, as it turned out, and could have only been heard via Western radio, so the school authorities demand to know who the ringleaders of the minute of silence are, informing the class that they will all be expelled—with their entrance to university thus compromised, future career plans scuttled, and parents punished for good measure—if they don’t cough up the names. It becomes an affaire d’État, taken with the utmost seriousness in East Berlin. But the students stick together and, one after the other, plot their escape to West Berlin (the wall hadn’t yet been built but there were checkpoints leaving the Soviet sector, making the crossing risky for East Germans and other citizens of Warsaw Pact countries). Crazy system. Trailer is here.

Another very good film—which was a nominee for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language picture—is Never Look Away (in France: L’Œuvre sans auteur, which, like the German title, translates as ‘work without auteur’), by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who directed the 2006 masterpiece The Lives of Others, which remains the best film to date on the GDR and its system. The pic, which is over three hours long—split into two parts for some reason; I had to leave the theater and buy another ticket for the second part—is loosely based on the early life of Gerhard Richter—from his childhood in the mid 1930s to the mid 1960s—who has been one of Germany’s leading contemporary artists for the past few decades. The A-list cast, of actors/actresses one has seen in other German films, includes Tom Schilling, who plays the adult Richter character, Kurt Barnert; Sebastian Koch, a gynecologist and Nazi-turned-communist collaborator named Carl Seeband; Paula Beer, Seeband’s daughter and Barnert’s wife; and Saskia Rosendahl, the young Barnert’s beautiful, beloved, free-spirited aunt, who is committed to an asylum, and then sent to an early death, by the Nazi Seeband. I’m not going to recap the complex story—for that, one may consult the Wikipedia page—which takes us from Barnert’s childhood in Dresden during the Nazi era, coming of age as an artist in the communist GDR, suffocating under the reign of socialist realism, defecting with his wife via West Berlin (before the wall), coming into his own as a cutting-edge artist in Dusseldorf, and settling scores with his father-in-law Seeband, who was, as Barnert learns, responsible for the death of his aunt twenty-five years earlier. I was totally engrossed in the film from beginning to end. It is sure to make AWAV’s Top 10. Trailer is here.

And then there’s Cold War by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, which is set mainly in Poland in the late 1940s—the Stalinist deep freeze—to the 1960s (also in Paris and Italy), and has nothing to do with East Germany except for a scene in East Berlin (pre-wall), when the protag gets past a checkpoint to defect to the West. It’s short film (barely an hour-and-a-half), a mood piece (with the jazz soundtrack adding to the moodiness), shot in a haunting black-and-white—it’s aesthetically beautiful—of a torrid love affair between a prominent pianist and a young singer. And it gives an idea as to how “actually existing socialism” persecuted artists who fell afoul of the system, as did the protag musician. I was engaged with the film and, like most people I know who saw it, thought it quite good, though didn’t have a tremendous amount to say about it afterward. Trailer is here.

Finally, there’s an animated film, ‘Fritzi – A Revolutionary Tale’, which I saw last month at the annual Festival du Cinéma Allemand in Paris (at the Arlequin cinema on Rue de Rennes). I hesitated on this one, as I don’t normally go to animated films, but as the theme sounded sufficiently interesting, I thought what the hell. Here’s the description from its English website:

East Germany, 1989.

Twelve-year-old Fritzi lovingly takes care of her best friend Sophie’s little dog Sputnik, while Sophie’s family is on summer vacation in Hungary. When Sophie doesn’t come back, Fritzi and Sputnik set out in search of her. That adventure leads her into the Monday´s demonstrations of Leipzig and towards the heavily-guarded border…

Historically accurate, authentic, and with lots of rich period detail and atmosphere, this moving animated movie for the whole family retells the story of the peaceful revolution of 1989 from a child’s perspective. An entertaining and exciting tale of the Fall of the Wall, and of the people who were brave enough to change the world, which will make a lasting impression, not only on young viewers.

The salle at the Arlequin theater was packed with some 150 exuberant 8th and 9th graders on a field trip from middle schools in the Paris banlieue, whom I learned (asking a few afterward) were all taking German as their principal foreign language (LV1). They applauded and cheered at the end. The youngsters liked the film. Nice. Trailer (dubbed in English) is here.

 

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Je recommande la lecture de cette fascinante, étonnante et gratifiante série en six volets, intitulée “Sarajevo-Jérusalem” et publiée dans Le Monde du 13 au 19 août, sur la communauté juive de Sarajevo, présent et passé, de son histoire de bonne entente avec les musulmans bosniaques de la ville – ville où il n’y a jamais eu de ghetto et où l’antisémitisme était quasi inexistant. Il y a eu une douzaine de milliers de juifs à Sarajevo avant la Deuxième guerre mondiale – 20% de sa population, majoritairement séfarade – dont plus de 80% ont été exterminés pendant l’occupation nazie, avec le concours des Oustachis croates. Un certain nombre des rescapés est parti en Israël après 1948, et surtout pendant le siège de Sarajevo par l’armée yougoslave serbe (1992-95) – quoique les juifs de Bosnie-Herzégovine étaient, dans leur majorité, peu pratiquant et pas très sioniste.

Ce qui reste aujourd’hui est une vibrante communauté d’un millier d’âmes qui fait partie intégrante de la ville. L’expérience sarajévienne réfute-t-elle la notion d’une Bosnie historiquement divisée en communautés vivant à couteaux tirés – et s’inscrit en faux plus généralement contre le nationalisme ambiant de notre époque. Comme on peut lire dans le sixième volet, “contrairement au mythe brandi par les nationalistes des trois dernières décennies, la coexistence ne fut pas limitée à une Yougoslavie de Tito condamnée à disparaître après sa mort, mais qu’elle fut ancrée dans l’histoire de la ville durant des siècles, répondant à un sincère besoin de bon voisinage et d’humanité des Sarajéviens.”

L’expérience sarajévienne allait au-delà du bon voisinage. Il y a eu une véritable solidarité entre juifs et musulmans (avec des mariages mixtes). À ce titre, le Jérusalem d’aujourd’hui – l’exacte contraire du vivre-ensemble, où une communauté (en l’occurrence, juive) domine les autres par la force – est implicitement posé en contre-modèle, et pour cause.

L’auteur de cette remarquable série, Rémy Ourdan, connait bien le sujet. Grand reporter au journal Le Monde, il a couvert le siège de Sarajevo durant quatre ans (et a co-réalisé un documentaire dessus) et a fait maints reportages en Israël-Palestine au fil des années.

Voilà les volets de la série:

  1. Juifs de Sarajevo: les héros ordinaires de la ‘Jérusalem de l’Europe’. —— A travers l’histoire des juifs de Sarajevo, voyage dans ces deux villes en quête d’universalité, symboles des peuples du Livre, épicentres des conflits modernes, sur les traces d’une certaine idée, réelle ou imaginaire, de la coexistence…
  2. La saga du sauvetage de la Haggadah de Sarajevo, le manuscrit sépharade le plus précieux au monde. —— Convoité par les nazis en 1942 puis menacé pendant la guerre de Bosnie, le fameux manuscrit enluminé du XIVe siècle a dû être caché à plusieurs reprises.
  3. Les mousquetaires juifs du siège de Sarajevo. —— La communauté juive a, pendant la guerre de Bosnie, lancé une incroyable opération humanitaire, organisant l’évacuation de 2 500 Sarajéviens et portant assistance aux assiégés. Israël a de son côté vu débarquer des centaines de ‘juifs sarajéviens’ très peu juifs…
  4. Les étonnantes coutumes des rabbins sarajéviens. —— A l’instar du dernier rabbin yougoslave, Cadik Danon, c’est toute une lignée de religieux, représentée aujourd’hui par Eliezer Papo et Igor Kozemjakin, qui prend des libertés avec les lois et traditions juives. Une vision du judaïsme proche de l’esprit de Sarajevo.
  5. De l’’éducation sarajévienne’ à la cause palestinienne. —— Fille d’une survivante sarajévienne de Bergen-Belsen, Amira Hass vit depuis vingt-cinq ans en Cisjordanie. Cette reporter et éditorialiste au quotidien ‘Haaretz’ défend sans relâche la cause palestinienne dans les colonnes de son journal.
  6. Sarajevo-Jérusalem, deux villes, deux destins. —— Contrairement à Sarajevo, qui a résisté avec l’énergie du désespoir à la division ethnique de la ville, les habitants de Jérusalem vivent aujourd’hui séparés et la ville sainte est plus fracturée que jamais.

Here’s a related article in Haaretz, dated 19 July 2017, by Sarajevo-based journalist Kate Bartlett: “Why Sarajevo’s tiny Jewish community believes it’s in the safest place in Europe for Jews: In a country where ethnic hatreds run deep, the Jewish community in the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ says it is not subject to anti-Semitic acts and is even enjoying a ‘baby boom’.”

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Credit here

I’ve been off AWAV for a while, which a few have noticed, in part as I was away from the banks of the Marne—and on or near the shores of the Aegean—earlier this month. There’s also been too much news to follow. So much to write about, so little time. Actually, I do have some time now. One never-ending story that continues to capture attention is the Brexit psychodrama, which has entered an ever crazier phase, with the descent into insanity of a Tory party that is increasingly resembling its unhinged conservative counterpart outre-Atlantique—just take a look at the YouGov poll released last week (image below)—and the seemingly inevitable accession of Trump wannabe Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street. That BoJo does not belong there goes without saying, former Daily Telegraph editor and well-known historian Max Hastings being the latest to remind us, in a June 24th opinion piece in The Guardian, “I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be prime minister.”

The most fascinating explanation of how a clown like BoJo could rise as high as he has—in the world’s oldest, most stable, and, so we thought, most serious democracy—may be found in a terrific “long weekend read” essay by Simon Kuper in the FT (June 21st), “How Oxford university shaped Brexit — and Britain’s next prime minister.” Kuper, an Oxford alum himself and contemporary of BoJo and other top Tories, knows the institution, its culture, and personalities comme sa poche, and offers a unique insight into the us et coutumes of the British ruling class (in the vein of the pieces by Pankaj Mishra and Joanna Scutts that I’ve linked to on the subject). It’s a must-read.

If one has lost the thread on Brexit and needs a refresher, see Ian Dunt’s “Short guide to Britain’s long attempt to leave Europe.” And if one needs a refresher on BoJo’s inveterate lying and mythomania—rendering him utterly untrustworthy by his future EU partners and not to be taken seriously—see the post-2016 referendum pieces by Martin Fletcher and Jean Quatremer.

On a subject having nothing to do with Brexit or the Tory party, but merits posting here in view of the Oxbridge/British elite angle, take a few minutes to read the obituary (here) of the well-known historian and journalist Norman Stone, by fellow historian Sir Richard J Evans, I can’t remember the last time I read an obituary like this, at least in a mainstream publication. Sir Evans really didn’t care for Professor Stone!

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[update below] [2nd update below]

In 2014 it was a disaster, as I wrote back then. This time it wasn’t. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National may have finished in first place but this was pretty much expected. And there were some bright spots—from my standpoint at least—in the scores for all the principal lists. I’m not going to give a full-blown analysis here, just flesh out some instant thoughts I posted on social media on Sunday night.

  • First, the marked increase in the participation rate, which broke 50%, the highest for a European election since 1994. Late polling indicated that turnout would be up compared to last time, but it wasn’t expected to this extent. I was an assesseur titulaire in my bureau de vote on Sunday, so could observe this throughout the day. Salutary this sursaut citoyen, even if the veritable impetus had less to do with Europe than national considerations (to sanction Emmanuel Macron or deny first place to Marine Le Pen). That said, the increased turnout—and in other EU states as well—signals in increasing interest in the European  Union—and for many, a support for the European project.
  • The RN may have come in first place but, at 23.3%, its score was lower than in 2014 (24.9%). And as it will have two fewer seats (22) in the European Parliament, this cannot be seen as a hands-down victory for Le Pen. The RN drew votes from Gilets Jaunes—up to 44% of GJs voted RN, according to one poll—but they were likely RN/FN voters anyway. The RN has consecrated its status as one of the major poles in French politics but this result does not, in itself, point to RN gains in next year’s municipal elections (as for 2022, that’s a ways away). So long as the RN remains in its ghetto, with no major party willing to ally with it, it will not be able win a national election. And in the European Parliament, one may be sure that it won’t do a thing—i.e. its MEPs won’t participate in the work of the parliamentary committees (where they’re congenital no shows)—and will only undermine the influence of France in EU institutions.
  • I wrote on Sunday night that Macron took a hit (and a well-deserved one) with the République en Marche-MoDem list finishing in second place, though think I need to attenuate that. It would have obviously been preferable from Macron’s standpoint to finish first, but the close second—and with 22.4%—should not be viewed as a setback, all things considered. E.g. with Macron’s unpopularity—he’s at 27% approval/68% disapproval in the latest IPSOS baromètre—and the endless weekend GJ manifs, it could have been worse for him, cf. the more marked votes de sanction against the party in the Élysée in almost all past European elections (2009 a notable recent exception). Exit polling has shown that the REM benefited yesterday from the defection of moderate right LR voters in its direction, confirming that Macron will most surely govern from the center-right for the rest of his term. This will be majorly consequential for the ongoing recomposition of the French political spectrum heading toward 2022.
  • Europe Écologie-Les Verts’ 13.5% is quite simply stunning, as no one expected it, Yannick Jadot’s list polling at 9% tops. Given the momentum of Green parties in Germany and elsewhere, and the increasing importance attached by voters to climate change and other environmental issues, such electoral progress can only warm the heart. And the increased size of the European Greens political group in the European Parliament can only be welcomed. This said, EELV’s excellent score does not augur anything for the future, as we’ve seen this before. E.g. in the 1999 European elections, Les Verts, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, reached almost 10%, but which did not send the écolos into orbit nationally, nor did its amazing 16.4% in the 2009 Euro elections (close on the heels of the PS, led by Martine Aubry at the time). The écolo spikes in past elections have been sans lendemain, with European election Verts voters returning to other left or centrist parties/candidates in national elections. And this will likely remain the case, with almost all parties outside the hard right having integrated environmental themes into their programs, The fact is, EELV remains a small formation, permanently rent by factional infighting, and with, at present, almost no high-profile elected representatives. And if it tries to go it alone electorally—presenting candidates on its own, outside of any alliance or pact with the PS or anyone else—which has been its reflex in recent years, it will bite the dust, as it always has in two-round elections when it does its cavalier seul act. So despite EELV’s brilliant score yesterday, don’t hold your breath waiting for it to become the leading force on the French left.
  • The catastrophic 8.5% of Les Républicains, which not a single poll came anywhere close to predicting—LR was seen going as high as 15%, if not more—is the big story of this election. No one could have ever foreseen the longtime standard-bearer of neo-Gaullism and la droite parlementaire sinking into the single digits, and despite the party’s increasingly hard right turn over the past decade (recalling the rightward progression of a certain conservative party outre-Atlantique). The cerebral tête de liste François-Xavier Bellamy seemed to be catching on with the LR base, and despite—or perhaps because of—his very conservative, Catholic views on questions de société, and came across as friendly and open-minded to boot (quite unlike the cynical, insufferably arrogant LR secy-gen Laurent Wauquiez). E.g. even Benoît Hamon, among other lefties, enjoys conversations with Bellamy, so one reads. But this finally didn’t matter to LR voters, particularly the more moderate among them, who found Bellamy too conservative—and Wauquiez’s identitarian rhetoric too extreme—so defected to the REM and Macron. And on LR’s right flank, réac voters decided to go for the real thing—Marine LP and the RN—rather than the wannabe. As for where LR goes from here, it would be nice if this calamitous result brings moderate rightists like Valérie Pécresse or Xavier Bertrand back to the fore, but I’m not optimistic. The core of the LR base remains the “Trocadéro right,” and despite the REM having realized some its best scores in Paris’s most upscale arrondissements (6th, 7th, 8th, 16th), plus wealthy western banlieues (Neuilly-sur-Seine et al)—which have been fiefs of the right since the dawn of time—finishing way ahead in first place and with 45-48% of the vote. With the REM now occupying the center-right and the RN formally abandoning its pledge to quit the EU, the space for a significant conservative party between these two is narrow indeed.
  • The paltry 6.3% of La France Insoumise list was the most gratifying surprise of the election. This catastrophic, utterly unforeseen result for LFI was not a failure of tête de liste Manon Aubry, who is sympathique and acquitted herself well in the campaign, so I thought, but of LFI caudillo Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was aiming for the double-digits and to consecrate LFI as the uncontested nº 1 force on the left, but instead barely avoided being overtaken by the convalescing PS, which would have been the supreme humiliation for him. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. With this score, JLM is K.O., both politically and personally, the latter because his trash-talking, scowling personality is not wearing well, including among his voters. I personally know people who are otherwise supportive of LFI’s line but simply cannot stand JLM (the televised spectacle of him blowing his fuses with the judicial police last October turned off more than a few). And within LFI, there is increasing exasperation at JLM’s authoritarian style and of his solo leadership—in informal tandem with his significant other—of the party. On the political level, LFI’s counter-performance signifies the limits of JLM’s populist discourse, of trying to appeal to categories of the electorate who don’t necessarily have the same world-view, e.g. the couches populaires—of the Gilets Jaunes variety—and urban, educated left-wing millennials. Both may share an allergy to neoliberalism but they sharply differ on other matters (e.g. immigration, identity). The couches populaires are attached to the nation and are reflexively suspicious of the European Union; with educated millennials, it’s the reverse. With the latter, JLM’s nationalism and Euroscepticism—when it comes to the EU, he is fundamentally not so different from Marine Le Pen—will not fly. There is a bitter truth that a lot of lefties over a certain age have a hard time accepting, which is that the working class unmoored from trade unions leans much more to the right than the left. JLM knows this—I’ve heard him say it up close, that it’s a myth that the WC has always monolithically voted for the left—but he underestimates the numbers. Left-wing parties can craft an appropriate economic message—that’s what makes them left-wing—but insofar as identity and nationalism trump economics for atomized WC voters, the latter are out of reach for the left. And a party of the left that tries to address the cultural anxieties of WC voters will not only fail in the effort but lose sizable numbers of its educated supporters. There is a space on the political spectrum for an LFI-type party but in the single digits. If LFI were to become the leading party of the left—which is now not too likely—it would consign the French left to permanent opposition in the same way the PCF’s domination did in the three decades following the end of WWII. Hopefully JLM will wake up, smell the coffee, and abandon his ambitions for 2022. As for who could take his place as the porte-drapeau of the radical left, I have my ideas.
  • The Parti Socialiste-Place Publique’s 6.2% was cause for satisfaction, as, according to the final polls, the list was in danger of falling under 5%, and thus sending no deputies to the European Parliament. As I wrote in the previous post, such a result would have likely meant the end of the PS. That the PS came close to matching its calamitous score in the 2017 presidential election is hardly a cause for rejoicing—which Raphaël Glucksmann made clear on Sunday night—but at least we know that the Socialists have touched bottom and can only go up, particularly in view of LFI’s failure. If Benoît Hamon had responded favorably to Glucksmann’s unity initiative and not run a list of his irrelevant micro-party, Génération.s—which received a predictable 3.3%—the “Envie d’Europe” list could have gone as high as 9%. So now that the PS has sauvé les meubles, it can now look to rebuild, as the positioning of Macron and the REM on the center-right has created a wide open space on the center-left that cannot and will not be filled by EELV alone. Or even primarily. The PS still has an infrastructure of militants and élus—which is rather larger than EELV’s—and, with the next elections being the municipals in March 2020, can realistically aim to recover some of the ground it lost in the 2014 debacle, particularly if it can forge single slates with EELV. Also, the REM controls not a single mairie—the party not existing in the last municipal elections—and most of its eager beaver marcheurs of the 2017 campaign have fallen by the wayside. If Macron remains unpopular into next year—which is likely—the REM will not be entering the municipal election campaign with a head of steam. Likewise with LR, in view of its current state. So things may indeed be looking up for a rejuvenated PS after next March. In this respect, some history: (a) In the 1969 presidential election, as everyone remembers, the Socialists hit rock bottom with Gaston Deferre’s 5%. Two years later was the Epinay congress and François Mitterrand, followed by the Union de la Gauche and the cliffhanger 49.2% loss in 1974; and then there was 1981… (b) After the victories of 1981 the PS suffered one major electoral setback after another and by 1986 the right looked to be in the drivers seat; but Mitterrand recovered and was easily reelected in 1988;  (c) The catastrophic 1993 legislative elections saw the PS lose 218 of its 275 incumbent deputies, followed by the rout of Michel Rocard’s list in the 1994 European elections; the PS looked to be out of it for the foreseeable future; four months before the 1st round of the 1995 presidential election, the party didn’t even have a candidate, but then Lionel Jospin rose from the ashes, losing to Jacques Chirac with a respectable 47.4% in the 2nd round; and then there was the 1997 early legislatives and the brilliant victory of the PS-led Gauche Plurielle; and if it hadn’t been for the accident of the 21 avril, Jospin would have likely defeated Chirac in the 2002 presidential election. (d) After its miserable result in the 2009 European elections, the future of the PS looked somber, and with the high-profile pundit BHL proclaiming in a banner headline in a Sunday newspaper that the party would soon be “dead.” But it came back in the 2010 regionals and, by mid 2012, was the dominant party in France (okay, that didn’t last long but still). The lesson: when it comes to the French Socialist Party, it ain’t over till it’s over…

There’s a lot more to say but that’s it for now.

UPDATE: The image below illustrates the point made above about the REM doing particularly well in Paris’s beaux quartiers on Sunday (h/t Angelo Pardi via Guillaume Duval).

2nd UPDATE: Libération editor-in-chief Laurent Joffrin’s “lettre politique” of May 28th, on LFI and JLM, is absolutely worth reading. He totally nails it.

28 mai 2019
La lettre politique de Laurent Joffrin

La France insoumise a «un problème»

Clémentine Autain est sortie du bois la première. Il y a, dit-elle, «un problème de ligne et de profil politique» à La France insoumise, qui a trop misé sur «le ressentiment, la haine, ou le clash permanent». Nostra culpa : «Sans doute avons-nous pris trop de distance avec un discours de gauche.»

«Problème» il y a, de toute évidence. Sur une ligne dégagiste, LFI a divisé par trois en deux ans le score de Jean-Luc Mélenchon à la présidentielle (de 18% à 6%). C’est l’effet des innombrables sorties de route volontaires des insoumis, toutes justifiées par la culture de l’anathème : agressivité permanente, dénigrement constant du reste de la gauche, procès en sorcellerie contre Jadot, «haine» assumée contre les journalistes de tous bords, vociférations grand-guignolesques contre une perquisition judiciaire, invocation rituelle d’un «raz-de-marée» populaire qui n’a jamais eu lieu, sauf avec le mouvement des gilets jaunes, parti tout seul, quand LFI n’appelait à rien ; déification compensatoire de certains leaders gilets jaunes aux options pour le moins ambiguës, discours européen incompréhensible consistant à prévoir une «sortie des traités» qui ne serait pas une sortie de l’Union, alors que l’Union est justement bâtie sur un traité, etc. A force de considérer que l’enfer, c’est les autres, tous traîtres, soumis ou vendus, on reste seul avec ses certitudes.

Problème plus large, d’ailleurs : le recul de la gauche radicale est général en Europe. La débâcle la plus spectaculaire a frappé le parti dégagiste Podemos, miné par les divisions, tombé à 10% en Espagne, après avoir perdu la plupart des villes conquises dans la foulée du mouvement des «indignés», dont Madrid et Barcelone, excusez du peu. Il n’est pas le seul. Au total, le groupe d’extrême gauche au Parlement européen est passé de plus de 50 sièges à moins de 40, représentant tout au plus 5% de l’électorat. Gauche radicale, gauche marginale. A force de dire non à tout, les énergies militantes se lassent et passent chez ceux qui disent oui à quelque chose. Elles ont gonflé le mouvement écologiste, qui se bat sur un programme positif de réformes immédiates et, au lieu de dénoncer mécaniquement tous les compromis, cherche des alliances européennes pour y parvenir.

C’est l’essence même du dégagisme qui est en cause. Le peuple d’un côté, les élites de l’autre : sommaire et faux. Les élites ne sont pas toujours réactionnaires ni le peuple progressiste. C’est en bâtissant une coalition «interclasses» qu’on réunit une majorité ou, à tout le moins, qu’on impose des réformes de progrès. C’est avec des civils qu’on fait des militaires, et donc avec des gens qui ne pensent pas comme soi qu’on élargit son influence. Sans quoi on reste au balcon à distribuer les excommunications. Le dégagisme a marché un temps. Il est usé, ou alors il profite aux nationalistes. LFI en avait fait un dogme, un leitmotiv, un ADN. Effectivement, il y a «un problème».

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Polls, 2019 European elections, France (credit: Huffpost)

[update below]

The European election campaign in France has been a sad spectacle. The level of public interest is typically low, the pro-Europe left is weaker than ever, and the extreme right-wing ex-FN—renamed the Rassemblement National—will likely finish in first place as it did in 2014, with a quarter of the vote and Marine Le Pen exulting. Emmanuel Macron likely thought that anointing the non-politician Nathalie Loiseau—unknown to the public and who is as much a caricature of the énarchie as he—to head the REM list—called Renaissance, which will join the centrist ALDE in the European Parliament—was a deft move, but she hasn’t worked out too well as a candidate. Macron’s political skills are nul; as a politician, he’s hopeless. If his list finishes behind the RN, he will rightly be seen as the election’s big loser—particularly as he has implicated himself in the campaign to a greater extent than his predecessors in the Élysée—which will further weaken him in Brussels. And with the RN set to win up to a third of France’s 79 seats in Strasbourg, this will only increase the marginalization of France in the EU, as Le Pen’s party, in addition to many things, barely participates in the work of the European Parliament. The RN is a party of grifters. Triste France.

There have been a number of televised debates, the latest one last night on BFM, with the 11 leading têtes de listes and which went for three hours. I didn’t see it. Too long, too many people, too much cacophony. I did, however, catch on replay Wednesday night’s first debate on France 2, with candidates or representatives of the six lists polling over 5%, which went for an hour-and-a-half (it was followed by a second debate, with nine lesser candidates, which I didn’t bother with). The participants were Marine Le Pen, standing in for the no. 1 on RN list, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella; MoDem‘s François Bayrou, who is allied with Macron and REM, taking the place of Mme Loiseau; the hard-rightist Laurent Wauquiez, replacing the youthful conservative egghead François-Xavier Bellamy, who heads the LR list; the engaging newcomer Manon Aubry, all of 29 years of age, whom Jean-Luc Mélenchon has put in charge of LFI‘s list; Yannick Jadot of EELV; and Place Publique‘s Raphaël Glucksmann, who is leading the PS’s effort (more on him and that below).

According to IPSOS’s Brice Teinturier, the four most important themes for the French electorate in this election are purchasing power (i.e how much money people have in their figurative pockets), protection of the environment, France’s place in Europe and the world, and immigration (slipping to fourth place). So the questions revolved around those, which included ones on whether or not diesel cars should be banned in the EU by 2040, if the VAT should be set at 0% for “produits de première nécessité” (not precisely defined), what degree of protectionism should be imposed by the EU, should national border controls be reestablished, and if there should be obligatory quotas for EU member states in receiving asylum-seekers and refugees.

As one knows, form is as important as substance in debates, particularly in televised political ones, and all the more so when there are many undecided voters faced with multiple options to choose from that, on substance, hardly differ from one another—and in a proportional representation election where le vote utile (voting strategically) does not factor (except if a list is close to the qualifying threshold). E.g., even in this particular debate, with just six candidates, large numbers of voters (myself included) could, strictly on the issues, vote for two, or even three, of them (like a Democratic or Republican primary in the US). When the two debates ended, Teinturier announced the result of IPSOS’s instant poll as to which candidates were “convincing”—I knew it about beforehand, having watched the debate en différé—which had Le Pen in first place, with 39%. I regret to say that I can understand why persons even somewhat open to her rhetoric would say this. MLP spewed her usual bullshit but not with the aggressiveness for which she is wont. She toned it down. And as her party has changed its line on quitting the euro and the EU—the FN/RN, ceding to French public opinion, no longer formally advocates this—she could not be attacked on this score. She also skillfully avoided answering the environmentally-related question by weaving, dodging, and bringing up irrelevant issues. She was likewise fortunate to have Wauquiez—standing to her right on the stage—as a foil. Wauquiez, who leads the LR party, is not a stupid man but, like Macron and Loiseau, is almost a caricature of the arrogant énarque—he graduated first in his class at ENA (promotion Mandela, 2001)—who thinks he’s brilliant and everyone else around him is, at best, a nitwit, at worst an outright idiot. Wauquiez is, moreover, surely one of the most cynical men in French political life. E.g., he started his political career under the tutelage of the late Jacques Barrot, as a pro-Europe centrist and liberal in the classical sense, but tacked to the identitarian hard right, and with a soft Eurosceptic stance, when he detected that the base of the LR party was increasingly aligned with the FN on practically every issue. And he comes across as antipathique—he really does seem like a nasty person utterly full of himself—which cannot be a merely subjective opinion on my part in view of his poll numbers (in the May IPSOS baromètre politique: 17% approval, 62% disapproval). Wauquiez had at least two sharp exchanges with MLP in the debate, and with the latter getting the better of them. It was a mistake not to have sent Bellamy, who is equally smart, comes across rather better, and has become popular with right-wing voters to boot.

Aubry, Jadot, and Glucksmann all acquitted themselves well IMHO, but Bayrou did not so much. His participation in the debate was almost incongruous. A renewal of the French political class has been underway for the past several years, and which accelerated with the 2017 election of Macron and his REM in the National Assembly. Bayrou is a throwback to a bygone era. He’s a smart man, very well spoken, and with interesting, valid things to say—and, at 67, is not that old—but he seemed out of place on the stage. An almost has-been. And in responding to the question on migration, he specified that he was expressing his personal viewpoint. But, hey, he was there as the representative of the REM-MoDem list! A big mistake. And also for Macron to have sent him.

On Raphaël Glucksmann and the PS list, this is the one I will be voting for. The PS, as one may be aware, has been a champ de ruines—a rubble heap—since the 2017 elections. First Secretary Olivier Faure has struck me a good man and well spoken, though he doesn’t have much of a public presence and may or may not be the right person to revive the PS from its pitiful state. When Glucksmann announced the creation last year of Place Publique, whose objective was to unite the moderate left—i.e. everything between REM and LFI—into a single list for the European elections, it wasn’t taken too seriously, as Glucksmann is a mere writer and intellectual (his late father, André, had more notoriety). Personally speaking, I’ve listened periodically to Glucksmann’s weekly Saturday afternoon debate on France Inter with the contrarian souverainiste talking head Natacha Polony—I’ll take him over her any day—but that was it. But Faure, fully cognizant of the PS’s calamitous state, decided to take up Glucksmann’s offer—and for him to head the list—and got his skeptical party to go along (with the smaller Parti Radical de Gauche and Nouvelle Donne; Benoît Hamon, to his discredit, refused to commit his Génération.s movement—and for specious reasons—and there was never a chance that the écolos would join).

But the list, called Envie d’Europe, hasn’t taken off, needless to say, hovering around the 5% threshold, below which is elimination and no MEPs elected, and one of the reasons being Glucksmann’s difficult transition from the Parisian intellectual world to partisan politics. Last Saturday, at the marché in my neighborhood, I ran into a local PS tract-distributing militant, who, when I asked if the PS was having any rally at all in Paris in the final week of the campaign, informed me that one would be happening the next day at a venue called the Cabaret Sauvage, in the 19th arrondissement, which I had never heard of. And so I went, on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The place—tucked away in the Parc de la Villette complex, along the Canal de l’Ourcq and off the Boulevards des Maréchaux—is hard to find if one doesn’t know it. My, how far the PS has fallen, I told myself, to have its final Paris election rally in such an obscure venue, and with there having been almost no publicity, not even online (there was a Facebook page but that was about it). And the sentiment was reinforced when I got there, as the thing was beginning (toward 4:45 pm); the place was packed, most standing room, but held a maximum of maybe 800, almost all manifestly card-carrying PS militants (as they cheered wildly at the mention of PS politicos present I hadn’t heard of, and I am fairly well-informed as to who is who in French politics; the event was, in effect, a pep rally for the hard core). Not too good for the once great Parti Socialiste. But my attitude evolved as the event progressed. There was a succession of speakers, all holding to their clearly allotted 10-15 minute speaking time. Faure was good. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who, with no elective mandate, has taken a break from the political arena—she presently works for IPSOS and Fayard, and teaches at Sciences Po—gave one of the keynotes. She’s hugely popular with PS activists, and with me too. She was followed by Anne Hidalgo, who was sure to be a hit with the crowd—she’s mayor of Paris, after all—though while impeccable on substance she needs to work on delivery IMHO. She’s not a great speaker. Mais peu importe. Glucksmann spoke last, for half an hour. The reception was rapturous and he rose to the occasion. He was laid back but serious. In short, he aced it, on both form and substance. It was all about Europe, and with few references to the opposition (and no mention at all of rival left-wing lists). I didn’t disagree with a thing he said.

Leaving the venue I felt reasonably good about the PS for the first time in a long while and am encouraging undecided friends and family to vote for Glucksmann’s list. One of the arguments: as retiring PS MEP Pervenche Berès wrote in a text message to a friend of mine earlier this week in regard to incumbent MEPs Sylvie Guillaume and Éric Andrieu—who are in the 2nd and 3rd positions on Glucksmann’s list (and were at Sunday’s rally)—they “did a great job on migration and asylum for her, and fight against Monsanto and GMO, glyphosate, health, and sustainable agriculture for him.”

It will be terrible if the PS fails to break 5% on Sunday. The French Socialist Party absent from the European Parliament is unthinkable. I don’t think this will happen but if it does, it will possibly be the PS’s death knell. And with that, any chance of the French left credibly contesting elections for the foreseeable future. The specter of another presidential 2nd round confrontation between Macron and Le Pen is not something I want to contemplate. Crossing fingers.

UPDATE: See the reflection (May 23rd) by Alternatives Économiques editor-in-chief and friend Guillaume Duval, “Pourquoi la France ne débat pas de l’Europe.”

Paris, 19 May 2019

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[update below]

The elections to the European Parliament are taking place between tomorrow and Sunday in the 28 EU member states, which persons outside Europe (and some inside) may or may not be aware of, and with several presidential debates—for the presidency of the European Commission—having been held over the past month. The latest one—and with the most participants—was on Sunday, at the European Parliament in Brussels, which I watched via the debate’s website. There are six “Spitzenkandidaten”—”lead candidates,” designated by their respective Europarties or European Parliament political groups—in the running to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker, whose term ends on October 31st: Manfred Weber (from Germany) of the European People’s Party (moderate right), Frans Timmermans (Netherlands) of the Party of European Socialists, Margrethe Vestager (Denmark) of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (centrist), Ska Keller (Germany) of the European Green Party, Nico Cué (Belgium) of the European United Left, and Jan Zahradil (Czech Republic) of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, this last one being the one Eurosceptic (soft) Europarty to present a candidate. The other right-wing Eurosceptic groups—which include such parties as the Italian Lega and French RN—appear not to have their Spitzenkandidaten. For more on the candidates, go to the website Europe Elects.

The new President of the Commission will be nominated by the European Council—by consensus or in a qualified majority vote according to the formula contained in the Treaty of Lisbon—and ratified (or rejected) by a majority vote in the European Parliament (which will vote up or down on the entire College of Commissioners, not just the President). One more reason underscoring the importance of these elections. The European Council is not obliged to choose one of the Parliament’s Spitzenkandidaten, and though it ultimately did in 2014 it may not this time. If it were to designate, say, Michel Barnier—who would like the job and is certainly the best possible person from the EPP, which will no doubt remain the largest party in the Parliament after the election—it’s hard to see how the Parliament could reject that. On verra.

The debate lasted 90 minutes, with six broad questions posed and each candidate—all speaking in English except for Cué, who spoke in French—having one minute to answer and with the opportunity for rebuttal. The questions were on migration, youth unemployment, climate change and what sacrifices should be asked of Europeans in dealing with it, GAFA and tax havens, trade negotiations with Trump and if Europe should open its markets to US agricultural produce (including GMO), and how to explain the rise of Euroscepticism across the continent and if the candidates felt that their own political families had any responsibility in bringing it about. Cué (who’s a trade union leader) and Vestager were the best on the migration issue (I expected a fuller response from Keller), whereas Timmermans was very good on youth unemployment. The candidates were all fine on form, though none stood out in the way the ALDE’s Guy Verhofstadt did in the two 2014 debates (when it comes to exuberance and sheer presence, no one in the EU parliament beats the Belgian Verhofstadt, e.g. see him shred Nigel Farage and offer a few thoughts to Italian PM Giuseppe Conte). As for Weber’s performance, it was rather superior to that of the EPP’s Juncker back in ’14, who was a dud in those debates. The conservative ACRE’s Zahradil actually impressed, in that he gave full, concrete, coherent responses to all the questions. I don’t adhere to his positions but for those who do, he’s as good a spokesperson as they will find in Brussels and Strasbourg.

To watch the debate—which is worth the while—go here. À suivre.

UPDATE: Wolfgang Münchau, who is one of the best informed and most incisive analysts of the EU around, has an important column in the May 19th FT, “Brexit wrangles intrude on EU job allocation: Victory for Nigel Farage in the European elections could complicate appointments.”

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The Brexit fiasco

People’s Vote march, London, March 23rd

[update below]

I haven’t had a post on Brexit since the aftermath of the calamitous referendum now almost three years ago, but have been following the affair closely all along, and particularly in the run-up to today’s third vote on Theresa May’s plan. The Brexit psychodrama is, as they say on my side of the Channel, ubuesque. It’s bonkers.

As everything there is to say about the Brexit matter has been said countless times by the legions of pro-Remain commentators—e.g. on the opinion page of the FT, the first-rate politics.co.uk, and analysts presently or formerly associated with the Centre for European Reform, to name just a few—I will simply reiterate what I’ve been asserting from the outset, to wit:

  • There is no valid argument for Brexit. None whatever. It makes no sense for a country to quit a single market and customs union with which it has been economically interlocked for four decades and conducts close to half of its trade. There is no rational argument for this, economic or otherwise.
  • That crashing out of the EU with a no-deal is irrational and makes no sense was expressed during the referendum campaign by the Leavers themselves, none of whom advocated leaving the single market (or even the customs union); and this included Nigel Farage and the most Europhobic of Tories, who assured voters that in the event of Brexit, the UK would continue to enjoy frictionless trade with the EU in a relationship akin to Norway or Switzerland—though it seemed not to occur to the Leavers that these two countries are bound by EU rules—though which they have no seat at the table in making—must respect the “four freedoms” (one being the movement of people), and pay into the EU budget, entre autres. (As for why Norway and Switzerland have their particular relationships with the EU, it’s because their electorates rejected joining the EU, or the EEA for Switzerland, in the first place, so these are the closest relationships they can negotiate with the EU short of full membership).
  • In short, the Brexit campaign was driven by delusions and sold to the British electorate on lies. As Boris Johnson famously put it, the UK would have its cake and eat it. The Brexiteers thought they could have a Europe à la carte, in which the UK would take what it liked (single market, customs union), reject what it didn’t like (movement of people, ECJ, contributing to the EU budget), and then take things that were not on the menu (concluding its own trade agreements). This was utterly delusional. And then there was the matter of the Irish border, which was never mentioned during the campaign. It wasn’t even an afterthought. As for Scotland and sentiments there, qu’est-ce qu’on en a foutre?…
  • The referendum, needless to say, should have never been held. And, needless to say, the majority of those who voted ‘leave’ had no idea what they were voting for. Demagoguery over immigration was central in the Leave campaign, as was, for working class Labour voters, anger over six years of the David Cameron government’s austerity. But whatever the case, if a hard Brexit had explicitly been the one on offer, ‘leave’ would have never won. This is a certainty.
  • Contrary to popular belief, referendums do not express the “will of the people.” Referendums are not inherently “democratic.” French Republicans long had a healthy allergy to plebiscites, in which strongmen or demagogic politicians can short-circuit the institutions of representative democracy in stoking the fears or appealing to the base instincts of voters with ill-understood binary choices. Likewise with popular referendums (Switzerland, which has its unique history and particularities, is a case apart). Insofar as the Brexit referendum was merely advisory, i.e. not binding, there was no legal reason to respect its outcome. Failing that—and in view of the inability of the House of Commons to approve anything—it stands to reason that the people should have the opportunity to revisit the 2016 referendum in a second one: to vote to quit the EU outright, with no deal, or revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, and with the House of Commons ratifying that choice. After that, no more referendums. On anything.
  • Theresa May, in view of her abject incompetence, may be the worst British prime minister ever, but she is joined by Jeremy Corbyn, who is surely the worst-ever leader of the opposition. If the Labour Party were led by someone other than this 1970s gauchiste dinosaur, who still thinks of the EU as a Trojan Horse for the Gnomes of Zürich, we likely would not be in this Brexit mess.

It’s been a challenge engaging in a contradictory discussion of Brexit, as seemingly every UK citizen and/or resident I know personally is pro-Remain and as opposed to Brexit as I and my US cohorts are to Trump. But then I discovered that one UK citizen I do know personally, and whom I see on Facebook, is a Leaver, so I tried to engage him in debate a few months back, in response to a Brexiteer comment he made. I got some bollocks about how the EU is “undemocratic,” to which I responded that this is a myth, that the EU’s institutions are no more or less undemocratic than those of its member states (and as for the euro and its very real structural problems, the UK, with its opt-out, is not concerned by these). He then brought up German “dominance” of the EU, with me retorting that this is no less a reality than the now erstwhile British dominance—or at least outsized influence—in Brussels over the past three decades. Following that I was zinged with a question about Jean-Claude Juncker and who elected him anyway, with me replying the European Council followed by the European Parliament, and then rhetorically asking in return who, pray, elected Theresa May to be prime minister? No answer to that one and so that was that. So much for exchanging views with a Brexiteer.

At least he didn’t rhapsodize about a post-Brexit UK becoming another Singapore

The excellent Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole had an essay in The Guardian last November 16th entitled “The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit: In the dark imagination of English reactionaries, Britain is always a defeated nation—and the EU is the imaginary invader.” I mentioned above the UK’s outsized influence in Brussels. This was real. The Single Act was spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher. The Brits basically got everything they wanted from Europe, including the rebate and opt-outs from Schengen and the single currency. That Europe has been a very good deal for the UK makes Tory Euroscepticism that much more irrational. For English right-wingers, allergy to the EU has become a marker of identity, like guns and Israel for US Republicans. And that it has been fueled by myths and lies goes without saying.

Who knows what’s going to happen on April 12th? The choice now looks to be between a no-deal crash out and requesting a long-term extension from the European Council, which would necessitate the UK participating in the European elections and likely organizing a second referendum, perhaps preceded by a general election. The logical choice would be the latter—in terms of both public opinion and the votes in the House of Commons—but after reading this uncomplimentary portrait of Theresa May in Spiegel Online (March 15th), I’m not confident. If faced with a choice of breaking ranks with her party’s Brexiteer base or going over the cliff, it is more than likely that she’ll opt for the latter.

If one didn’t see it, former UK and EU diplomat Robert Cooper has a must-read op-ed (March 22nd) in the FT, “The Brexit farce is about to turn to tragedy: Britain is paying for its ignorance of how the EU actually works.”

Probably the most pertinent piece I’ve read on the general subject over the months has been by Pankaj Mishra this past January 17th in The New York Times, “The malign incompetence of the British ruling class.” The lede: “With Brexit, the chumocrats who drew borders from India to Ireland are getting a taste of their own medicine.”

The view that so many of us have always had of Britain as being a serious country, with serious institutions and a serious ruling class, has sustained a serious body blow over the past three years. Watching BoJo, Jacob Rees-Mogg & Co, how can one take this ruling class seriously? Sérieusement.

À propos, literary critic and cultural historian Joanna Scutts had an intriguing article last September 14th in The New Republic, “Britain’s boarding school problem.” The lede: “How the country’s elite institutions have shaped colonialism, Brexit, and today’s global super-rich.”

For those slightly conspiracy-minded—or maybe not—this piece (January 30th) by OpenDemocracy UK co-editor Adam Ramsey is worth pondering: “Stop calling ‘no-deal’ Brexiteers idiots. They know exactly what they’re doing.” The lede: “This is not bungling, or delusion. It’s part of the Great British Asset striptease. And we need to know who’s bankrolling it.” In this vein, also see Anne Applebaum’s March 8th Washington Post column, “The more we learn about Brexit, the more crooked it looks.”

Finally, New Statesman contributing editor Martin Fletcher has a ‘long read’ dated March 27 entitled “The humbling of Britain: The ‘enemies of the people’ are not those opposing Brexit, but the reckless politicians who have brought us to this act of self-harm.” He concludes:

Events are now moving so rapidly that it is impossible to predict what the situation will be even by the time this article is printed. Just conceivably, enough MPs will have discovered their spines to avert a complete disaster. Just conceivably they will have paused to ask themselves what was so awful about EU membership that leaving is worth such turmoil. Just conceivably they will have realised that there is no deal nearly as good as the one we already have.

Otherwise Britain will slink shamefully away – impoverished, marginalised and vastly diminished – from the greatest experiment in multinational co-operation the world has ever known. There will be no sense of joy, no national celebrations. As we live with the consequences the Brexiteers will inevitably blame anyone but themselves, but they will assuredly deserve what Donald Tusk, the European Council president, called their special place in hell.

À suivre, c’est sûr.

UPDATE: Politico.eu has a lengthy, must-read enquête (March 27th) by its UK correspondent Tom McTague, “How the UK lost the Brexit battle: The course of Brexit was set in the hours and days after the 2016 referendum.” The party to whom the UK lost was, of course, the EU, which quickly gained the upper hand after the June 2016 referendum and took charge. The EU’s position was predictable from the outset, but that those in power in London were blind to. What has been striking is how isolated the UK has been in Brussels throughout the process. The UK has always had allies in the European Council. It has been a very big player and for decades. But in the case of Brexit, it has had not a single ally. Even the Visegrad countries and Italy, who are otherwise telling Brussels to sod off, have been at one with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier—who’s the real hero here—on Brexit. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit psychodrama, the UK will be greatly diminished. Sad.

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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 😦

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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.

 

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The Catalonia referendum

Credit here

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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 PM Rajoy 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.”

6th UPDATE: Netflix released a two-hour documentary on September 28th 2018, Two Catalonias (Dos Cataluñas), by filmmakers Álvaro Longoria and Gerardo Olivares, on Catalonian politics and the independence movement.

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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 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.

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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.”

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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.

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

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