Archive for the ‘France: politics 2012-16’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M. Quatremer writes: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us continue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rappelons le scandale du Nipplegate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

l’espace public est étroitement réglementé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The editorial continues:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6th UPDATE: Emile Chabal—a smart historian at the University of Edinburgh—has an excellent, salutary, necessary, and long overdue essay (September 18, 2017), published on the highbrow intello website Aeon, simply entitled “Les Anglo-Saxons.” The lede: “Not just American or British, the Anglo-Saxon is a mirror to Frenchness: the country’s alter-ego and most feared enemy.” Hopefully Chabal’s essay will be translated into French—I’ve suggested it to him—and be made required reading for everyone in France who refers to Americans and Brits as “les Anglo-Saxons”…

7th UPDATE: L’article d’Emile Chabal cité ci-dessus a été traduit en français et publié dans Courrier International, le 2 janvier 2018, sous le titre “Le terme ‘Anglo-Saxons’, miroir des peurs françaises.”

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Nice, August 23rd (photo: Vantagenews.com)

Nice, August 23rd (photo: Vantagenews.com)

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Alhamdullilah for the Conseil d’État. It is not par hasard that the judges of France’s supreme administrative law court are nicknamed les sages (the wise men)—though the Conseil’s ruling yesterday striking down the anti-burkini municipal ordinance in seaside Villeneuve-Loubet—which will serve as jurisprudence for abrogating like ordinances in other municipalities—was an obvious no-brainer. It would have been truly stunning had the Conseil ruled otherwise, as, in point of fact, there is no serious argument for legally banning the burkini. None whatever. If a person—woman or man—on a beach in a free society wishes to wear a garment that covers the entire body minus face and maybe feet—or, alternatively, an itsy-bitsy cache-sexe concealing only that most intimate part, or anything in between—s/he has the right to do so. Point barre.

The psychodrama France has descended into over this fabricated issue has to be the most preposterous and irrational in the 25-odd years I have lived in this country—not to mention one of the more pernicious, in view of the overt Muslimophobia that has been unleashed by politicians and media alike. The spectacle of the Muslim women in Nice and Cannes—who were minding their own business and troubling no public order—being harassed and humiliated by the police was a disgrace, accomplishing nothing but the degradation of France’s image abroad and making the country look ridiculous in the process—and, one may also add, intolerant, racist, and sexist (yes, sexist France, as the latest hysteria over French Muslims concerns, as usual, only woman, with men, including the most bearded Salafist, naturally being free to wear any damned outfit they please in public space). And all over a piece of clothing that practically no one in France had heard of—and even fewer had actually seen—before this month of August 2016.

Numerous commentaries over the past two weeks on the absurd burkini affair have gotten it exactly right, e.g. the New York Times’s August 19th editorial—penned by sharp, Paris-based editorial writer Mira Kamdar—”France’s burkini bigotry.” Other spot on critiques of the anti-burkini crusade include public law professor Thomas Hochmann’s Le Monde op-ed (August 19th), “L’interdiction du ‘burkini’ est une faute juridique et politique;” Edwy Plenel in Mediapart (August 14th), “‘Un vêtement comme les autres’…;” political scientist Jean-François Bayart, also in Mediapart (August 18th), “La laïcité, nouvelle religion nationale;” and law professor Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, writing in Libération’s “Do you law?” blog (August 23rd), “Le burkini de l’état d’urgence.”

One may also profitably reread the invariably excellent Patrick Weil’s 2013 interview in L’Opinion, “‘Qu’on laisse en paix les femmes voilées’.”

French public opinion is, as one may expect, not favorable toward the burkini, with 64%, according to an IFOP-Le Figaro poll released on Thursday, opposed to it being worn on the beach. Majorities can be wrong, of course. Even if 94% were opposed, that wouldn’t suddenly make the masses right. Politicians, as one may also expect, have been indulging and stoking the fears of the public—naturally traumatized over the recent terrorist atrocities—with, not surprisingly, the unspeakable Nicolas Sarkozy, now on the campaign trail, leading the demagogic charge, demanding, entre autres, a legislative ban of the burkini—though Sarko knows full well, in principle at least, that any such law is impossible, that it would be nullified illico by the sages of the Conseil Constitutionnel.

Not to be out-Sarkozy-d, the insufferable Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has likewise been gesticulating over the burkini, labeling it “a political project, a counter-society, based in particular on the subjugation of women” and, on his Facebook page yesterday, the expression of “a deadly, backward-looking Islamism” (un islamisme mortifère, rétrograde). Ouf! Even academic savants have been echoing these themes, e.g. emerita philosophy professor Catherine Kintzler, who, in an interview in Le Figaro (August 26th), called the burkini a symbol of “communautarisme” (mais bien évidemment; what else could it possibly be for any self-respecting defender of le modèle républicain français?) and “an ultra-reactionary, totalitarian political Islam,” that represents “an effort to stigmatize all Muslim women who refuse to wear it, who refuse to veil themselves, who refuse the uniformization of their lives.” No less.

And then there’s the well-known social scientist Philippe d’Iribarne, who wrote in Le Monde (August 19th) that the burkini is “unacceptable,” as, entre autres, it violates an apparent French “social norm that asks for a certain discretion in the public expression of that that distinguishes one’s social status or political or religious convictions.” Women who wear the burkini are imposing an alternative social norm, indeed a “projet de société,” so d’Iribarne has it: A “societal project,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Monsieur d’Iribarne suggests that women who wear the burkini and other Islamic articles of clothing do not really do so of their own free will, that they may “simply be seeking not to be bothered in the neighborhoods where they live, or wish to please their entourage, or are constrained to do so by their fathers or husbands, or fear burning in hell, or are perhaps militants of an islam de combat.”

This is one of the stupidest pieces I’ve read by an otherwise smart person in I don’t know how long. Fortunately Le Monde published an op-ed (August 24th), by Patrice Obert—president of the center-left association Le Courant des Poissons Roses—that critiqued d’Iribarne, explaining why it is “unacceptable not to ‘accept’ the burkini.”

Islamism, projet de société, counter-society, Islamic “cultural imperialism,” women being ordered by men, subjugation of women, fundamentalism, burkini-wearing women willfully seeking to provoke and shock…

Let me make an assertion: the legions of pundits, politicians, and other commentators and academic savants who have made these allegations and/or imputed hidden motives to the Muslims in question have not a shred of evidence to support their contentions. They have not a shred of evidence to refute the manifest fact—and, until proof to the contrary, I am asserting it as fact—that 99+% of the women who wear the burkini do so on their own volition—that no one has forced them into it—and that their motives have nothing to do with politics or trying to make a statement. The burkini-detractors could not credibly support their assertions if their lives depended on it.

And the threat to public order that the burkini supposedly constitutes, which was one of the stated reasons for the municipal ordinances? Read this interview with Radio France Internationale’s David Thomson, who has written a book on French jihadists, and tell me if the threat comes from the burkini-wearers or, rather, the actions of the burkini-banners themselves.

As for those who consider the burkini to be Islamist or reflecting of a rigorist interpretation of Islam, they have no idea what they’re talking about, as Salafi women would never go to a mixed beach or don such a piece of clothing that reveals the shape of their body—as the burkini does—in the first place.

But what if, for the sake of argument, some of the above allegations were at least partly true? As social scientist and friend Nadia Marzouki wrote on social media the other day

What if there *is* something political in wearing a burkini, in criticizing the French religion of laïcité, in not eating the French republican “soupe au cochon”, in performing alternative ways of life etc.? What’s wrong with being political?

Yes, if some Muslim women do, in fact, seek to make a statement in wearing a burkini, if they are indeed signaling that their religious faith is primordial in their lives, what of it?

And what about the burkini itself? Even pundits critical of the anti-burkini campaign have felt the need to assure readers that they do not approve of the offending swimsuit. Libération’s Laurent Joffrin thus editorialized (August 17th) that

one would have to have a particularly twisted mind to maintain that the wearing of a piece of clothing that covers all parts of the female body, including swimsuits, is merely a harmless fashion, or a vector of the emancipation of women. In the great majority of cases, it is a religiously ostentatious signifier reflecting a rigorous interpretation of sacred texts that relegates women to a secondary role.

I beg to differ, though this is admittedly a complex question. The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, in an aptly titled column (August 25th), “France has a strange concept of feminism—and secularism,” opposed the burkini bans but did specify that

I actually agree with the critique of veiling. Whatever else it may be, it’s inextricably bound up, like the Orthodox Jewish dress code, with notions of female-only “modesty”—i.e., the acceptance of the female body as the site of sexuality, which must be concealed as a danger and provocation to men. If covering is just about faith, why don’t men do it too?

Yes, of course. These are old questions. We know it. Veiling, objectively speaking, does reflect patriarchy. What else is new? But at the risk of being provocative, I will argue that the creation of the burkini is, in fact, an advance for pious Muslim women, that it represents progress—and particularly for women in the Arab world itself and other Muslim majority countries. For these women, the choice is not between the burkini and a more conventional swimsuit, but rather between the burkini and either going to the beach fully clothed (hijab and all)—and, at most, wading into the water—or not going at all—and not because they are forbidden by men but simply because they won’t go, period. In a country like Algeria, there are a number of “family” beaches where women sunbathe in one or two piece swimsuits, but in long stretches of coastline one sees only young men. Women simply won’t go to these beaches. Gender relations in that society and cultural attitudes toward the body are what they are. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more women to these beaches and learning how to swim while they’re at it, well, tant mieux, n’est-ce pas?

As Saul Alinsky used to say, in order to change the world we first need to see the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. If patriarchy and conservative notions of gender among Muslims are going to change, it’s going to be brought about by Muslims themselves—gradually, one step at a time—and not by laïcard Frenchmen ideologically browbeating them.

And then there’s the inventor of the burkini herself, Aheda Zanetti—who has no ties to Islamist organizations or personal convictions of this nature (if she did, we would know about it)—who explained in a Guardian op-ed (August 24th), “I created the burkini to give women freedom, not to take it away.” The piece—qu’on peut lire en français—carries this lede: “The burkini does not symbolise Islam, it symbolises leisure and happiness and fitness and health.”

As for the burkini not symbolizing Islam, good point. One may bet that it will find a growing market among women of all faiths—or of no faith at all—and particularly in a country like India, where women traditionally do not wear swimsuits on the beach (those who actually go to one). À propos, the NYT has an op-ed (August 26th) by writer Jennifer Weiner on “The women who won’t wear swimsuits,” in which the burkini is not mentioned once. There are a lot of women out there—including a member of the older generation in my own family—who have never felt comfortable in a bathing suit. Just as there are certainly many men in France—perhaps myself included—who don’t like the rule in public swimming pools that men have to wear swim briefs, a.k.a. moule-bites. They feel self-conscious wearing the stupid thing. The burkini is probably not a solution for them but can be for women.

Back to the case of France, today’s Washington Post has an article on “France’s burkini debate: About a bathing suit and a country’s peculiar secularism,” in which the well-known specialist of French laïcité, Joan Wallach Scott, is quoted

For Scott, the greatest irony in the entire affair is that the burkini in fact embodies the achievement of a secular, integrated society.

The women who wear burkinis, she said, cannot be called oppressed. They are not the women subservient to a conservative Islam; they are the women who sit on beaches unsupervised by men, enjoying their leisure time in mixed social company.

But because of the same type of secularism ostensibly designed to foster equality among citizens, those same women could in fact be driven further from the social mainstream.

“It just convinces Muslims who are already feeling discrimination and alienation that indeed they’re right,” Scott said. “And that the French government is interested in getting rid of them, not in integrating them.”

In conclusion, check out the images of the burkini here and here. C’est chic, non? How can anyone object?

UPDATE: Jean Baubérot—the well-known sociologist and specialist of religion in France—was interviewed in Libération (August 17th) on the burkini affair. This passage is particularly interesting:

Cette polémique a été précédée d’une autre, en mars, autour de la «mode pudique», qui ne pose pas de problème dans d’autres pays occidentaux, par exemple en Angleterre. Pourquoi tant de stress ?

Les pays anglo-saxons ont une culture de la diversité, cultuelle et culturelle, plus forte. C’est Voltaire qui a écrit: «Un Anglais, comme homme libre, va au ciel par le chemin qui lui plaît.» En France, une mentalité «catholique et français toujours» perdure, une mentalité de l’unité. On parle encore de «la France une et indivisible» alors que, depuis la Constitution de 1946, «une» a été enlevé au profit de «indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale», et ça n’est pas pour rien! Or, culturellement, on a l’impression que ça n’a jamais été intégré, et «démocratique et sociale», on l’entend peu. C’est une conception de l’unité assez uniforme qui prédomine, peu inclusive de la diversité. Résultat, on ne sait plus séparer ce qui peut être dangereux de ce qui peut choquer mais peut être accepté par la démocratie. On ne met pas la frontière au bon endroit.

2nd UPDATE: Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy—who specializes in sexuality, gender, and religion—has two pieces in Al Huffington Post that are worth reading: “Le burkini, un compromis anti-islamiste” (August 21st) and “Le burkini, entre féminisme blanc et féminisme islamique” (August 23rd). N.B. Dialmy is equally opposed to the burkini and attempts to ban it.

3rd UPDATE: The Forward’s The Sisterhood blog has a post (August 24th) asserting: “Seriously, what Orthodox [Jewish] women wear to the beach is no different from a burkini.”

4th UPDATE: Le Canard Enchaîné has a short piece in the latest issue explaining—in its trademark ironic style—why the burkini would not pass muster with those who adhere to a rigorist interpretation of Islam.

5th UPDATE: Robin Wright has a piece in The New Yorker (August 26th), “A court overturns a burkini ban, but not its mindset.” Money quote

The irony of the swimsuit crisis is that the laws—and their enforcement—shamed the Muslim women who want to participate in French society. “Tying the burkini to extremism is absurd. Actual Salafis are against the burkini because they don’t think women should be swimming in public in the first place,” Shadi Hamid, the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World,” told me on Friday.

Also see the article by Alissa J. Rubin in the NYT (August 27th), “From bikinis to burkinis, regulating what women wear,” in which interesting people are quoted.

6th UPDATE: Philippe Marlière, who teaches political science at University College London, has a must-read post on his Mediapart blog (August 26th), “La gauche de l’entre-soi et le burkini.” The lede: “Cet article revient sur les récentes controverses sur le port du burkini en France, montre la ligne de fracture qu’elles ont créée au sein de la gauche française, et réfute les arguments qui sont déployés pour justifier des attaques racistes et sexistes contre les femmes musulmanes.”

Marlière notes, entre autres, that the French left—which is almost entirely atheist and with an anti-clerical tropisme from another era (which is specific to France’s history; we’re not talking about universal values here), and that has been transposed to any public manifestation of religiosity—is an outlier among its progressive European counterparts when it comes to conventional Muslim veiling. On the European left—not to mention the left in the Americas, north and south—only in France does the sight of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf provoke a negative reaction—and automatically excludes her from participation in a left-wing political party.

7th UPDATE: Here’s the official English translation of the Conseil d’État’s ruling on the burkini affair.

8th UPDATE: Benjamin Haddad, a French research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, has an essay (August 30th) in The American Interest entitled “Behind the burkini.” The lede: “The overturned ban is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.” Now Haddad is normally incisive in the analyses I have read by him but is in error on a number points in his piece here. E.g. he opines that

The fact is that many in France consider the aggressive display of this brand of Islamic fundamentalism in a public space to be a provocation, an intentional rejection of the French Republic’s long tradition of secularism, and an attempt at self-exclusion from the rest of the population.

As I have written above, the burkini has nothing whatever to do with “Islamic fundamentalism.” This is a phantasm. And no one who thinks this has a shred of evidence to defend the contention that even one single woman—une seule—who wears the burkini does so to provoke, to signal a rejection of secularism, is attempting to exclude herself from the rest of the population, or is an “Islamic fundamentalist.” This is a figment of the addled French imagination. (But then, even if a burkini-wearing woman did have these things in mind, eh alors? La belle affaire! Dans un pays libre comme la France, c’est son droit. Qu’est-ce que ça peut vous faire?).

And while the vast majority of French Muslims keep their faith privately and are peaceful citizens, this model of integration makes the country an inviting target for those who don’t.

What is this supposed to mean? How does one “model of integration” make a country a target for—what precisely?—more than another “model”?

To be clear, wearing a burkini is manifestly not considered a mandatory religious requirement by France’s overwhelmingly moderate Muslim population, who don’t wear it.

But no one has even hinted that the burkini is religiously required. Pour mémoire, the burkini is the trademarked product of an Australian fashion designer named Aheda Zanetti (see above), who created the garment for pious Muslim women—but also for non-Muslim women (why not?)—who wish to go to the beach but, for their own reasons, will not wear a conventional swimsuit. The burkini is, above all, a business proposition that aims to satisfy a heretofore underserved market.

À propos, how much would one like to bet that the burkini® under another name sells like hotcakes in Israel among Jewish women?

That the burkini may be worn free of pressure does not change the underlying message.

But what underlying message?! And sent by whom precisely? (and please give names). The notion that there is a message in the burkini is a collective French phantasm.

Please, there is no message here. No burkini-wearing woman is sending a message, even subliminal. This I promise you.

Moreover, the burkini, which was seemingly absent from beaches before this year, is seen as a mere episode in a broader pattern of every-day incidents in which republican principles are challenged by a radical minority constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. It is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.

What “radical minority”? Who are you talking about? Please name names. And while you’re at it, please provide references of what this “radical minority” has written about the burkini.

The censure (and worse) of moderate Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan, the requests of community leaders for gender-segregated hours in public swimming pools, the pressure on women not to accept the care of male physicians even in cases of emergency, the refusal of children to listen in biology class or to learn about the Holocaust: These incidents don’t make international headlines but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Such incidents have indeed happened but how do you know that they “are becoming increasingly ubiquitous”? In point of fact, you don’t know at all. There have been numerous anecdotes over the years of disturbing and unacceptable things happening—as there inevitably will be in a society of 65 million inhabitants—but the extent of this has not been established. Seriously, we really don’t know.

In June, a young Muslim waitress was attacked in the name of Islam in downtown Nice for serving alcohol during Ramadan.

A fait divers. It was outrageous and with the perpetrators meriting prosecution, but it was still just one incident.

But not reacting to the burkini also has its consequences and runs the risk of normalizing such practices.

But so what if the burkini is “normalized”?? In point of fact, it should be normalized. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more Muslim and other women to the beach, that’s a good thing, is it not? À propos, see the quotes above of Joan Wallach Scott and Shadi Hamid.

In the coming years, Europeans will continue to grapple with the tension between their liberal principles and the necessity of rolling back the hold of a radical minority.

But what “radical minority”?? Please give names of such radicals in France.

These attempts, however clumsy, deserve a more understanding reception than scorn and conceit.

Oy vey, the attempts by demagogic French politicians to “roll back” the hold of this imagined “radical minority” deserve not only scorn and conceit but disdain as well.

9th UPDATE: Christine Delphy—a sociologist and leading personality in France’s feminist movement of the 1970s—has an excellent tribune in The Guardian (August 29th) on “How a legal misunderstanding is fueling France’s witch-hunt of Muslim women.” The lede: “Of course, banning women from wearing what they want is illegal in France. The establishment claim they want Muslim women to achieve independence yet are depriving them the means to do so.”

Also see Delphy’s 20 July 2015 Guardian tribune, “Feminists are failing Muslim women by supporting racist French laws.” The lede: “If women’s groups see Muslims wearing headscarves as an oppressed minority, it should be a reason to embrace them and understand why, not collude in widening one of the worst rifts within French society.”

10th UPDATE: Nathalie Heinich—a sociologist and ideological warrior for the cause of laïcité de combat—has a virulent op-ed in Le Monde (August 30th), “Burkini: Il faut combattre le prosélytisme extrémiste et le sexisme,” in which she responds to the well-known sociologist Michel Wieviorka’s thoughtful tribune (August 26th) in The Conversation, “Panique morale autour du ‘burkini’.” Heinich’s broadside has the merit of arguing that opposing the burkini concerns neither laïcité nor public order but is all about fighting against “an extremist, totalitarian conception of Islam.” Tout court. The piece is a doozy. E.g.

Dans le contexte de la France d’aujourd’hui (qui n’est ni celui des Etats-Unis, ni celui de la France d’il y a une génération), l’interdiction des signes religieux les plus extrêmes – la burqa dans les rues, le burkini sur les plages – ne doit plus être une question de laïcité: ce doit être un combat politique contre une manipulation de la religion à des fins d’ordre sexuel, moral, juridique, civique, voire guerrier.

En faire une question religieuse, c’est entrer dans le jeu de nos adversaires, qui utilisent cet argument pour imposer leur conception rétrograde de la citoyenneté – la soumission à l’ordre religieux – et de la différence des sexes – la soumission des femmes.

C’est pourquoi, dans le contexte actuel, l’affichage de comportements manifestant l’adhésion à une conception fondamentaliste de l’islam, tel que le port du burkini, ne relève pas de l’exercice d’une religion (va-t-on à la plage pour prier?): il relève de l’expression d’une opinion, et d’une opinion délictueuse, puisqu’il s’agit d’une incitation à la discrimination sexiste, qui en outre banalise et normalise l’idéologie au nom de laquelle on nous fait la guerre. C’est pourquoi le Conseil d’Etat aurait pu, aurait dû valider les arrêtés antiburkini, en vertu de la légitime limitation du droit à la liberté d’expression.

The wearing of the burkini is an “opinion délictueuse“… Translation: the expression of a “criminal opinion.”

Wow. That’s intense. Mme Heinich is lusting for blood.

Another morsel:

Il faut donc choisir son camp: non pas le camp des sectaires contre les «tolérants», mais le camp des partisans d’un islam respectueux des lois et des valeurs de notre pays – au premier rang desquelles l’égalité entre hommes et femmes et le droit pour celles-ci d’occuper librement l’espace public – contre un islam dévoyé, sexiste, intolérant, violemment prosélyte, et ­ ennemi des libertés car exerçant de puissantes pressions communautaires contre ceux et ­ surtout contre celles qui ne se plieraient pas à ses règles archaïques.

«Pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la liberté»: c’était bien un slogan politique, n’est-ce pas? Est-ce parce qu’il est ici question de femmes qu’on dénie la dimension politique du problème, au profit d’une dimension religieuse et morale?

Again, as concerns the burkini, all this is a figment of the French imagination. Mme Heinich & Co are seeing heavy symbolism in an article of female clothing that, until proof to the contrary, is not seen by the women wearing it. One thing that strikes me in reading viewpoints such as this is that women who wear the burkini or hijab are accorded no agency. They are seen as either passive victims living under the yoke of misogynistic men or as fanaticized zombies in the service of a totalitarian ideology. And they have no voice. I will wager that Mme Heinich and others who share her views have never engaged veiled Muslim women in dialogue or had the slightest interest in hearing them out. Veiled Muslim women are the ultimate Other. At minimum, there’s a lack of empathy here, not to mention absence of intellectual curiosity. I don’t relate to this way of thinking.

11th UPDATE: Gershom Gorenberg—The American Prospect’s Jerusalem-based senior correspondent—nails it in a commentary (August 31st) entitled “The beach movie of the absurd.” The lede: “The Burkini fuss isn’t just an embarrassment for France. Diversity is under attack across the West.”

12th UPDATE: Daniel Pipes, like that proverbial stopped clock, gets it exactly right on the burkini. And he links to a site selling “original kosher swimwear.” I rest my case.

13th UPDATE: The NYT (September 2nd) seeks out the views of Muslim women in France and Belgium—gives them voice—in an article (and that may be read in French translation), “‘The way people look at us has changed’: Muslim women on life in Europe.”

14th UPDATE: Libération (September 1st) has a meditation by Université Paris 1 philosophy professor Sandra Laugier, “SOS fantasmes.” Observing the negative reaction on social media to the all-female cast of the latest “Ghostbusters” movie, Laugier offers this

Ce déferlement de misogynie a trouvé un équivalent plus tragique en France avec le débat politique, virtuel et public, sur le droit des femmes musulmanes à choisir leur tenue de plage. Quelle que soit l’opinion ou l’affect qu’elles suscitent, le plus extraordinaire est que tant de gens se soient sentis autorisés à l’exprimer.

Comme l’indique déjà la façon de nommer ce débat («le burkini»), les femmes concernées sont les dernières qu’on va consulter sur la question, et il a été fort pénible ces dernières semaines de lire et d’entendre les uns et les autres, hommes en majorité, des femmes de pouvoir aussi, énoncer doctement ce que ces femmes musulmanes doivent faire, voire traduire ce qu’elles pensent et expriment par leur comportement.

It occurs to none of the burkini critics to solicit the viewpoints of the women who wear it…

In this vein, Laugier links to an important analysis by Université Paris 13 linguistics professor Marie-Anne Paveau, “Parler du burkini sans les concernées: De l’énonciation ventriloque,” posted August 17th on the website “La pensée du discours: La théorie du discours ouverte à de nouvelles épistémologies.”

15th UPDATE: Dominique Rousseau, the well-known professor of public law at the Université Paris 1, settles the legal/constitutional side of the question (September 1st) in Le Huffington Post, “Sous le burkini, l’Etat de Droit.”

Also see Etienne Balibar’s tribune (August 29th) in Libération, “Laïcité ou identité?” The lede: “Alors que le Conseil d’Etat vient d’invalider l’interdiction du burkini, il faut mettre fin au développement de la «laïcité identitaire». Cette conception, obsédée par le communautarisme en vient à construire un «communautarisme d’Etat».”

16th UPDATE: The Times of Israel has an AP dispatch (September 4th) on how the “French uproar [has created an] opportunity for Israeli burkinis.” One learns that Israel

home to large populations of conservative Jewish and Muslim women, has cultivated a local industry of modest swimsuits, and the full-body outfits that have caused uproar in France have been a common sight on Israeli beaches for several years.

On the uproar in France, the founder of one of the first Israeli modest swimwear companies rhetorically asked

“What does a woman do in France who wants to cover up for sun protection or who wants to cover up some scarring, or if she is a little overweight and she doesn’t want to wear a bikini?…It doesn’t make any sense that they are banning a specific type of modest swimwear. It’s very racist to me.”

As for Palestinian Muslims

Sahab Nasser sells SunWay burkinis at her lingerie shop in Tira, a mostly Muslim town in central Israel. She said she sold burkinis for four years before she finally bought one so she could accompany her three-year-old daughter in the pool. It has been life-changing for her and other Muslim women, she said, because previously they would stay out of the water while the men and children in their families would go swimming.

“The burkini has let (Arab women) go to the beach, spend quality time with the family, to go to mixed gender pools, to swim with their families and feel comfortable, without criticism,” she said. “Who said the bikini is the right look for the beach?”

Personally speaking, I prefer seeing women in bikinis, particularly if they have the body for one. And if they want to go topless, tant mieux (en tant qu’homme hétéro je ne vais pas être hypocrite là-dessus). But if women want to wear burkinis, no prob’. Laissez les gens vivre, bon sang !

17th UPDATE: Michel Wieviorka has a tribune in Le Monde (September 4th) responding to Nathalie Heinich’s unhinged diatribe (above), “La sociologie à l’épreuve du burkini.” The lede: “Afin de pouvoir légitimement intervenir dans le débat public, les intellectuels doivent s’appuyer sur des recherches et des faits établis. Non pas sur des opinions et des préjugés.” Money quote:

Le sociologue qui s’exprime sur le «burkini», puisque c’est le dossier qui nous occupe ici, devrait s’appuyer sur des recherches portant directement sur ce phénomène, ou sur des phénomènes proches – burqa, par exemple (je dirige des travaux de doctorantes sur ce thème): que signifie le port de ce vêtement islamique pour les femmes concernées? Quelles sont ces femmes, qu’ont-elles à dire? Quel est le sens du refus énergique du burkini: républicain? féministe? nationaliste? islamophobe? Quel est celui de la tolérance à son égard: républicain, féministe, naïf…? Chez qui? Etc.

Faute de s’appuyer sur des travaux solides, le sociologue perd une bonne partie de sa légitimité à intervenir, pour devenir au mieux un essayiste et plus vraisemblablement un acteur, ou l’intellectuel organique d’une cause, et non plus un analyste.

See also the tribune in Le Monde (September 6th) by IEP–Aix-en-Provence sociology professor Raphaël Liogier, “Contre les idées reçues sur l’islam, créons un ‘Observatoire des identités plurielles’.”

18th UPDATE: The well-known political science specialist of Islamism, Shadi Hamid, who is presently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, has a piece (July 20th 2017) in The Atlantic on “The Dilemma of the Burqini: Is there any right way to react to the swimwear?”

19th UPDATE: Writing on the Islamic headscarf—though he could be on the burkini—Matthew Kaemingk—who teaches theology, ethics, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA—has an outside-the-box commentary in the Summer 2017 issue of the magazine Comment: Public Theology for the Common Good that will no doubt ruffle French feathers, “The headscarf: Islam’s gift to Western democracy.” The lede: “Learning to welcome Islam is a way to relearn what democracy is about.” I don’t necessary adhere to Kaemingk’s views across the board but what he says is worth the debate.


Sydney, Australia (photo: Aheda Zanetti)

Sydney, Australia (photo: Aheda Zanetti)

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(Photo credit: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)

(Photo credit: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)

I have a short article, or briefing, up on the website of World Politics Review, under the title “France’s Hollande enters final year in office disavowed and ineffective.” The piece is behind the paywall—as is all of WPR’s content—but the editors have kindly “whitelisted” it for my blog, so the entire text may be accessed here (if the link doesn’t work, see the update below).

If I had been writing just for AWAV, I would entitled the post “François Hollande: the fiasco.” In assessing Hollande’s record, which is what the WPR editors asked me to do, one important issue I was not able to develop at any length—the briefing being limited to 1,200 words—was Hollande’s determination to constitutionalize the déchéance de nationalité—the stripping of French citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism—which he finally had no choice but to abandon late last month, in the face of determined opposition within his own party—92 of the 223 deputies of the Socialist group in the National Assembly who showed up for the vote opposing the amendment—and the Senate adopting a different wording of the amendment than the one laboriously passed by the lower chamber, thereby precluding the convening of a joint session of parliament to vote it into the constitution (or reject it, as may well have happened). The déchéance affair was a fiasco of the first order, less for the fact that Hollande thankfully failed in his effort—which I predicted when he declared on December 23rd that he would indeed seek to have the déchéance inserted into the constitution—than him coming up with the idea in the first place. That Hollande—profiting from the national trauma in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks—could appropriate a proposal heretofore identified solely with the extreme right and then try to ram it in to the constitution, definitively discredited him in the eyes of many of those who voted for him in 2012, myself included.

I wrote about this in January, in my piece in the winter issue of the web magazine South Writ Large. There were several serious problems with the déchéance measure, as I argued. If one gave the slightest thought to these—and few of those who defended Hollande on the matter did—it would have been clear how crazy but also potentially dangerous the whole thing was. The first problem—and that was cited by most critics off the bat—was that it symbolically—but also juridically—created two categories of French citizens: those who were 100% French—with both parents born in France—and those of second-generation immigrant origin, who are French citizens by jus soli. As one knows—though many manifestly do not—large numbers of French-born dual nationals inherit the citizenship of their parents. They do not request it.

The second problem—and to which less attention was paid—was the circumstances under which French citizenship would be stripped. Hollande and his surrogates assured that it would only be in the extreme case of convictions for terrorism. The problem is, “terrorism” does not have a juridical definition in France. Moreover, this is not the term that was used in the rival versions of the constitutional amendment passed by the National Assembly and Senate. The formulation was “gravely undermining the life of the nation” (atteinte grave à la vie de la nation). This was imprecise, to say the least, both juridically speaking and otherwise. What, pray, is “the life of the nation”? Socialists and other mainstream currents hugging close to the center of the political spectrum would no doubt interpret this to mean terrorist acts such as the ones committed on November 13th, but who is to say that a future government of the hard right, not to mention the Front National, would not interpret such a constitutional provision otherwise, that “undermining the life of the nation” would include, say, disrespecting a person invested with public authority, e.g. a police officer or teacher, and with the offending citizen subsequently being convicted of outrage à agent public—the iniquitous, liberty-undermining délit d’outrage—or booing “La Marseillaise”—and all the more so as the version of the déchéance amendment passed by the National Assembly encompassed both crimes and misdemeanors (crimes et délits)? The symbolism here was not only terrible but dangerous, and with possibly disastrous consequences for many French citizens in the future, not to mention the cohesion of the French nation, as the entire jus soli principle—which underpins the French republican conception of citizenship—would be fatally undermined.

A third problem is how the French state would know who is a dual national. In point of fact, the state has no way of knowing how many of its citizens hold the citizenship of another country. E.g. my daughter, who was born in France and has lived all but one of her 22 years here, is an American citizen, because I, as her American father, undertook the demarche with the US consulate in Paris when she was a few months old to acquire her “consular report of birth abroad of a citizen of the United States of America.” So she is a Franco-American dual national, though is culturally 100% French and has never lived in the United States. But then, one of my French students told me recently that her father is American but never declared her to a US consulate in France, so she does not possess US citizenship. My daughter and student were both born in France to a French mother and American father, but one is a dual French and American citizen, and the other is only French. But the French state does not know this. So if Hollande’s constitutional amendment had been adopted and then a future hard right-wing government decided to implement it in an expansive way, the only way for it to know who was a dual national would be to legally oblige all French citizens holding another citizenship to declare this, perhaps to their local commissariat de police—as happened with one category of the French population back in 1941… Does France really want to go down this road?

So one gets the idea. Hastily enacted laws—not to mention hastily amended constitutions—may have unintended consequences in the future. That François Hollande and those advising him did not perceive this or take it seriously—and Hollande was personally informed of all this by political scientist Patrick Weil, who publicly campaigned against the déchéance measure—almost defies belief. Whatever the case, it morally disqualifies Hollande from being elected to a second presidential term.

UPDATE: Here is the original, unedited version of my World Policy Review article:

On May 7, 2017, French voters will go to the polls to elect, or re-elect, their president. Barring a dramatic reversal of fortune on his part, that president is most unlikely to be François Hollande. As he enters the final year of his term, Hollande is in the weakest position by far of any president in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. His poll numbers have been negative since September 2012 – four months after his victory over Nicolas Sarkozy – with his popularity – short-lived spikes following the terrorist attacks of January and November 2015 excepted – not exceeding 30% since April 2013. The latest IPSOS-Le Point poll has Hollande’s job approval rating at 15%, with 80% disapproving his action. Worse for him, a survey of the electorate published last month by the academic institute CEVIPOF, the sample size of which was 21,000, revealed a mass rejection of Hollande even by voters of his own Socialist Party (PS). The survey, moreover, projected his certain elimination on the first ballot in the 2017 election should he be in the running and regardless of the identity of the opposition Les Républicains party’s candidate. In short, Hollande’s predicament heading into the 2017 campaign is dire.

How did this happen? The immediate explanation is naturally the state of the French economy. Hollande, as befitting a presidential candidate of the left, was elected on a platform pledging to reduce unemployment, France’s decades-long scourge – 1983 being the last year when unemployment did not exceed 7% – and promote economic growth. To say that Hollande has failed in his objective would be an understatement. Unemployment is presently at 10.3% – one point higher than when he took office – and rising, whereas it is half that in Germany and the UK, and dropping in Italy and Spain. As for economic growth, annual GDP increase has ranged from 0.2 to 1.2% over the past four years, which is par for the course in the eurozone but manifestly not sufficient to appreciably reduce the numbers of those registered with Pôle Emploi.

Apart from a youth employment measure enacted in 2012 – which, in effect, involved the state subsidizing the jobs created – the first significant piece of legislation billed as both tackling unemployment and liberalizing the labor market was drawn up only in 2015, dubbed the Law on Growth, Activity, and Equality of Economic Opportunity, a.k.a. the Macron Law, sponsored by the youthful, dynamic, nominally left-of-center economy minister Emmanuel Macron. Though the measures were small bore – loosening restrictions on Sunday store openings, liberalizing intercity bus transport, opening up protected professions (such as driving schools), among others – they provoked a veritable psychodrama on the left, including the left flank of the PS, and a part of the trade union movement, with the inevitable street demonstrations and symbolic one-day strikes in public services, though the controversy ceased once the law was enacted.

More consequential is the proposed reform of the Code du Travail – the 3,860-page compendium of French labor legislation – informally referred to as the El Khomri Law, after Myriam El Khomri, the labor and employment minister, a relative political novice who had no prior knowledge of the dossier when she was promoted to her ministerial post in September 2015, or any experience in negotiating with trade unions or other social actors. Needless to say, the unfortunate El Khomri, who has become the government’s lightening rod on the question, was not the veritable author of the proposed law, which bears the imprint of Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls. The bill is presently under parliamentary deliberation, has been significantly amended by the government itself, and likely won’t come up for a definitive vote before the summer, but has already generated a firestorm on the left, been roundly denounced by the unions, and led to several days of mass demonstrations across the country, which witnessed the participation of large contingents of university and high school students in addition to the inevitable trade unionists and others on the organized left.

The provisions of the bill that have provoked the most opposition concern the capping of indemnities by the Conseils de Prud’hommes (labor arbitration boards) for employees terminated from their jobs for non-economic motives (i.e. fired at the employer’s whim) – a measure the government has now dropped – and allowing company CEOs to arbitrarily rewrite collective bargaining agreements and then submit them to a vote of the company’s staff, perhaps informing the latter in the process that if the revised accord is not approved, the company may have to proceed with layoffs and transfer part of its production abroad.

In the US, UK, and elsewhere, this is already the status quo and, for elites at least, is utterly uncontroversial. But in France, and particularly on the left – with which close to 50% of Frenchmen and women continue to identify – such proposals to appreciably undermine job security are unacceptable – and when coming from a government of the left, are profoundly shocking. An Odoxa-Le Parisien poll conducted in mid March indeed revealed that 71% of Frenchmen and women are opposed to the El Khomri Law. A refrain of left-wing critics has it that a Socialist government is offering the employers’ lobby more than it had ever asked for itself, and is going further in labor market reforms than previous conservative governments have dared. As for the beneficial effects of the El Khomri Law on employment and economic growth, this has been the subject of a vigorous debate among economists, which, as happens in France, has been played out in the op-ed pages of the elite press, notably Le Monde, where collective tribunes signed by august personalities have argued for and against the proposed law. The bottom line: whereas the El Khomri Law may enhance profit margins and the competitiveness of French companies, there is no a priori reason to expect that it will singlehandedly reduce unemployment or increase GDP growth.

For many voters of the left, the seemingly gratuitous campaign to undermine the Code du Travail is the final straw in a series of disappointments and actions seen as incomprehensible coming from a Socialist president. One of these actions was Hollande’s initiative – announced in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks – to amend the constitution to allow for the stripping of citizenship (déchéance de nationalité) of dual nationals convicted of terrorism, which was billed as a symbolic measure but, in juridically creating two categories of French citizens, could have deleterious consequences in the future under a hypothetical far right-wing government (for more on this issue, see the present author’s commentary in the update here). Faced with a rebellion by PS parliamentarians, Hollande announced on March 30th that he was abandoning his effort to amend the constitution.

The damage, however, was done. The fact that Hollande could appropriate an idea heretofore proposed only by the extreme-right and then insist on its constitutionalization, and despite fierce opposition within his own political camp, signified that he felt he could dispense with his party and many of its voters in a re-election campaign. As it stands, sizable numbers of Hollande’s 2012 voters will likely dispense with him as well should he decide seek that re-election.

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Photo credit: Peter Dejong/AP

Photo credit: Peter Dejong/AP

That’s the title of an article of mine (here) which was just published in the web magazine South Writ Large: Stories, Arts, and Ideas from the Global South, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The article was commissioned by editor Samia Seragaldin, who asked me to offer my personal sentiments and analysis of France in the aftermath of the November 13th terrorist attacks. The first half of the piece is my blog post of November 14th, written à chaud, which a certain number of people read at the time (it got a lot of hits). The second half is an update—dated January 20th—in which I discuss the reaction of the French government, i.e. of François Hollande and Manual Valls, to November 13th, specifically the état d’urgence and déchéance de nationalité. I will have a longer post on that subject soon.

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

It’s been a week since the 2nd round of the regional elections, the results of which are known to all with a passing interest in French politics: the alliance of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party and UDI/MoDem centrists won seven of the thirteen regions, François Hollande’s Socialists—allied with or supported by the rest of the left—took five, Corsican nationalists scored an upset in one—Corsica obviously—and Marine Le Pen’s Front National was shut out. The FN won nothing, due in part to the 8.5% spike in the participation rate: from 49.9% of registered voters in the 1st round to 58.4% in the 2nd. The increased participation was, personally speaking, readily apparent in my polling station, where I was an assesseur titulaire, with almost a hundred more voters (of 940 registered) showing up for the 2nd round, including an unusually high number—for this kind of election—in their 20s and even late teens (and in view of the result, they didn’t come to vote FN). There have been a few good analyses in English of last Sunday’s outcome, e.g. Pierre Briançon in Politico.eu, Arthur Goldhammer in The American Prospect and the Boston Review, and Hudson Institute research fellow Benjamin Haddad in The American Interest. So as not to repeat what these august commentators have to say—or my own analysis of the political field after last March’s departmental elections—I will make just a few points about France’s three political poles coming out of Sunday’s vote (in their order of finish).

Les Républicains“: This was not a victory for the ex-UMP, loin s’en faut, despite its victory in seven of the new regions—corresponding to 12 of the 22 old ones, compared to a single one in the 2010 elections and a mere two in 2004—as Sarkozy and his acolytes had visions of winning 10 or 11 until the final phase of the campaign. The weekly L’Express—whose editorial line does not lean left—indeed called Sarkozy “the real loser” in its cover story on the election, as LR, entre autres, failed to break 50% in any triangulaire and with its most decisive victories being in the three regions—NPDCP, PACA, and the Grand Est—where the Socialists withdrew or disowned their lists after the 1st round—and thus sacrificing any representation in the regional councils there for the next six years—in the higher interests of  the “front républicain“—a stance expressly rejected by Sarkozy for his own party—to bar the route of the FN. It was striking to see Sarkozy’s droitisation strategy—of mimicking the Front National on the immigration and national identity issues to lure back defecting right-wing voters—and rejection of an anti-FN front républicain with the PS openly disparaged in his own party in the aftermath of the vote, and not only by the usual suspects—e.g. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Jean-Pierre Raffarin—but also the hard right-wing sarkozyste historique Christian Estrosi in PACA and the conservative ex-villepiniste Hervé Mariton. Estrosi’s public critique of his now erstwhile mentor’s neo-frontiste rhetoric—the principal consequence of which has been to inflate the FN’s ranks and votes—was quite something.

Of equal note was Xavier Bertrand’s address in Lille on Sunday night, in which he explicitly thanked voters of the left—and with manifest sincere humility—for his victory over Marine LP in the NPDCP region. I will bet a small sum of money that Bertrand’s poll numbers will spike sharply in the next IPSOS baromètre with those on the left, who greatly appreciated his generous words [UPDATE: Bertrand’s favorable rating did indeed spike, going from 26% in November to 39% in January]. Estrosi did not initially go as far as Bertrand but has made it clear since that he will not forget about the left voters who enabled his victory over Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Had the PS not committed hara-kiri in those two regions, Marine and Marion would likely be presiding the regional councils in Lille and Marseille, point barre. In view of the FN’s large anchor in these regions, Bertrand and Estrosi will be beholden to left voters indefinitely, future elections included. And then there was Sarko’s unceremonious eviction of NKM from the nº2 post in LR’s leadership at Monday’s political bureau meeting—which Alain Juppé and Bruno Le Maire didn’t even bother showing up for—a move criticized by Juppé, Raffarin, and other Sarko detractors in the party.

Sarkozy is not at all convinced, however, that the election result was in any way a repudiation of his hard-right strategy. Au contraire, he sees it as confirmation of this, particularly in view of LR’s victories in France’s two largest and richest regions, the Île-de-France (Paris and its banlieues) and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (capital: Lyon). Valérie Pécresse, who headed the LR-UDI-MoDem list in the ÎDF, did not win by a large margin but her victory was nonetheless sans appel. And it was a particularly gratifying one for her, as Claude Bartolone’s 2nd round Socialist-led list represented the broadest-possible left and ecologist coalition—there were no less than 15 party logos on its campaign flyers—and with the outcome uncertain to the very end. The PS knew the race would be close but was confident it would win it. Pécresse—whom I’ve written about positively in the past, BTW— is moderately conservative and very much her own person—she is not a Sarkozy sycophant—but tacked right in the campaign, emphasizing the insécurité issue (fear of crime and terrorism), excoriating “communautarisme” (a code word for public displays of Muslim identity), and embracing personalities from the anti-gay marriage movement (La manif pour tous) that swept the conservative, practicing Catholic portion of French society in 2013 (and included religious Muslims and Jews), taking by surprise all the parties of the right, including the FN, none of which supported it. And then there was her campaign spokesman—and now chief-of-staff at the Conseil Régional—Geoffroy Didier, co-founder of the ex-UMP’s fanatically sarkozyste, Patrick Buisson-inspired La Droite Forte caucus and who is as far right as one can get in that party without becoming an outright frontiste. So it is entirely normal that Sarkozy would take particular comfort in Pécresse’s victory, as with that of Laurent Wauquiez in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. This one was decisive and somewhat unexpectedly so, as the PS, whose list was led by the incumbent Jean-Jacques Queyranne—a longtime politician in the greater Lyon area—had reason to hope it could win the region via an addition of left voters. Wauquiez is an unabashed hard rightist, whose rhetoric accents economic libéralisme—which plays well with right-wing voters in the southeast (Wauquiez’s base is the Haute-Loire)—denunciation of “l’assistanat“—read: welfare cases and other slackers who would rather receive taxpayer-funded free stuff from government than get a job—and defense of farmers and small-town folk, who provided his margin of victory on Sunday. Sarkozy’s replacement of NKM with Wauquiez as party nº2 was the logical thing to do from his standpoint.

Further reinforcing Sarkozy’s attitude was the poor performance of Virginie Calmels, the LR-UDI-MoDem’s list leader in the Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes, a member of no party until this year who not only lost the region by 12 points to the PS’s Alain Rousset but was bested in Bordeaux itself, where she is a vice-mayor and protégé of Juppé, who’s been the mayor of that city for two decades now. Sarkozyistes exulted over Juppé’s embarrassment (which one could observe on Twitter after the result was announced on Sunday night). And then there was the defeat in Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Centre-Val-de-Loire, and the narrowest of victories in Normandy, the lists in all three regions headed by UDI centrists (specifically from Le Nouveau Centre, one of the UDI’s principal constituents; for the record, the NC is, despite its centrist label, moderately to the right). For LR’s right-wing, this was proof that, electorally speaking, the centrists bring little to the table—and may even be a liability—and that tilting in a centrist direction is not the way to go for LR. Sarkozy defended the alliance with the UDI and MoDem and his offering the centrists the head-of-list slots in the three aforementioned regions, but could only be comforted in his droitisation strategy by the UDI’s counter-performance.

So there is not a chance that Sarkozy will modify his neo-frontiste discourse between now and LR’s primary next November—or after, in the appalling eventuality that he should win it. In this, he will be ardently supported by LR’s hardcore base and the online réacosphère of websites, blogs, and social media, and which has become ever more influential on the right. The incarnation of this is Valeurs Actuelles—US equivalents: National Review, Human Events—which was long a low circulation weekly magazine read by bourgeois reactionaries and ignored by everyone else but whose website is now the most high-profile in that segment of the political spectrum. If one wants to know what French hard-rightists are reading and thinking, that’s where to look.

The bottom line: the cleavage in LR is deep—which I discussed in my pre-2nd round post a week ago—and can only deepen further as the primary campaign dominates the life of the party in the coming year—and during which LR will be transformed into the sole instrument of Sarko and his clan, and all but abandoned by Juppé and the other candidates for the presidential nomination. It’s hard to see how the party can possibly unite around the candidate who wins the primary. In the horrific event that it’s Sarkozy, a centrist or center-right candidacy is certain—most certainly François Bayrou—and who will siphon many moderate LR voters. And if it’s Juppé—or even Le Maire or François Fillon—the LR’s Tea Party base will defect in sizable numbers to the best hard-right candidate on offer, e.g. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or even Marine LP.

The nominee will, however, not be Sarkozy, as I’ve been insisting for over a year now. His political comeback has been a flop, too many people in his own party can’t stand him, and his poll numbers are execrable. Now he did rise seven points in the last IPSOS baromètre—to 38% positive/57% negative—but this was taken in the week following the November 13th terrorist attacks and with almost every politician’s numbers improving; it was as if, in the post-attack national trauma, people felt the need to believe in their elected representatives. But Sarko’s positive rating is destined to tumble back to where it’s been since his return to the partisan arena—20s/low 30s—while Juppé will remain in the 50s, thereby maintaining his status as the most popular political personality in France. And there is no reason why this should change in the coming year barring an unforeseen affaire, as Juppé does not hold national office and therefore has no active bilan over which opinions of him can evolve. He incarnates a center-right sensibility conforming to that of the French median voter and with a steely but calm, steady temperament that reassures rather than disquiets. On this level, the contrast between Juppé and Sarkozy—with his feverish, frenetic, trash-talking persona, constantly blowing his stack in front of his associates (which has been reported countless times over the past decade)—could not be starker.

À propos of all this, France Inter’s political editorialist Thomas Legrand—who is the sharpest, most incisive analyst of French politics in the media—asserted on Friday—correctly, in my view—that France’s next president will be on the center-right. He did not specify who that man or woman would be, though did advance a few names, including Sarkozy and Hollande (most unlikely, IMO). Juppé pretty clearly fits the bill. As for the relative strengths of these three men in the general election, an IFOP/Atlantico poll released December 18th has some interesting numbers: if LR’s candidate is Sarkozy and with Bayrou running, Hollande will overtake Sarko to face off against the first place finisher Marine LP in the 2nd round (it’s likewise if Fillon wins the primary). But if LR’s candidate is Juppé—and with or without Bayrou in the race—he finishes in first place and well ahead of Marine (and whom he will annihilate in the 2nd round). If these IFOP numbers remain steady over the coming year, Sarkozy is toast. Point barre. 100% cooked. There is no chance whatever that right and center primary voters will give the majority to a candidate who looks even iffy for the 2nd round.

The Socialists: The PS is satisfied with last Sunday’s outcome, which is hardly surprising in view of its debacles in the 2014 municipal and European elections and last March’s departmental. But it should not be, as its victories in two of the five regions it won—BFC and CVDL—were narrow and due only to the high scores of the FN. And its loss in the ÎDF was a real setback, as the PS and its allies have governed this region since 1998 and with the city of Paris now safely voting left. And adding to these is the left’s disappearance altogether from the councils in NPDCP—a historic PS/left stronghold—and PACA.

Back to the ÎDF, the loss here laid bare much of what is wrong with the Socialists these days and the precarious situation they find themselves in. First, with Claude Bartolone heading the list. The manner in which he had Jean-Paul Huchon ejected—with the manifest assent of François Hollande, even though Huchon had loyally, if uncharismatically, presided the ÎDF Conseil Regional for the previous 17+ years—was unseemly. Moreover, it’s not as if Bartolone, who happens to be President of the National Assembly—the fourth ranking post in the French state—was seeking a mandate commensurate with his political stature—unless, of course, he was looking to assure his own political future, knowing that his party will be wiped out in the legislative elections in 18 months time. Now “Barto,” as he is known, is said to be greatly appreciated by PS deputies but for those outside the party he is the epitome of a Rue de Solférino apparatchik. There is, objectively speaking, nothing compelling about him as a politician. And then there was his demagoguery in the 2nd round campaign, calling Valérie Pécresse the defender of “Versailles [i.e. reactionaries], Neuilly [i.e. filthy rich people], and the white race…” Personally speaking, I considered voting blanc on account of this low road attack, though finally cast my ballot for Barto, solely to (unsuccessfully) deprive Sarkozy the satisfaction of winning the region.

Secondly in regard to the ÎDF was the PS’s failure to win the region despite the broad left coalition it put together in the 2nd round. As mentioned above, absolutely every constituent on the left save neo-Trotskyist groupuscules (NPA, LO etc) supported the PS-led list. These even included Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche, Mélenchon normally loathing the PS with a passion. Now most of these formations are admittedly not too significant—when not entirely unknown to the general public—but the symbolism was important nonetheless. The fact that a broad left coalition could still not win the ÎDF—and despite LR’s rightist campaign rhetoric and the FN not being a factor—will have implications for the PS’s future calculations—and to which may be added the PS’s victory in Brittany—the list led by Jean-Yves Le Drian breaking 50%—without any support from the rest of the left (Le Drian, finding the écolos’ 2nd round demands for slots on the list to be unreasonable, told them to go f— off). In view of the poor 1st round performance of the Europe Écologie-Les Verts and the Front de Gauche, and the total stock of left votes barely reaching 36%, it is now clearer than ever that the gauche de la gauche is all but useless to the PS in winning elections, at least when it comes to formal accords between partisan formations.

This is not to say that the overall identification with the left is on the decline or that the French left is finished (even though I’ve said as much myself in moments of despair or disgust). The French left is certainly in crisis—unsure of what it believes or wants, and insofar as it knows this, with no idea how to get there—and with its partisan structures in various stages of deliquescence or discredit, but the left identity remains strong. An IFOP poll for L’Humanité back in September revealed some interesting figures on this—and which seem right to me—with 53% of the sample situating itself on the right and 47% on the left (self-identified centrists were likely asked to tilt in one direction or another or with such being determined in follow-up questions). Breaking these down, 28% identified as left, 15% center-left, and 4% extreme-left. On the other side, 25% identified as right, 17% center-right, and 11% extreme-right. These numbers show at least four things. First, they confirm what has been known for most of the past century—and particularly during the Fifth Republic—which is that France leans to the right. There been have moments when the left surged ahead—1936, 1945-46, 1981—but these have been exceptional and short-lived. Second, there has not been a droitisation of French society, whatever Nicolas Sarkozy and other rightists may think: it’s the right that has lurched right—to the hard and extreme—not French voters as a whole. Third, the relatively low stock of left votes in current elections is not due to the defection of left voters to the right but rather their retreat into abstention (and disappointed but politically engaged voters who stop going to the polls can be lured back). Fourth, if one considers the new reality of French politics to be tripartite—PS, LR, FN—one can order the IFOP numbers to reflect three political poles of almost equal voter strength: left/extreme-left, center-left/center-right, and right/extreme-right.

François Hollande, Manuel Valls, and other social-liberals in the PS look to have drawn the inevitable conclusion from both the 2nd round results—in regard to the écolos and rest of the left—and the IFOP numbers, which is that there is no electoral salvation for the PS exclusively on the left. The cleavage within the party—between the social-liberals and those who are not this, who do not, e.g., appreciate Emmanuel Macron—is widening, and that with the FdG being an unbridgeable chasm. If the PS is ever to win another election, it has no choice but to look right for coalition partners with whom it can govern: UDI/MoDem and the center-right formation that issues from the eventual breakup of LR. Valls and others in his corner have been talking since last Sunday about a major “recomposition,” indeed upheaval, in the French political field and this is what they have in mind—and their thoughts have been echoed by moderate LR politicos, notably Raffarin and Bertrand.

Such a recomposition will necessitate the PS changing its name—i.e. shedding the “socialist” label—which Valls and Julien Dray mentioned during the week. The PS’s hack First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis tried to quash the idea and others called it irrelevant but the party will need to do this, as “socialism” simply doesn’t mean anything anymore; or, rather, it refers to a doctrine from another era that no one in the PS—or even PCF—advocates or believes is possible. People are not completely disconnected from reality. Moreover, it was precisely when socialism became the dominant creed on the French left that the latter ceased to cover over half the political spectrum—which it had in the early decades of the Third Republic—through the First World War—when adherence to republicanism and laïcité was what situated one on the left. Rid of the “socialist” label—to which older PS members and left voters are viscerally attached but means nothing to the younger generation—a reconstituted social-liberal party—likely including the PRG and non-EELV écolo groups—would have a wide boulevard to constitute coalitions with the center and a new center-right formation, based on republicanism and economic policies such as those associated with Macron. The consequence of this will no doubt be a split in the PS, with its frondeurs and other gauchistes (Benoît Hamon et al) forming a new party that will ally with a post-Mélenchon FdG, forming the left pole of French politics (and which still represents many people).

This is all post-2017, though—a project for the future—after the PS has been relegated to the opposition and Hollande sent into retirement. And it will necessitate a change in the electoral system, of a dose of proportional representation in legislative elections—of up to half the deputies in the National Assembly being elected on national PR lists—as three poles with roughly equal electorates and coalitions of several small parties cannot happen with the current mode de scrutin. But there is no chance whatever that a post-2017 government of the right will introduce even a modest dose of PR. And though this was one of Hollande’s 2012 campaign pledges, he has now abandoned it.

Yet one more Hollande disappointment… Despite his post-November 13th leap in the polls—which, like that in January, will not last—Hollande has disappointed just about everyone. His presidency has been that: one huge disappointment. If he had pushed through just one big reform and that everyone could feel—and most in an immediately positive way—e.g. reforming France’s impossibly complex, incomprehensible, and unfair tax code—making it less complex, more comprehensible, and fair, such as proposed, e.g., by Thomas Piketty et al—he could have secured his presidency and legacy. As an énarque surrounded by énarques, he understands this dossier and could have taken it on. But his cautious, splitting-the-difference political style would not allow for such audacious action and that risked upsetting various constituencies and interest groups. And then there is his and the Valls government’s wild overreaction to November 13th, with the état d’urgence and talk of amending the constitution on this, so as to allow for, entre autres, the stripping of French nationality of native-born citizens. This latter bit—which is outrageous and unacceptable, not to mention shocking coming from a PS government—will, in view of the outcry on the left, no doubt be dropped but if it’s not, Hollande will definitely not make it to the 2nd round should he be a candidate. Large numbers of left voters will defect to another candidate or abstain. Like Sarkozy, he’ll be toast in ’17.

Front National: I have less to say about the FN than the above-mentioned political poles, as it is, objectively speaking, by far the least important. The FN is a party that has never governed any Frenchman or woman—apart from those in a tiny handful of unfortunate communes that the great majority of French citizens have never set foot in—and which is not about to change. The FN is not a party of alternance and, in its present form, will never be.

A few brief points about this objectively minor political party. First, all the post-1st round talk about the FN being le premier parti de France was, pardon my French, a load of bullshit. A political party that has existed for over forty years but sent a total a five deputies elected in single-member constituencies to the National Assembly, two senators to the Luxembourg palace, elected fewer than twenty mayors of communes of over 3,500 inhabitants in its history, has never controlled a single regional or departmental council, and is influential in not a single civil society association or organization of any significance cannot be considered important. Point barre. For those who differ with me on this—who do think the FN is a consequential party—here’s a question: have you ever been to a major FN event, e.g. a Jean-Marie or Marine Le Pen rally, May 1st Jeanne d’Arc march in Paris, Fête BBR before it was discontinued in 2007? Anyone who has—and I have at least a half-dozen times—will have observed that the FN is a relatively small party, whose hard-core base doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Cf. the PCF, whose national vote is now in the low-mid single digits but which can attract a hundred times more people to its events than the FN can to its.

Second, the FN, as a festering boil on the French body politic, does merit close attention, study, and analysis but, as happens with boils, it was lanced in last Sunday’s 2nd round. The result was proof for the umpteenth time that breaking 50% of the vote in any given constituency is something the FN cannot do. This was the case 20-30 years ago and remains so today. That the FN can’t even come close to winning the PACA region—the most right-wing in the country and where it is solidly implanted—makes the mere notion that it could win a presidential election—in 2017, 2022, or anytime in the foreseeable future—absurd and laughable. The FN won 6.8 million votes last Sunday, which was a historic achievement and nothing to sneeze at. But the sky is not the limit for Marine LP and her party is not likely to go much higher, particularly in high participation contests such as legislative and, above all, presidential elections. E.g. the average of the participation rates in the 2nd round in all the presidential elections since 1965—with the exception of 1969, which was an anomaly (as one of the major parties instructed its millions of faithful voters to stay home)—is 83%. If Marine LP makes it to the 2nd round in 2017, which looks likely, one may bet that the participation rate will reach, maybe even exceed, 85%, i.e. that over 40 million voters will go to the polls on that day. I’m sorry but there is no way—not a snowball’s chance in hell—that 20 million French citizens will vote to send Marine Le Pen to the Élysée palace. Jamais de la vie. Not in 2017, or 2027, or ever.

Third, the reason why the FN cannot break 50% is because it has not changed. Apart from Marine Le Pen striving the rid the party of her father’s hang up about Jews, it’s still the same FN. In this respect, all the talk about the FN having transformed itself from a parti de protestation to a parti d’adhésion is nonsense and rubbish. The FN remains a protest party for which populism is its DNA. And at the core of populism is an across-the-board denunciation of “the establishment”—of the governing elites, mainstream political parties, the media, intelligentsia, educational institutions, etc, etc—which is seen as the enemy and with which compromises are not to be made. Marine LP is said to want to be President of the Republic, that this is her ambition and her goal. It may well be. But she has not elaborated a credible strategy to get there, a centerpiece of which would be to cultivate at least part of “the establishment” and seek out allies within it. Unless she’s a megalomaniacal narcissist, which is possible, one may hypothesize that she doesn’t really want state power after all—as her father never did—as if she were to obtain it, this would immediately make her part of the establishment and impose all sorts of compromises that she would have no idea how to make. And the FN, as the party of the new establishment, would lose its raison d’être, as all populist parties do when they wield executive power.

Fourth, on the question of allies: Florian Philippot spoke between the two rounds of allying with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France, that this is something that the FN should maybe try to do. There seemed to be no takers in the FN leadership for this, even though Dupont-Aignan’s position on Europe is closer to the FN’s than anyone else’s outside the party. But while Dupont-Aignan may be a Europhobe he’s not a facho and would never ally with the frontistes, as he would gain nothing from it but would lose a lot, namely his credibility in “the establishment” (which he does have). Likewise with Philippe de Villiers—now retired from electoral politics—who is way out on the right—more so than Dupont-Aignan—but never showed the slightest interest in allying with the FN and despite movement of cadres between the latter and de Villiers’s now moribund Mouvement pour la France. So the FN’s absence of allies—which it manifestly does not want and that no one wants with it—will continue indefinitely. And without allies or some kind of entrée into “the establishment,” the doors to power will be forever closed to the Le Pens.

One other point about the FN and why it cannot be placed in the same league with LR, the PS, UDI, MoDem, the FdG or any of the other “establishment” parties or blocs. The FN is the private preserve of the Le Pen family. It is a Le Pen family enterprise. Without a Le Pen at the head of the FN, the FN does not exist. If Marine and Marion were to suddenly leave this earth—as Jean-Marie certainly will sooner rather than later—there would be no one to take their place. The FN would fragment into several pieces. The French extreme right would cease to speak with a single, dominant voice. And it would thereby disappear as a significant electoral force.

UPDATE: If one didn’t see it, Sarah Palin had a column in Breitbart.com, dated December 13th, praising Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and her aunt Marine. The Wassila Wacko thus begins: “I have a political crush, but one I couldn’t vote for today – because she ran for office in France.” The “she” is Marion M-LP. Read it and behold. As I’ve tirelessly insisted for years, the conservative wing of the GOP = Front National.

2nd UPDATE: A faithful reader—my mother—emailed me the following comment about the above: “I did…read the article supposedly authored by Sarah Palin. I use that qualifying phrase because I believe someone wrote it for her. It is too literate and well-written to be hers, and she has allies out there to support her as a public personality.” My mother is no doubt correct. I was struck that Palin—whom I rather doubt reads French—would know enough about Marion M-LP & Co. to write about them, let alone be interested in doing so.

3rd UPDATE: Two post-election polls are out, by ELABE and Odoxa, that show a reinforcement of Alain Juppé’s position and a collapse of Nicolas Sarkozy’s. The gap between the two men is wider than ever. As for François Hollande, he’s headed south.

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Tomorrow is round two. I have a number of things to say on last Sunday’s round one result, which I’ll reserve for a longer analysis after the definitive outcome. In the meantime, a few points on the strictly electoral, horse race side of tomorrow’s vote.

First, it is impossible to predict what is going to happen. The Front National could well win three of the new enlarged regions where it finished first by a wide margin—Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie (NPDCP, where Marine Le Pen heads the list), Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA, the contours of which have not been enlarged; the head of list being Marion Maréchal-Le Pen), and Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine (Grand Est; led by Marine LP’s right-hand man Florian Philippot)—and theoretically take up to six, if one adds the other three regions where it finished ahead of the Socialist and Les Républicains party lists: Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées (LRMP; led by Marine LP’s live-in companion Louis Aliot), Centre-Val-de-Loire (CVDL; Philippe Loiseau), and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté (BFC; Sophie Montel).

In view of the FN’s historic 1st round score—28.4% in metropolitan France and 6.1 million votes, which is quite simply amazing given the 50% abstention rate—and first place finish nationally, it stands to reason that it should win at least something. But the Frontistes could possibly end up with nothing at all. Two polls out in the past three days—from TNS-Sofres and ELABE—have Xavier Bertrand and Christian Estrosi—who head the LR lists in NPDCP and PACA, respectively—decisively beating Marine LP and Marion M-LP, and with LR’s Philippe Richert in the Grand Est overtaking Philippot, and despite the PS’s Jean-Pierre Masseret there disobeying instructions of Socialist HQ in Paris to withdraw his list in the 2nd round and support LR against the FN; so though there will be a triangulaire, which would normally render the vote a done deal for the FN—with its 10% lead over LR—the outcome is uncertain. The track record of election polls is admittedly not excellent these days—cf. Israel, UK, Turkey—and the advance of Marine LP and Marion M-LP over their LR runner-ups is considerable (14-15%). For Bertrand and Estrosi to beat the Le Pens, the great majority of orphaned left voters—terrified by the prospect of an FN victory— would have to vote for these two high-profile right-wingers—and, in the Grand Est, to defect from the now dissident Socialist Massaret to LR’s Richert. On verra. If I were a PS voter in PACA, folding the ballot of the odiously hard-right, sarkozyste historique Estrosi into the envelope and dropping it in the ballot box would possibly be too painful to bear, though concentrating the mind on Marion M-LP, who, behind that soft-spoken persona and pretty face, is an intolerant, ideological extremist to the right of her aunt, could persuade me to bear the pain (as for Bertrand in NPDCP, he’s okay as far as LR personalities go, so no problem voting for him to knock off Marine LP).

In any case, the FN-LR duels in NPDCP and PACA are of critical importance for the future of the FN—and of French politics. Almost every contest the FN has won in a non-proportional representation election to date has been in triangulaires, i.e. with a plurality of the vote. Attaining an absolute majority in any given constituency has been beyond the FN’s ability (in legislative elections it’s happened only twice, both in the late 1980s). In the 2nd round of last March’s departmental elections, the FN won only three of the 535 duels it waged. If the FN crosses the 50% threshold tomorrow in two important regions—and with candidates named Le Pen—it will be a huge event: a stunning victory for the FN, rendering it more credible in the eyes of many voters as a party of alternance, and sending Marine LP’s 2017 ambitions into orbit.

The second point, on the PS, which took a mediocre 23.5% of the national vote: The Socialists look sure to win Brittany (defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian—who is highly regarded these days—heading the list) and are well positioned in Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes (ALPC; Alain Rousset) but could lose everywhere else. Then again, the Socialists could win up to eight or nine—or even ten—regions if the stars perfectly align, i.e. if there is a flawless transfer of voters of the 1st round lists of Europe Écologie-Les Verts and Front de Gauche—which did poorly, netting 6.8% and 4.2% of the national vote respectively—a few of the lists having merged with the PS for the 2nd round but with most eliminated outright (for the stock of left votes, see the map below). For écolo and FdG voters, the question is how many will put aside their detestation of the PS—of François Hollande, Manuel Valls, Emmanuel Macron et al—to bar the route of the FN or defeat the LR of the hated Nicolas Sarkozy (particularly in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, where the LR list leader is the reactionary Laurent Wauquiez). One may be cautiously optimistic that republican reflexes will prevail for gauche de la gauche voters, who will hold their noses and vote PS—and particularly in a region like LRMP, with the specter of Louis Aliot presiding the regional council in Toulouse too appalling to contemplate.

In the improbable event that the left loses LRMP to the FN, this will be a body blow to the PS that could ultimately prove fatal. The ex-Midi-Pyrénées region is a historic stronghold of the republican left and where the FN has, until recently, been insignificant. If the PS loses there tomorrow, this will be added to the disastrous performance of its lists in NPDCP and PACA last Sunday—and then the decision to withdraw them from the 2nd round altogether—which has been devastating for the party and its adherents in those regions. The Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and Bouches-de-Rhône were the principal bastions of the French Socialists throughout the 20th century, and while the latter has been trending rightward for over two decades now—and with the local PS in a state of advanced deliquescence—the former two departments have remained strong for the party. The disappearance of all PS representation in the regional councils in Lille and Marseille—and with the hundreds of salaried posts that go with this—is just so terrible for the party—and for the French left in general. PS militants and sympathizers in the two regions are shattered by what has happened. Unless the PS overperforms tomorrow, I don’t see how it can ultimately survive all this as a party in its current form. I’ll come back to this thought at a later date.

On the level of base political calculation, however, the decision of the PS to withdraw the two lists—which was announced by party First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis but certainly taken by President Hollande—can only work to the party’s benefit and regardless of tomorrow’s outcome. E.g. if Bertrand and Estrosi defeat the two Le Pens, then the Socialists can claim credit, as the LR victory will be owed to the PS’s republican reflexes in committing hara-kiri to stop the FN, but with Sarkozy’s LR having refused to do likewise for the PS. And Bertrand and Estrosi will, in principle at least, have to acknowledge their gratitude to left voters and promise not to forget about them over the coming six years. But if the Le Pens end up winning the duels, it will be seen as a catastrophic defeat for LR and, above all, Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s authority as president of his party will be severely undermined—probably fatally—and his credibility as a candidate for 2017 in tatters.

This leads to the third point, on LR, which did not do well last Sunday, taking 27.1% of the metropolitan vote—but in merged lists with the UDI and MoDem centrists (who could net up to 10% were they to run separately)—and finishing in first place in only four regions. LR will probably win a few, though only the Pays-de-la-Loire (Bruno Retailleau, president of the LR parliamentary group in the Senate, heads the list) looks fairly sure (as the PS and écolos are in conflict there). It is not out of the question, though, that LR could end up with just this one region (if it even manages that). If so, it will be the death knell for Sarkozy and his 2017 ambitions (and even if Bertrand and Estrosi win). And so much the better.

This will be excellent news if it comes to pass, as Sarkozy has shown himself during this campaign—and for the umpteenth time—to be the worst person in the top-tier of French politics, demagogically mouthing Front National rhetoric and with his trademark hot-tempered, trash-talking style. Increasing numbers of Sarkozy’s LR colleagues are fed up with him (see, e.g., this piece in Mediapart) and his strategy of mimicking the FN. And these fed-up LR tenors now go beyond the usual suspects (Alain Juppé, François Fillon, and their associates). Sarko’s refusal to even consider withdrawing Dominique Reynié’s LR list in LRMP—which finished in third place—to help the PS defeat the FN there, was denounced by Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Raffarin, who is normally calm and soft-spoken, was practically shouting on France Inter last Monday morning. There are indeed decent, moderate personalities on France’s parliamentary right. Unless LR shocks everyone tomorrow night with a major victory—winning eight regions or more—it will be reglèments de comptes time in that party when its Bureau Politique next meets.

Last Monday I discussed the 1st round result with the students in my three Master’s classes—who lean markedly to the right (mainstream and souverainiste)—at the Catholic University of Paris. One of them, who is highly politicized and works on the presidential primary campaign of one of Sarkozy’s LR rivals, spoke of the deep split in the LR, between the moderates—those who are real republicans (Juppé, Fillon, Bruno Le Maire etc)—and the hard-right/reactionaries led by Sarkozy. She was of the conviction that the two currents would not be able to eternally co-exist in the same party—and in saying this, she was seconded by another student, also an LR activist. If, down the road, the LR does split and there is a major upheaval in the PS, this could signal a wholesale recomposition of the French political field. I’ll come back to this in my post-election post, as well as with other thoughts I have on this subject.

One recurring thought is the striking similarities between what is happening in France with the United States. On this, I recommend Paul Krugman’s column in yesterday’s NYT, “Empowering the ugliness,” in which he discusses the two countries and gets it exactly, totally right.


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CEVIPOF_Liegey Muller Pons

For those who don’t live in the Hexagon or keep up with politics here, the first round of the regional elections is happening tomorrow. There are 13 regions in France; until this year there were 22 but François Hollande and his Socialists decided, for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, that 22 was too many and that the apparently too-small regions needed to be larger. So Hollande had his Socialists push through a stupid, half-baked law earlier this year—that only graduates of ENA, of which Hollande is one, could cook up—to force through a merger of a few—but that absolutely no one in the affected regions understood or wanted—to bring the number down to 13. For those interested, the old map is here, the new one here.

The regional councils don’t have a lot of power—considerably less so than state legislatures in the US—though have some responsibilities—mostly technical—and the budget to go along with them. But most people don’t think about the councils too much, so the participation rate in regional elections is relatively low (46% in the last ones, in 2010). The mode de scrutin (electoral system) is proportional list in two rounds. It used to be in one round, through the 1998 elections, thereby allowing for the theoretical possibility of ad hoc coalitions. When the political system was bipolarized—with a left and right pole—coalitions didn’t need to happen, but with the Front National’s breakthrough that year, the then Socialist-led government decided to modify the electoral system, with a majority bonus awarded to the list arriving in first place in the second round, the idea being that this would prevent the FN from holding the balance of seats in a hung council.

Brilliant Socialists. Now that we have a tripolar system in France—with the FN being one of the poles—Marine Le Pen & Co. could well take control of three—or even more—of the regional councils after the second round next Sunday. This didn’t need to happen but, with the current mode de scrutin, most likely will. Electoral systems matter. The above map shows, based on the latest polling data, which list will finish in first place where and by what magnitude. The black/gray is FN, blue is LR (Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party), the red/pink the PS (as for the Front de Gauche and écolos, they’re non factors). Bleak, as my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer puts it in a post today (N.B. the important article he links to by Nonna Mayer).

I’ll be an assesseur titulaire (election judge) at my own polling station tomorrow (representing the PS, whom I will probably vote for, out of pity). It will be interesting to see how many of my neighbors vote FN (I fear the worst). Post-election commentary will follow on Monday or Tuesday.

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