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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Pandemic lockdown: week 6

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

[update below]

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

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

Hôtel de Ville

Rue de Rivoli (at the Louvre)

Boulevard Montmarte

Bd des Italiens & Bd Haussmann

Place de la Bourse

Rue Saint-Antoine

Place de la Bastille

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

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

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

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

I began to lose it this week.

And concludes:

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

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

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

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

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

The worst is just beginning.

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

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

There is so much more to say.

La prochaine fois.

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

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

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Jean-Noël Roy, R.I.P.

He’s the first person I know personally—the first friend, in effect—to die during the pandemic. He was 92-years-old, already unwell, and may or may not have come down with Covid-19. I’d known Jean-Noël since 1992, his wife, Marie, being one of my wife’s oldest friends, having thus met him soon after my then future wife and I started going out. We spent numerous weekends over the subsequent years/decades at Jean-Noël & Marie’s lovely home in a bucolic hamlet on the edge of the Rambouillet forest—in which we took many long walks, with Jean-Noël walking briskly ahead of everyone even into his 80s. And at the house he always enjoyed discussing politics and history with me, and talking about the latest books he had read (he was cultivated and continued his work as a documentary filmmaker almost to the end).

Jean-Noël’s son, François, has posted this faire-part on Facebook:

Jean-Noël Roy, né le 26 décembre 1927,

Mari, père, beau-père, grand-père et arrière grand-père d’une grande famille, composée, recomposée, adoptée, cooptée…

Il aimait formidablement les gens, la vie, la créativité, la fête, il était d’une grande générosité, c’était un esprit libre en perpétuelle rébellion contre toutes les formes d’injustices…

Auteur et réalisateur de télévision depuis 1954
Il a commencé sa vie dans le spectacle
au théâtre comme comédien.
Il est aussi scénariste, producteur de cinéma
et écrivain.

Il fait partie des premiers réalisateurs de la télévision française,
et choisit de travailler dans tous les genres
et selon toutes les techniques,
avec une préférence pour le direct,
pour transmettre instantanément au public,
toutes les transformations de la société et de la vie…

[Sa famille a] la tristesse de vous faire part de sa disparition, le 12 avril 2020.

Jean-Noël recounted a number of personal stories to me, which I have in turn regularly told to my American students in courses I’ve taught on France or European history over the years, most recently this semester. One of them was about his grandfather, Marcel Grateau, who invented and patented the Marcel hair curling iron. When Jean-Noël was a boy, his grandfather—shortly before his death in 1936—told him of having been an apprentice coiffeur in Paris during the Commune in 1871. During the Bloody Week, the infamous General Galliffet lined up dozens of men in Montmartre, Marcel among them, and ordered all to open the palms of their hands. Those whose hands were calloused, indicating that they were laboring men, were executed on the spot, so Marcel told his grandson, but his hands being soft, as he worked in a hair salon, he was spared.

Another story was in Paris during the German occupation, in 1941, when Jean-Noël was 13-years-old and in lycée (a bourgeois institution in those days). There was a Jewish boy in his class, whom several of his classmates started to taunt one day. Other boys in the class, including Jean-Noël, came to their Jewish camarade’s defense, with a brawl ensuing. I took his story to be a metaphor—and with Jean-Noël entirely agreeing with me—of the profound division—roughly down the middle—in French society at the time, between conservative, Catholic, anti-Semitic France—and pétainiste—and republican laïque France, which adhered to the universal values of the French revolution.

Another World War II story concerned the United States. In the two years preceding the D-Day landings, the Americans and British engaged in heavy aerial bombardment of France, striking industry, infrastructure, and other targets of possible military value to the Germans. But the Americans and Brits proceeded differently. When the British bombers raided, they flew low for greater accuracy, though at greater risk of being shot down by German anti-aircraft fire. As for the Americans, whose military doctrine has always privileged force protection, their bombers flew high, to stay out of range of German fire but sacrificing accuracy in the process. So to compensate, the payloads of US bombers were greater, i.e. they dropped a lot more bombs, with the inevitable “collateral damage.” The consequence of this was 67,000 French civilians killed by Allied aerial bombardment, largely American—with many more wounded, hundreds of thousands of housing units destroyed, large parts of cities reduced to rubble… Jean-Noël said that when people heard the Allied bombers, they could tell if they were American or British by how high they were flying, and when they were American, people were terrified. As it happens, Jean-Noël’s story was confirmed by an elderly woman from the Angers-Nantes area I met in 2002, who said precisely the same thing (and with these stories confirmed by historians).

One Jean-Noël story I liked was of his trip to Chicago in 1961, to do a report for French television of the delivery to United Airlines of the first of some twenty Caravelles, the short/medium range jet airliner it had ordered from Sud Aviation. The Caravelle was my favorite jet aircraft as a boy and into my teens. I flew it on Air France, Alitalia, Iberia, SAS, and Sterling Airways—and on United, in July 1967, from Cleveland to Milwaukee, my first plane ride all by myself (I was 11; there were only maybe two or three other passengers, so we were put in first class, where I was given a complementary pack of cigarettes…). United was the only American carrier to fly the Caravelle, though the bulk of its short/medium range jets were Boeing 727s (the workhorse jet of US and other carriers, along with the DC-9).

Given the rules of the pandemic confinement, only immediate family members will be allowed to attend Jean-Noël’s funeral. What a terrible time we’re living through.

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Pandemic lockdown: week 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scary.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Jean Daniel, R.I.P.

He died last Wednesday, at age 99, if one hadn’t heard. I followed his editorials and commentaries in Le Nouvel Observateur regularly from the 1980s on. I liked his learned, moderate left sensibility on French politics and society, and largely agreed with his analyses of geopolitics and matters non-French. Adam Shatz, who met Jean Daniel and has written about him, has a nice remembrance in the London Review of Books. A national homage, presided by President Macron, will be held for him on Friday at the Hôtel des Invalides, before his funeral at the Montparnasse cemetery. France does indeed honor its intellectuals.

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Jacques Chirac, R.I.P.

AFP photo / Patrick Kovarik

I’ve been riveted over the past week to the dramatic, fast-moving developments inside the Beltway—of which I will have things to say soon—but the news here, aux bords de la Seine, has been dominated since Thursday by the death of Jacques Chirac, who was, along with François Mitterrand, the most important French political figure of the post-De Gaulle era. As his four decades at the center stage of political life in this country have been been succinctly and excellently assessed in the Anglophone press by veteran Paris-based reporters John Lichfield in Politico and Christopher Dickey in The Daily Beast—I could have signed both myself—I’ll just add a few thoughts of my own.

As my permanent residence in France began in the early 1990s, I only read episodically about Chirac beforehand,  though had formed a negative view of him in the 1970s—when I spent a semester in Paris, in the run-up to the 1978 legislative elections—as an unsympathetic right-winger and with a nasty streak—a view that was cemented by my French teacher at the Sorbonne—a chic, middle-aged fonctionnaire in l’éducation nationale—who invited the class to her home one evening. As the discussion was informal, I brought up politics; when I mentioned Chirac’s name, she spat out: “C’est un fasciste!” As a youthful gauchiste, that settled the matter for me.

French lefties at the time did indeed call him “facho Chirac.” While he was, in point of fact, nowhere near the extreme right, he was still out there. And he was, as one knows, an early Eurosceptic—and when “Europe” was still merely a common market of nine members and with France the major actor to boot. Chirac’s rightist bent continued to the early 1990s, finding full expression during the 1986-88 cohabitation and his second stint as prime minister, when he adopted Thatcherite neoliberalism in economic policy and a tough law-and-order stance (with tough guy Charles Pasqua at Interior), plus turning the screws on immigration. And then there was his infamous 1991 demagogic outburst on “le bruit et l’odeur” of immigrants—rather obviously African (West and North)—a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for right-wing audiences (akin to Ronald Reagan’s made-up stories about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and buying t-bone steaks with food stamps).

The 1991 dérapage was, it should be said, the exception rather than the rule for Chirac; there were no future commentaries or petites phrases of the sort targeting post-colonial immigrants and the latter mostly did not hold it against him. The racist label was never attached to Chirac. It was around this time that perceptions by those who had long disliked him, notably on the left, began to change. There was indeed a remarkable evolution in his public image, from that of an antipathetic réac to a man more sympathique, with a warm, human touch and less markedly right-wing. He became almost Bill-Clintonian in his glad-handing. He genuinely seemed to enjoy the contact with random citizens (and particularly farmers, who loved him back). It’s been said that Chirac was profoundly affected by his repudiation in the 1988 presidential election—after which his wife Bernadette famously sighed that “the French people don’t like my husband”—and, above all, by the painful family tragedy of his beloved eldest daughter Laurence, about which he never publicly spoke. His traversée du désert seemed to have publicly humanized him, as it were.

He also moved toward the center on a number of fronts, one being Europe. His late call for a ‘oui’ vote during the 1992 Maastricht Treaty campaign was decisive in the referendum’s narrow approval; had Chirac opposed the treaty, as did the majority of the neo-Gaullist party of which he was the founder and leader, it would have surely been rejected by the French electorate, with the consequence being that the European Union would not have seen the light of day and there would have been no single currency (the latter eventuality would have perhaps not been a totally bad thing but that’s another matter). He also abandoned Thatcherite neoliberalism—which he blamed for his 1988 debacle and was never in his political DNA anyway—adopting an almost left-sounding rhetoric in the 1995 presidential campaign with his pledge to tackle the “fracture sociale,” i.e. to do something about widening inequality. And then there was his rejection of any contact with Jean-Marie Le Pen—including refusal of a debate before the 2nd round of the calamitous 2002 presidential election—with Chirac erecting a high wall between his party and the Front National. A sizable minority of his party’s activists wanted to deal with the FN but Chirac was adamant on the question. He was genuinely allergic to the extreme right and what it represented.

So when Chirac was finally elected president in 1995—on his third try in a row—there was no particular fretting or hand-wringing on the left, let alone alarm. It was seen as normal and not the end of the world. His appointment of Alain Juppé—widely respected across the board—as PM was confirmation that France would experience a normal alternation of power. It was around this time that Chirac’s veritable political identity became discernable, as less a man of the classical right than a sort of centrist Third Republic-style Radical (a “rad-soc”), a neo-Gaullist expressing the most centrist, consensual features of that tradition, notably republicanism and adhesion to France’s famous social model (i.e. the welfare state). In the US he would have been a New York-New England liberal Republican (a now extinct political species).

One thing about Chirac, among many others, merits mention. Despite his mec sympa image from the mid ’90s on, he was never very popular during his years in power (Matignon and Élysée). Excepting a stretch in the late ’90s, when the economy was booming and France won the World Cup, and saying no to Bush on Iraq in 2003, his job approval poll numbers were almost always underwater. Moreover, his electoral record was mediocre. In his four presidential elections, he broke 20% of the 1st round vote only once, in 1995 (20.5%). And during his twelve years as president of the Republic (1995-2007), his political camp lost every intermediate election (regional, European, etc) save two: the 2001 municipal elections and 2002 legislatives, the latter happening in the wake of his reelection. And on the 2002 presidential election—which Chirac won with 82% of the vote against a Jean-Marie Le Pen who shocked the world in overtaking the Socialist Lionel Jospin in the 1st round—this was an accident. If Jospin had qualified for the 2nd round, which was expected by all and by all rights should have happened, it is likely that he would have defeated Chirac, as I have extensively explained here. Chirac was unhappy about that election and the way he won it, so one understands. But without the accident of the 1st round, his political career would have probably ended five years earlier than it did.

As for an assessment of Chirac’s action, particularly as president of the Republic, here’s my bilan. First, the positive things he did:

  • The obvious number 1 is standing up to Bush on Iraq, of refusing to participate in the US’s “coalition of the willing” or allowing the UNSC to endorse the unprovoked US invasion. As I wrote on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, Chirac’s opposition to US policy was well-considered and based on principle. Chirac did not, in fact, exclude the possibility of joining the US in Iraq and told his military to prepare for it. But it became obvious to the French that the Bush-Cheney administration’s “evidence” of WMDs was bogus, that there was no casus belli. France needed the proof from Washington and never got it. After Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the UNSC—which so impressed US pundits—analysts in France pronounced Powell’s photos and vials of powder impossible to interpret. So Chirac could not but declare that France would vote against a UNSC resolution authorizing war. If the Americans and Brits wanted to wage an unprovoked war in Iraq, they would have to do it without the green light from the United Nations. The French position was impeccable, ironclad, and irreproachable. As for Chirac’s cultivating of Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the 1970s—during his first stint as PM (1974-76)—which has been held against him, this was before Saddam had consolidated power and the Ba’athist regime had attained the degree of awfulness it did under his total rule. France was engaging in realpolitik at the time, as was the US and every other state on the planet, so Chirac is not to be reproached for this. And he was not identified with the informal Iraq lobby in Paris in the 1980s-90s.
  • The wars in Yugoslavia: when Chirac’s presidency began in May 1995 he quickly steered French policy away from his predecessor François Mitterrand’s backhanded pro-Serb stance, adopting one favoring the Bosnians and Croats, and, with the US in the lead (naturally), forcing the Serbs to the negotiating table and to end the siege of Sarajevo. And in 1999, Chirac, along with Tony Blair, was out front in supporting an intervention—i.e. pulling in the Americans—against the Serbs in Kosovo. Things in Kosovo may not have worked out so well since then but Chirac’s position at the time was the right one.
  • Expressing solidarity with the US immediately after 9/11 and joining the intervention in Afghanistan. Again, however that one has turned out, it was the right thing to do at the time.
  • His July 16, 1995, speech on the anniversary of the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv, recognizing the responsibility of the French state in the roundup and deportation of Jews during the Nazi occupation. No French president over the previous fifty years faced up to the specific French responsibility in this dark episode in recent French history. Chirac, to his great credit, did.
  • Not a political action, policy, or speech, but Chirac’s private passion for art premier, or tribal art, from cultures across Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Chirac was a bona fide authority on the subject, with the product of his passion being his sponsorship of the Quai Branly museum, his specific contribution to Paris’s cultural patrimony. He also had a deep interest in and knowledge of Chinese and Japanese civilization, visiting the two countries numerous times (some 40 times to Japan). Chirac’s interest in and respect for other cultures spoke to a cosmopolitanism and ouverture d’esprit that is not common for professional politicians (in any country).

Now for the negative side of his bilan, or just of him as a person:

  • Corruption. One lost track of the affaires in which Chirac was implicated, mainly from his years as mayor of Paris (1977-95), though he only finally stood trial for one, in 2011 (verdict: two year suspended sentence). Chirac, whose salary during his entire working life was drawn from the public treasury (i.e. the taxpayer), lived the opulent life, which was, ça va de soi, not wholly paid for by his monthly earnings.
  • Rank opportunism and insincerity. Chirac’s periodic lurches leftward, then back to the right, suggested a lack of core principles—of a man who was willing to do or say whatever it took to further his ambitions. The post-1995 view of him as a “rad-soc” did not jibe with his political persona of the previous three decades, not to mention his political entourage (decidedly right-wing) and the base of his party (definitely right-wing). And his 1995 campaign rhetoric on the fracture sociale was quickly forgotten once he took office, witness the Plan Juppé, the most ambitious reform effort involving public spending that happened on his watch, which had nothing to do with reducing inequality. There were also lingering suspicions that Chirac’s back-slapping mec sympa image—the kind of guy with whom you could kick back and have a beer (Corona was his brand)—was all a facade, that the only thing that interested him (art premier apart) was the conquest of power, and that people were only interesting to him if they aided in advancing his ambitions. (On all this, see the incendiary 2005 réquisitoire—some would say hatchet job—by the well-known right-leaning journalist and editor Denis Jeambar).
  • Immobilism. It is commonplace, even among those sympathetic to Chirac, that while he was obsessed with attaining power, he didn’t know what to do with it once acquired. Apart from the aborted 1995 Juppé plan—which was to a large extent imposed on him by France’s obligations under the Maastricht Treaty (itself, one must not forget, largely a French initiative)—and the 2003 pension reform, Chirac’s policy agenda was thin to non-existent. He was reduced to domestic policy impotence in the last five years (1997-2002) of his first term—which was just as well, as he had no agenda to begin with—following his ill-considered dissolution of the National Assembly and consequent victory of the Gauche plurielle. And the watchword for his second term (2002-07) was drift. Politically speaking, the summit of the French state was brain dead. Chirac was the “Roi fainéant,” his court consumed with the battle between Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin for his succession. His presidency did not end a day too soon.
  • Chirac was, of course, determined to win a second term, even though he had no record to run on or anything to propose to the French people. So in the 2002 campaign he cooked up the issue of “insécurité,” i.e. petty crime, which he argued had worsened under PM Jospin’s Gauche plurielle government. Crime was, objectively speaking, not a big problem in France but it became Chirac’s centerpiece issue—with the subtext being immigration, as “insécurité” was a political code word for youthful lower class males of North and West African immigrant origin who snatched purses and behaved poorly on public transportation. The ideal issue to stoke the fears of elderly conservatives. It was pure demagoguery, the consequence of which was Le Pen’s vote spiking to an unprecedented 17%—as when it comes to demagoguing any issue having to do with swarthy and dark-skinned persons of recent immigrant stock, voters will, as Le Pen justly put it, always prefer the original to the copy. And the rest was history.
  • In mid 2003, Chirac decided, for no compelling reason, that France’s hallowed laïcité was under threat from young Muslim women wearing headscarves, so, with trumpets blaring, he convened a commission to ponder the question. Brilliant issue to distract the public, with unemployment increasing and his poll numbers sliding. So the commission submitted its report to Chirac, which he then referred to his government, which in turn took a single one of its recommendations and enacted a law proscribing the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols” (read: Islamic headscarves) by students in public schools. The law was overwhelmingly approved by public opinion—including a sizable minority of France’s Muslims—and is uncontroversial today, but it further politicized a non-issue that did not need further politicization. The whole debate, which was so heavily skewed, contributed moreover to the transformation in the understanding—by the larger public, politicians, and intellectuals—of what laïcité means, from a law defining the relationship between the state and organized religion (the correct understanding) to a principle concerning itself with the comportment of private individuals (the incorrect understanding). This is most unfortunate and regrettable.
  • Chirac was beloved across the Arab world for his 1996 outburst at the Israeli police in the Old City of Jerusalem and, of course, for saying no to the Americans on Iraq. And many in France vaunted his return to de Gaulle’s famous “politique arabe,” of cultivating good relations with Arab states and peoples. But it was a myth and mirage. Chirac’s “politique arabe” consisted mainly of supporting Gulf emirates and other dictatorships—Qatar and Ben Ali’s Tunisia, among others—and selling them weapons, and in return for not much, as Arab regimes, knowing where the real power lay, privileged their relations with Washington over Paris. And in sub-Saharan Africa, it was business as usual under Chirac, with the “Françafrique” and support of dictatorships. While Chirac may have been the toast of the “Arab street,” he was not on the streets of Dakar or Abidjan. He may have had a passion for the art of “primitive” peoples but did not think them meritorious of democracy.
  • Organizing the 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which he both didn’t need to do and was then incapable of defending or explaining. The treaty would have failed anyway in view of the negative vote in the Netherlands three days later, but still. The rejection in France—confirming that referendums are almost always a bad idea—reinforced the Euroscepticism of a growing portion of the electorate.
  • Following the failure of the 2005 referendum, appointing the gasbag and poète à ses heures Dominique de Villepin, who had never stood for election in his life, as prime minister. Talk about an erreur de casting.

Arthur Goldhammer has a short essay on Chirac on the Tocqueville 21 blog. In it, he links to a remembrance by Libération’s Jean Quatremer, who skewers Chirac’s “catastrophic reign for Europe.” And Mediapart has a lengthy, not-too-positive assessment, “Jacques Chirac, ou l’obsession du pouvoir.”

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

[update below]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris, 19 May 2019

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Notre-Dame de Paris

(Photo: Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

There is nothing I can say that isn’t being said or felt by countless millions of others right now, except that words cannot express my shock, stupefaction, and profound sadness at watching the conflagration on television this evening, which recalled my sentiments on that afternoon of September 11, 2001. My last time inside the cathedral was this past December 28th; it left me in awe, as always. It will have been my last visit. Emmanuel Macron and others are promising that it will be rebuilt. It surely will be but will cost billions of euros—the money will come—and take many years, probably more than I have left in my life. And it will not be the same. The rose windows and much else that was surely destroyed are likely beyond restoration. What a tragedy.

UPDATE: Journalist and friend Claire Berlinski has a post (April 16th) on the City Journal website: “No words: In Paris, as Notre Dame burned.”

Journalist and acquaintance Vivienne Walt has posted on her Facebook page an article she wrote for Time magazine in 2017, “Notre Dame cathedral is crumbling. Who will help save it?”

2nd UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer has an essay in The Nation, “Grieving for Notre Dame.”

3rd UPDATE: La Vie des Idées has an interview (April 19th) with sociologist Nathalie Heinich, “Notre-Dame, une émotion patrimoniale.” The lede: “Les flammes, la stupeur et l’effroi. Une cathédrale brûle et des larmes coulent. Mais pourquoi le patrimoine et sa disparition nous émeuvent-ils autant?”

4th UPDATE: Commentator Anne-Elisabeth Moutet has a spot-on op-ed (April 21st) in an otherwise unmentionable New York tabloid, “Hey, Macron: Don’t you dare modernize Notre Dame!”

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