This is the title of a lengthy article by George Packer in the August 31st issue of The New Yorker, in which he inquires into the social climate and general mood in the Paris banlieues—the Seine-Saint-Denis (le neuf-trois) in particular—in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher killings of last January, specifically asking if they are “incubators of terrorism.” It’s one of the better explorations of the subject I’ve seen by an Anglo-American journalist, nowadays as in past years. I naturally have a quibble here and there and Packer made an unfortunate choice in at least one of his informants, but no big deal, as most of them are very good, e.g. Fouad Ben Ahmed from Bondy and the academics Farhad Khosrokhavar and Jean-Pierre Filiu. It’s too bad Packer didn’t meet Bernard Godard, who can speak more authoritatively on the subject of Islam in France than anyone (e.g. see his La Question musulmane en France, which came out in February). I’ll come back to the general subject soon, as, comme toujours, there is much to say about it.
Archive for the ‘France’ Category
[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]
I should have had this post up at least ten days ago but Greece and other things (e.g. work) got in the way. I’m not sure I have anything original to say about the Iran deal—a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as, to paraphrase my friend Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, just about everything has already been said on the deal and will continue to be said over and over again. I was naturally happy when the deal was announced and think it’s a good one. Not that I possess the expertise to evaluate the technical details, as arms control agreements—and nuclear weapons in general—have never been my thing. So like most people out there, I’ve been depending on the assessments of specialists (arms control or Iran) who have followed the dossier closely and whose sensibilities on the issue I trust, e.g. Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey professor Avner Cohen—author of the leading academic works on Israel and nuclear weapons—who had an op-ed in Haaretz arguing that the JCPOA is a good deal (and particularly for Israel; which is likewise the view of members of the Israeli security establishment), and Georgetown University political science MENA specialist and friend Daniel Brumberg, who, in a Washington Examiner op-ed, asserted that failure in Vienna was not an option (for any of the parties to the negotiations). As for nuclear weapons/non-proliferation experts, e.g. Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Aaron Stein of the Royal United Services Institute, they “love the Iran deal,” say “it’s a damn good deal,” and quite simply have a “very positive” assessment of the deal. One may also take a look at the forum in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in which “top international security experts with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds [were asked] to offer their [instant] assessments of the [deal]” on the day it was announced (note in particular the contributions by Oliver Meier, Chuck Freilich, Sharon Squassoni, Lawrence Korb and Katherine Blakeley, Kingston Reif, Siegfried S. Hecker, and Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian). On the technical side of the issue, all this is good enough for me.
As for the opponents of the deal—US Republicans, the Israelis, US Democrats who unconditionally support Israel (who will side with Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of a foreign state, against their own president and from their own party), and Gulf Arab regimes—they were clearly going to be against anything that could have possibly been negotiated at Vienna, as they don’t want a deal with Iran, period (the flagrant proof: prominent Republican senators rushed to denounce the deal before they had even seen it). They want war with Iran but, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias correctly observed, cannot publicly admit that. Yglesias, in engaging a Commentary magazine pundit in debate, delved into their arguments—notably those of Elliot Abrams and Ron Dermer, which were recommended by the pundit—against the JCPOA, after which Yglesias concluded that “they’re utter nonsense.” One argument I read was a WSJ editorial which, in lambasting “Obama’s false Iran choice,” argued that a third option—between the JCPOA and war—could have been put on the table by the US, something the WSJ editorial writer called “coercive diplomacy.” As if the US, in taking an intransigent hard-line with the Iranians and making demands that the latter would never accept, could have dragooned along the rest of its E3+3 partners, and notably the Russians and Chinese, in a posture that would have resulted in certain failure in Vienna (it was and is striking how the American right and other neocons have seemed to view Vienna as a bilateral negotiation between the US and Iran, forgetting—or simply dismissing the fact—that there were other major powers at the table and with whom the Americans had to coordinate a consensus position). The Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz wrote an op-ed in much the same vein as the WSJ’s, “No, we don’t want war, and yes, there was a better deal.” This passage said it all
A country led by a regime that secretly pursued nuclear weapons, that fosters unrest across the region, that calls for the elimination of Israel, that finances, arms and trains terrorist armies in Lebanon and Gaza, that orchestrates terrorism worldwide, that works to bring Europe and North America into the range of its missiles, that criminalizes homosexuality, that discriminates against women, that jails, tortures and executes political opponents, that executes more juvenile offenders than any other country on earth… that Iran must not be allowed to become a more dominant regional power.
N.B. When it comes to mistreating political dissidents, women, homosexuals, and juvenile delinquents, in financing terrorism (i.e. groups Israel is in conflict with) and engaging in other such disreputable behavior, Iran is hardly the worst offender in the region, let alone the world (and if I were a woman, gay, dissident of any sort, or even a Jew, I would rather find myself in Iran than in Saudi Arabia—and definitely if I were a Jew!). And in any case, none of these things have anything to do with an arms control agreement. And the Vienna negotiations were about arms control, tout court.
And then there’s Michael Oren, Israel’s ex-ambassador to Washington, who wrote in Politico on “What a good Iran deal would look like.” In his view, such would have involved “intensified” US sanctions—and with foreign companies violating these barred from doing business in the US—and a “credible military threat.” In other words, by being “tough”—an American right-wing fetish word—and rattling the sabres, the US would have caused the Iranians to cry uncle, all while intimidating the US’s E3+3 partners, via the threat of economic retaliation (one smiles at the image of Washington snapping its fingers at Beijing here; China, pour mémoire, being Iran’s largest trading partner and by far, e.g. here and here), into falling in line behind the tough US position.
Sure. As any level-headed person could inform Ambassador Oren, his “good Iran deal” is a fantasy, as none of the things he advocates could or would possibly happen. And now with UNSCR 2231, cannot legally happen (sorry, Ambassador Oren, but your “good Iran deal” has been superseded by events). In point of fact, what Horovitz, Oren, and other Israeli and pro-Israel opponents of the JCPOA cannot abide is Iran’s stature as a regional power. To repeat: the Israelis and their unconditional US allies simply do not want a nuclear deal, as this will necessarily reinforce Iran’s regional position. Robert Farley—Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce—thus put it in a post on the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog
No conceivable deal could achieve what [Michael] Oren declares that he wants, but of course the point is that he doesn’t want a deal. He, and other hawks, want the constant threat of US military action, in order to reassure our allies that we will always be prepared to bomb their enemies. There is no conceivable set of nuclear concessions that could make Michael Oren (or [Michael] Doran, or [Matthew] Kroenig, or [Eli] Lake, or [William] Kristol, or [Tom] Cotton, et al ad nauseum) pleased with this deal, because they want military confrontation based on other Iranian foreign policy behaviors.
And those “other” foreign policy behaviors are things that have nothing to do with anything that could have been put on the table at Vienna.
Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, got it exactly right as to “Why the Iran deal makes Obama’s critics so angry.” Money quote
[The Iran deal] codifies the limits of American power. And recognizing the limits of American power also means recognizing the limits of American exceptionalism. It means recognizing that no matter how deeply Americans believe in their country’s unique virtue, the United States is subject to the same restraints that have governed great powers in the past. For the Republican right, that’s a deeply unwelcome realization. For many other Americans, it’s a relief. It’s a sign that, finally, the Bush era in American foreign policy is over.
It should be said that not all commentators on the right side of the political spectrum have denounced the JCPOA. E.g. foreign policy and MENA specialist Adam Garfinkle, who has worked for successive Republican administrations, has a not uninteresting essay—albeit complicated, verbose, and overly long: a Garfinkle trademark—in The American Interest (of which he is editor) on the day the deal was announced. Which is not to say that I’m on the same page with him across the board, e.g. his argument that the deal, which consecrates Iran’s status as an almost nuclear threshold state, will no doubt cause other regional actors—Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE—to develop or purchase nuclear weapons, thereby “making a nuclear war in the region, perhaps involving the United States and perhaps not, more likely, after approximately 15 years.” Mr. Garfinkle should know better than to be making predictions about what will or will not happen a decade down the road, let alone longer (and Abu Dhabi going nuclear? Or any of the other places Garfinkle mentions? Oy vey, GMAB!).
In fact, the best rubbishing of the arguments of opponents of the Iran deal has come from one of their (more or less) ideological kindred spirits, the paleocon Patrick Buchanan, who, writing in The American Conservative, incisively informed his erstwhile political soul mates that “Rejecting the Iran deal would be GOP suicide.” Buchanan is very good here. His TAC has indeed had a number of fine commentaries on the deal, e.g. TAC founding editor Scott McConnell on “How the Iran deal serves America” and the almost daily posts by TAC senior editor Daniel Larison, who has been taking particular aim at the reactions to the deal by GOP presidential candidates, e.g. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul, plus Mitt Romney; Larison’s subtext: on the subject of Iran—and foreign policy more generally—the Republicans are both crazy and don’t WTF they’re talking about.
One matter needs to be put to rest, which is the hostility of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to the deal, indeed to any deal with Iran. As the NYT reported ten days ago based on WikiLeaks revelations, Saudi Arabia has “an obsession with Iran” and which is driven by the Sunni-Shia divide. That is to say, the Saudi hang-up over Iran is existential. It is religious in nature. Which means that it is permanent and timeless. Let us be clear about a couple of things here. First, the United States of America has nothing whatever to do with—and must absolutely not allow itself to get caught up in—the existential angst of the
fucking Saudis in regard to Shi’ism. This is not America’s problem. Second, Saudi Arabia is not a friend of the United States, nor is it an ally. Saudi Arabia is a state with which the US has an important relationship but which is based exclusively on realpolitik, i.e. on raisons d’État. America has important interests in Saudi Arabia—economic, strategic—but there is no political or cultural affinity whatever between the two countries. And there never will be, as the problem with Saudi Arabia goes well beyond the nature of its political system. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is a major source of what ails the Muslim world today—and a big source of a lot of the problems in that Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is, as I have labeled it, the Evil Kingdom. And let’s not forget the role of Saudis in 9/11—and which no doubt went well beyond the 15 of the 19 men who commandeered the four airplanes that day. So: the US, in the pursuit of its national interests, must not humor or indulge the existential fears of its interlocutors in Riyadh (or Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, or Kuwait).
On the Iran deal, I have been particularly interested in the reaction of the E3+3 member that took a particularly hard line against the Iranians during the long negotiating process, which was, of course, France. French policy has been consistently distrustful of the regime in Tehran, and during the Sarkozy and Hollande years both. Now there is a tenacious notion out there among Anglo-Americans who opine on the question that French foreign policy is driven primarily by base commercial considerations, of winning contracts for big French corporations (in the case of Iran, see, e.g., here). Insofar as any principles may be involved, they’re mainly about France trying to cling to the fading glory of its past as a colonial empire. This is, of course, Anglo-Saxon poppycock, and particularly in the case of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, over which the French took, as one knows, a harder line than the US and which has been explicated, entre autres, in recent Foreign Policy articles by Colin Lynch and Yochi Dreazen, and Joseph Bahout and Benjamin Haddad—and with the latter emphasizing the deep knowledge of Iran in the French foreign policy, intelligence, and defense establishments (and which is certainly greater than that of the US).
For the anecdote, some 2½ weeks ago I participated in a forum in Paris with major American politicians at the state level—and they were there from almost all 50 states plus Puerto Rico—along with corporate types, that was organized by a New York-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. The speaker who preceded me (my topic was immigration in France) was Jean-David Levitte, who spoke to the (exclusively American) audience about geopolitics. As Levitte has been a top person in the French foreign policy establishment over the years—and particularly during Sarkozy’s presidency—I took the opportunity to ask him a question about French policy toward Iran and why France has taken an even harder line than the US. His lengthy answer focused on nuclear non-proliferation as a cornerstone of French policy in the Middle East—as primordial for the French national interest—and, in regard to the negotiations in Vienna, of the need to, as he put it, “get it right,” i.e. to arrive at an agreement that would stop Iran’s nuclear capacity short of the threshold that would provoke its neighbors into trying to acquire that same capacity (he was speaking five days before the JCPOA was announced). At the forum the following day, two of France’s top academic MENA specialists—both quite brilliant and for whom I have the utmost regard—spoke on the region to the audience of Americans. Somewhat to my surprise, both gentlemen expressed deep reservations over an eventual Iran deal. One of them, who is a former diplomat and with personal experience in dealing with the Iranians in an official capacity, emphasized the nefarious role Iran has played in the region (notably in Syria) and evoked Iran’s long history as a sponsor of international terrorism (and with France and Frenchmen having been a target, particularly in the 1980s). The other specialist assured the audience that a deal with Iran that enshrined its status as a nuclear threshold state and ended the sanctions regime and diplomatic quarantine—thereby augmenting Iran’s status as a regional power—would frighten masses of Sunni Arabs into the arms of the Islamic State. No less.
Now I don’t share the views of my esteemed colleagues on this question but found them interesting, as they so closely hued to the official French position. So the fact that the French were fully on board with the JCPOA was, in my book, prima facie proof that the deal was a good one. On this, here is the reaction of François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Tehran and nuclear weapons specialist, speaking to Libération on the day the deal was announced
C’est un bel accord qui doit convenir à toutes les parties et répond en particulier à tout ce que souhaitaient les Américains, dont 80% à 90% des demandes se voient satisfaites (…). Je ne crois pas que l’on aurait pu obtenir mieux. C’est le triomphe de la volonté et de la persévérance, en particulier de John Kerry (…) qui a déployé une énergie extraordinaire, de Hassan Rohani qui a su attendre son heure pendant dix ans [il était déjà le chef des négociateurs iraniens, en 2003-2004] et de Barack Obama qui avait tendu la main à Téhéran après son élection, en 2008.
See as well Nicoullaud’s “Premières leçons de l’accord nucléaire avec l’Iran,” on the Boulevard Extérieur blog. In the days following the accord, I checked out the Twitter accounts of two leading French geopolitical analysts, both Atlanticist in orientation (i.e. not out on the left or the souverainiste and/or Russia-friendly right) and exceptionally smart, to see their reaction. One, François Heisbourg, called the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231 “a remarkable achievement,” though emphasized that the deal was not likely to modify Iran’s policy in the region (see this graphic that Heisbourg retweeted, which suggests that France succeeded in Vienna in pulling the US toward its tougher position). The other, Bruno Tertrais—whose position on Iran was close to that of US neocons—tweeted an op-ed by Ariel (Eli) Levite, who was the principal deputy director general for policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission from 2002 to 2007, “The good, the bad and the ugly nuclear agreement,” published in Haaretz and on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website, and with this comment: “In the maelström of reactions emerges a really thoughtful piece”…
The official French commentary on the Iran deal came from foreign minister Laurent Fabius in an interview in Le Monde, which was translated into English by the Worldcrunch website and linked to by my friend Claire Berlinski, in her Ricochet blog post on “France and the Iranian nuclear deal.”
In Claire’s post there is one little line that caused me to leap out of my chair and to which I must respond. Claire says that “France is objectively the weakest of the P5+1.” Weaker than the United Kingdom? In what respect? Military spending? On this score, France and the UK rank 5th and 6th in the world, with France higher in one ranking (SIPRI) and the UK higher in another (IISS). But the two are essentially at parity here and with comparable ability to project military force to faraway places, and which has been the case for decades. As for economic strength, France and the UK, in nominal GDP, are also ranked 5th and 6th worldwide, with France having consistently been ahead of the UK over the years but with the UK now slightly so in some rankings (mainly on account of fluctuations in the € and £ exchange rates). But again, the two countries are essentially at parity (though in country rankings of GDP at PPP, France is ahead of the UK in all). And when it comes to military strength, France is, of course, well ahead of Germany, and with the French economy being considerably stronger than Russia’s.
One thing about the Iran deal, and which seems obvious, is that, in addition to controlling Iran’s nuclear capacity, it involves a gamble on Obama’s part that the deal will influence the political dynamic in Iran and push the country in a more moderate direction, both internally and in its foreign policy choices. This will, of course, not happen right away—certainly not as long as the Ayatollah Khamenei is Supreme Leader, and Iranian regional behavior may even worsen in the immediate period—but the gamble clearly needs to be made, as, in view of the chaos in the region—of collapse and fragmentation of the core Arab states and emergence of the Islamic State—America and Europe need—or need to hope for—a stable, prosperous Iran, which has ceased financing terrorist groups (e.g. Islamic Jihad), arming non-state actors to the hilt (e.g. Hizbullah), and supporting criminal regimes (e.g. the Syrian Ba’athist), and with which America and Europe can cooperate. E.g. it is hard to see how any kind of solution can be found in Syria—if such is possible (and which I doubt)—without Iran on board. And Iran is clearly a bulwark against the advance of the Islamic State, which, ça va de soi, presents a grave threat to the region and anywhere significant numbers of Muslims are to be found.
Assertion: America and Iran have a vocation to be friends. As one knows well by now, the problem in Iran is the regime and political system, but which are seriously contested within the country and by forces in Iranian society that look favorably to America and Europe. And Iran has a vibrant, sophisticated civil society and with currents far more liberal than anything to be found in the Arab world. As for what the US can do to influence Iran internally, Adam Garfinkle, in his essay linked to above, has this to say
[I]f sanctions relief is to come, it is probably in U.S. interest to rush as much of the roughly $150 billion involved into the Iranian economy as fast as possible. It is likewise in our interest to open the economy to all manner of foreigners as quickly as possible: sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll to the max. If we want to weaken the regime—and its emetic IRGC/Qods Brigade Praetorian guard—we should do our best to serve up maximum feasible Schumpeterean “creative destruction”, the same stuff that KO’ed the Shah. The more social change we help unleash, and generate from a new baseline, the more the inability of the current Iranian regime to adjust will doom it to oblivion.
The regime fears its own people and is doubtless prepared now to crack down hard, lest melting glaciers of pent-up frustration get out of hand. How this will play out is hard to say; it may hurt Rouhani more than help him. In any event, we need to do what we can to undermine or overwhelm the crackdown, and being a little (or a lot) more voluble on Iranian human rights violations—which are massive and ongoing—is not a bad way to go about that given the limited means at our disposal to influence internal Iranian social trends.
In a similar vein, Paul Berman, whom I normally do not link to favorably, had a hopeful commentary in Tablet on “Why President Obama’s deal is not just an act of faith, but a call to arms—of the liberal sort.” Also in Tablet is a must-read article by Samuel Thorpe, a Jerusalem-based writer and translator of Persian, on Tehran University political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam, “The most dangerous man in Iran.” It begins
This past March Tehran University political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam said the unspeakable. In a wide-ranging foreign-policy debate with conservative journalist Seyed Yasser Jebraily at Islamic Azad University of Mashhad, videos of which have circulated widely on the Internet, Zibakalam blasted the Iranian government’s oft-stated goal of destroying Israel.
Sitting with Jebraily at a small, microphone-studded table, Zibakalam, dressed in an open-collared shirt and dark blue sports coat over his trademark suspenders, first argued that conservatives’ anti-American rhetoric was harming Iran’s national interest. Then he turned to Israel, saying that cries of “Death to Israel” do the same.
“Who gave the Islamic Republic of Iran the duty of destroying Israel?” he asked sarcastically to the audience’s thunderous applause. “Did the Iranian people have a referendum and say they want to destroy Israel? Did the parliament pass a law saying that we should destroy Israel?”
When hard-line hecklers tried to interrupt they were quickly shouted down by the crowd. “Twenty-four hours a day you have the radio, the television, Kayhan newspaper, the parliament, the Friday sermons,” Zibakalam boldly replied. “We have two hours here—one for me and one for Jebraily. You are so authoritarian and dictatorial that you disrupt even this.”
Watch the YouTube embedded in the article of Zibakalam pronouncing the above words and note the audience reaction. One would never see such a spectacle anywhere in the Arab world (or in Turkey, or any other Muslim majority country).
See also Zibakalam’s “Letter from Tehran” in Politico from last March (linked to in the Tablet piece), “Why Iran’s hardliners fear a deal: A nuclear pact means our regime will have to surrender its No. 1 justification for its actions: anti-Americanism.”
On the question of regime opponents—of which Zibakalam is one—and what they think, see the In These Times piece by Iran specialist Danny Postel of the University of Denver, “Iranian dissidents explain why they support the nuclear deal.” They support it to a man and woman. Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they? One would think that US opponents of the deal would be minimally interested in the views of the pro-democracy, anti-Ayatollah camp in Iran. On this, TAC’s Daniel Larison has a post, “The nuclear deal and Iranian dissidents,” in which he took apart a particularly stupid comment by the reactionary pundit Victor Davis Hanson—and with Larison concluding that the likes of VDH couldn’t care less about the Iranian opposition (reading the bit by VDH that Larison quotes, one is struck—yet again—by the alternate reality in which VDH inhabits, along with most others of his ideological ilk).
The leitmotif on the Iran deal at the moment—in the US at least—is that it has to get through Congress, which is sure to reject it, though most likely will not garner the two-thirds majority needed to override President Obama’s certain veto. If the Congress does override, however, it is being said that the deal will thus be dead, i.e. the Congress will have killed it. But will this be the case? I’ve read the relevant sections of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231, which, unless I missed something or misunderstood what I was reading—which can happen—do not stipulate that legislative action against the JCPOA in one of the signatory states would result in the nullification of the accord. In other words, UNSCR 2231 will come into effect after ninety days—on October 20th—regardless of what the US Congress does. UN (and EU) sanctions will be lifted and if Iran scrupulously adheres to the terms of the JCPOA, the latter will be implemented, albeit without the United States. The rest of the world will trade with and invest in Iran as the JCPOA allows, and without the US being able to do a thing about it. If I am mistaken on this, please correct me.
UPDATE: Tablet magazine has a useful “Guide for the perplexed: The Iran nuclear agreement” by Thomas R. Pickering, former under secretary of state in the Clinton administration and ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, Israel, and several other countries. Pickering, in short, “defends the most complex and important treaty this century.” See his link in the article to James Walsh of MIT’s “excellent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 25, 2015.”
2nd UPDATE: Here are two smart reflections on the Iran deal I’ve come across in the past two days: Paul Pillar, “The sources of opposition to the Iran agreement,” in The National Interest; and James Fallows, “The real test of the Iran deal,” in The Atlantic.
3rd UPDATE: Suzanne Nossel writes in Foreign Policy on “What will happen if Congress blows up the Iran nuclear deal.” And Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, rhetorically asks about “The big hole in the Iran debate,” observing that “[i]n most televised discussions of Iran, the word ‘Iraq’ never comes up, and that’s insane.”
4th UPDATE: Slate’s William Saletan, writing on the Senate testimony of John Kerry and energy secretary Ernest Monitz on the Iran deal, asserts that the GOP is “Not fit to lead.” The lede: “The Iran hearings have shown how the Republican Party can no longer be trusted with the presidency.” Read Saletan’s piece. To call the Republicans appalling is almost an understatement.
Did you, dear reader, see Jon Stewart’s monologue—sans jokes—last Thursday on the Charleston massacre? If you didn’t, watch and/or read it here now. It’s brilliant, possibly Stewart’s best ever.
Along with many others, Stewart emphasizes that it was a terrorist attack. Obviously. Now I happen to agree with the sensible proposal of this conservative pundit—a well-known commentator, and with specialized knowledge, on matters having to do with Islam and Muslims—who argues that the “terrorism” label has become so imprecise that it best be dropped altogether. In other words, let’s eliminate the term from our vocabulary. Right, but still. If Dylann Roof had been named Mohammed Sath and shot up a synagogue—or a Burger King, or anything—the entire media and every last politician of both the major parties would be calling him a terrorist. There would be no disagreement on this whatever. So all those who are loudly insisting that the Charleston massacre was an act of terrorism are correct to do so.
On the subject, the NYT’s Charles Blow had a column yesterday on Dylann Roof as “a millennial race terrorist.” And in the current NYT Magazine is a reflection by writer Brit Bennett, who, looking back in history, observes that “White terrorism is as old as America.” Her conclusion
In America’s contemporary imagination, terrorism is foreign and brown. Those terrorists do not have complex motivations. We do not urge one another to reserve judgment until we search through their Facebook histories or interview their friends. We do not trot out psychologists to analyze their mental states. We know immediately why they kill. But a white terrorist is an enigma. A white terrorist has no history, no context, no origin. He is forever unknowable. His very existence is unspeakable. We see him, but we pretend we cannot. He is a ghost floating in the night.
Very good commentary, though Bennett is not totally correct on the “not trot[ting] out [of] psychologists to analyze [the] mental states [of foreign or brown terrorists],” at least not in France. In reading about Dylann Roof I am reminded of Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old Franco-Algerian terrorist who murdered seven people—Jewish children and off-duty soldiers—in Toulouse and Montauban in March 2012. In committing his acts Merah was driven by a jihadist ideology but was clearly a psychopath in addition. As the Paris-based Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama thus wrote at the time
La courte trajectoire de sa vie montre qu’il s‘agit de ce qu’on appelait auparavant «un psychopathe», c’est-à-dire une personne qui a de puissantes pulsions anti-sociales, dont il va recycler le penchant criminel dans des idéologies salvatrices folles, idéologies qui servent de niche à ce genre de personnes, afin de les capter et de les utiliser.
Dylann Roof is, as was Mohamed Merah, clearly a psychopath but is also, rather clearly, driven by an ideology and to the same degree as was Merah. On Roof’s ideology of white supremacy, the “Reflections on the murders in Charleston, South Carolina” by U Mass-Amherst emeritus professor Julius Lester, posted on his Facebook page, are worth the read.
Among other things, Lester asks Republican politicians and others seeking to change the subject to stop talking about this being a “time for healing.” No, this is no time for “healing” but rather for a national reckoning—and particularly on the American right—of America’s history and present reality of racism, and of the consequences of this. And one of the consequences of America’s persistent racial question is the strength of the increasingly far right-wing Republican party, which, as Paul Krugman reminded us in his column yesterday, is largely due to the defection of white Southerners from the Democrats, with the civil rights movement and enfranchisement of the South’s black population.
À propos, we have learned over the past few days (e.g. here and here) that Dylann Roof drew particular inspiration from the Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC; founded in the 1950s as the White Citizens’ Council). Now the CofCC may be considered a fringe hate group in Washington and by the national media but it is not seen as such by the Republican party in the South, as I learned in my brief encounter with the CofCC delegation at the French Front National’s annual festival some seventeen years ago (see here; scroll down after the photo of Jean-Marie Le Pen shaking hands with Ronald Reagan). It is a secret de Polichinelle that the GOP in the deep South maintains an informal relationship with the white supremacist, Jim Crow-nostalgic group with which Dylann Roof identified.
The CofCC’s presence at the FN’s festival was noteworthy, reminding one that far right groups—ultra-nationalist by definition—do have relationships with kindred groups in other countries. On this, Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, have an op-ed in the NYT on “White supremacists without borders.”
On white supremacists, a film opened here in France two weeks ago, Un Français (English title: French Blood), whose subject is neo-Nazi skinheads. It’s the first-ever cinematic treatment of this species of humanity in France, indeed of the extreme right (see Raphaëlle Bacqué’s full-page article on the film in the June 10th Le Monde). I hesitated on seeing it—the trailer put me off—but, with the Charleston massacre, decided that it was sufficiently topical, so checked it out this past weekend at a local theater. The opening scene was akin to that of the 2011 German film ‘Combat Girls’, which was about neo-Nazi skinheads in that country (go here and scroll down): graphically depicting gratuitous violence inflicted by these dregs of society on dark-skinned or leftist-looking people minding their own business. The violence of the opening scenes in the two films was such that I couldn’t even watch, wondering why I had even come to see the film in the first place—like, who needs this?—but then both settled into a more serious story. I’ll let Screen Daily’s fine critic Lisa Nesselson, whose review was just posted (and is the only one I’ve seen in English), describe the pic
It’s hard staying true to your youthful convictions when they would have fit well in Nazi Germany but it’s the mid-1980s-and-after in France where Marco Lopez (the excellent Alban Lenoir) is a ferocious young skinhead from the lower class Paris suburbs who carries a meat cleaver and is happy to wield it if anybody objects to him and his buddies stomping on the ‘faggots’, ‘Arab scum’ and ‘filthy Negroes’ they see as polluting the pure and proud meant-to-be-white landscape of their beloved France.
As a rare attempt to address an enduring strain of xenophobic thought in French society (and that, as hate-crime headlines sadly show, is by no means limited to France) this compact, unsettling tale deserves to be seen beyond local borders. Drawing respectable admissions on 11 screens in Paris proper and 50 additional screens throughout France since its June 10th release, French Blood managed to land the second spot in terms of ticket buyers per print for new releases on opening day — with Jurassic World in first place.
In his second feature, writer-director Diastème (who, as a film critic, director, screenwriter and playwright uses only one name) follows Marco — a fictional character drawn from the director’s own birthplace and youthful environment — from 1985-2013. It’s a convincing portrait of blind ignorance and lethal anger as Marco gradually evolves toward a more reasonable approach to living among others in a multi-cultural society. The melancholy truth that gives the film its power is that initially reprehensible Marco manages to become an infinitely better person but, in real life, the Extreme Right thinking he embraced in his twenties hasn’t dimmed and may have grown stronger for many of its French followers.
The trio of male friends at the heart of Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate (La Haine) circa 1995 were an Arab, a Jew and a black guy. They wouldn’t have wanted to cross paths with Marco and his three brawling buddies as portrayed in the opening reels here. Fights are convincing and miles removed from Fast and Furious-style silliness in that punches hurt, knives slice and bullets cripple. Diastème captures a restless, angry, violent vibe.
The film’s most shocking episode — a black street sweeper being forced to drink drain cleaner — was inspired by an authentic crime against a man from the formerly French island of Mauritius. Although the film is a work of fiction, it follows a timeline inspired by real events particularly within Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme right wing party the Front National. Diastème knows his subject — he hails from the same suburb where the first skinheads in France were born and he sang in a choir whose benefactors included fundamentalist Catholics. He first reported on the Front National as a young journalist in 1990.
Although he has certainly been hit on the head more than once, as Marco ages, he starts to question his own actions. In a series of ellipses marked by changing facial hair and authentic TV news snippets, Marco grows into leading an increasingly honest life of meagre satisfactions. Marco doesn’t have one shining moment of realisation that his behaviour is horrific but, rather, gradually comes to feel that it is neither right nor good to beat up — let alone kill — people because they’re “different.” When a panic attack leads him to a pharmacy where the pharmacist (Patrick Pineau) goes beyond the call of duty, Marco starts to think for himself in tiny but lasting increments.
Come 1998, Marco is living in Guadeloupe. He used to beat up dark-skinned people for sport but now has no problem serving them alcohol in the beachfront bar where he works. But his wife, who can pass for sleekly refined when she’s sober, scoffs at the about-to-triumph soccer World Cup team whose talented players are mostly of African and North African heritage and therefore unworthy to represent France whatever their athletic excellence.
Following another ellipse it seems unlikely Marco will be able to pass on what he has learned about acceptance and tolerance to his daughter since he isn’t permitted to see her. Ironically, that’s because he no longer shares his ex-wife’s hard core racist views. Adding to his loneliness, Marco’s former skinhead buddies don’t fare very well with passing time.
The film garnered attention before its release with media reports that certain exhibitors, spooked that hooligans might trash their theatres, cancelled sneak previews. If there’s any truth to this, now that the film is out it’s hard to fathom what today’s neo-Nazis might object to. If they’re misguided enough to think the Le Pen family has the right idea, those ideas are presented in an accurate context.
Nesselson’s review is comprehensive and gets it right, though she appears to rate the film higher than I do. Not that I didn’t like it—it’s pretty good overall—but I had a couple of issues. E.g. protag Marco’s transition from violent, hate-filled thug to nice, better person—and who abandons extreme right-wingism altogether as he grows older and wiser—which is depicted via body language but is not convincingly explained (cf. the neo-Nazi skinhead protag in ‘Combat Girls’, whose transition is more fully developed). Also the scène de ménage on the beach in Guadeloupe with Marco and his bleached-blond bourgeois chick, named Corinne (actress Lucie Debay), the latter’s words and general rhetoric ringing false IMO.
Mais peu importe. The film’s treatment of politics is on the mark, of the relationship of the skinheads to the Front National (not specifically named in the film—except in the televised footage—but more than obvious). The FN engaged the skins—notably in recruiting them into its security service (DPS), Marco in the film being part of it in the early phase of his better person transition—but sought to keep them at a distance at its public events (e.g. they were not in evidence at the FN festivals and rallies I attended in the late ’90s, likely having been asked to stay away). The FN’s relationship to the neo-Nazi skins is indeed akin to the southern GOP’s with the CofCC: the latter being a little extreme and not publicly fréquentable but still part of the family, to be engaged with discreetly.
Also notable in the film are the scenes toward the end, where Marco watches from a distance as Corinne—now his ex, whose personal convictions were as extremist and racist as his in his youth, but, in her case, did not change—, leaves Sunday mass in bourgeois banlieue, with bourgeois husband and Marco’s now teen daughter—whom he has not been allowed visitation rights in view of his police record—and then sees them on television marching in one of the big 2013 hard-right demos against the government’s bill legalizing gay marriage. Subtext: there are plenty of upstanding, respectable members of society not from the lower classes who share the world-view of the neo-Nazi skinheads—or, in America, of white supremacists—but, as they are upstanding and bourgeois, are not considered infréquentable on that side of the political spectrum.
As for Dylann Roof, he looks too physically wimpish to be a marauding skinhead. He wouldn’t have been allowed. Skinheads need to be physically strong. But who needs physical strength when you can go out and legally purchase a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol? Thank God—and the Republic—one cannot do that in France.
In case one missed it, Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, of UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, respectively, had an op-ed in the NYT the day before the Charleston massacre on “The growing right-wing terror threat” in America, which, they say, is of greater preoccupation to law enforcement than that from Muslim extremists.
And TNR’s Brian Beutler has a commentary on South Carolina GOP governor Nikki Haley’s announcement yesterday that she will seek to have the Confederate flag at the SC State Capitol removed, which, Beutler says, does not make her a hero; she’s just doing damage control for Republican presidential candidates too terrified to take a position on the issue themselves.
UPDATE: Watch here Jon Stewart go after Fox News for its coverage of Charleston. Excellent.
I am reminded that today is the 10th anniversary of the French referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which resulted in the treaty’s decisive defeat—thereby scuttling it (and with Dutch voters delivering the coup de grâce four days later in the referendum there)—and formally inaugurating the era in which the French electorate became Eurosceptic in its majority. N.B. Euroscepticism here does not signify a rejection of the construction of Europe tout court; just not “this” Europe. Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Personally speaking, I was a 100% partisan of a oui vote in the 2005 referendum. The Constitutional Treaty was a good, solid, well-conceived text, put together via a democratic, transparent process, and was quite simply the best treaty the European Union could have possibly come up with in view of the absolute necessity to adapt the institutional architecture to an EU going from 15 to 25 members—with the enlargement of 2004, and an additional two in 2007—and to institutionally tackle the EU’s famous “democratic deficit.” IMO, there were no good arguments against the treaty. None whatever. Those who opposed the treaty either didn’t know what they were talking about—which was the case for leftists who voted non—or were fighting the last war—and one already lost—which was the case for right-wing non voters.
During the referendum campaign in the spring of 2005—to which I was riveted—I attended public events of all four camps:
- Oui de gauche: A town hall meeting at the Sèvres mairie, with Jack Lang (very good) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (totally excellent), which was intermittently disrupted by two loud-mouthed noniste de gauche hecklers, who, after the longest time, were escorted out.
- Oui de droite: A packed town hall meeting at a large auditorium in my right-wing banlieue, with the then local UMP deputy (and member of the Raffarin II government) Henri Plagnol (excellent) pedagogically explaining the treaty to the audience of mostly UMP voters.
- Non de droite: A packed rally of several thousand at the Palais des Sports (Porte de Versailles), with souverainistes Philippe de Villiers and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan the têtes d’affiche, and with speakers from several, mostly northern European Eurosceptic parties, including UKIP’s Nigel Farage (speaking in fluent, albeit heavily accented, French).
- Non de gauche: A rally in a meeting hall in Créteil of a couple of hundred people, presided by the commune’s longtime fabusien mayor, Laurent Cathala, and with a panoply of speakers from hard leftist (PCF), extreme leftist (LCR etc), and gauchiste civil society associations.
The arguments of the oui de gauche and oui de droite were similar, which each camp emphasizing different things to address concerns of its voters, e.g. the oui de gauche assuring that the Constitutional Treaty would absolutely not undermine the welfare state, the oui de droite that the treaty in no way paved the way for the entry of Turkey in the EU.
Noteworthy were the arguments of the non camp. In the case of the right-wing souverainistes, they argued for a Gaullist vision of a Europe of Nations, of a return to the Europe of the Treaty of Rome. And on this, they presented their case well (on the level of oratory, de Villiers and Dupont-Aignan, plus the youthful Guillaume Peltier, were excellent, BTW). Their world-view was coherent, with one either buying it or not, but voting oui or non wouldn’t have changed a thing, as, with the Single Act and the Maastricht Treaty, the horse had already bolted from the stable, as it were. There was (and is) simply no turning the clock back to the 1960s (and returning to the franc). The hard right-wing, as is its wont, was engaging in the politics of nostalgia.
A note: The oui de droite rally revealed, for me at least, an undercurrent of Germanophobia on the French right (and which is present on the left as well, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon has reminded us with his latest pamphlet). All the flags of EU member states were hung from the rafters except for the German. And in the literature tables there were anti-Germany books (by small right-wing publishers) that I had never heard of. And this Germanophobia has become more pronounced in the ensuing decade.
What most struck me was the rally of the non de gauche. It was a horror show. A tissue of lies from beginning to end. In attendance at the Créteil rally was the petit peuple de gauche in all its splendor: working-class public employees, CGT and FO activists, Communist and Trotskyist militants, and other sundry hard leftists, and with each speaker seemingly trying to outdo the other in demagoguery and mendacity. E.g. the insistence that the Constitutional Treaty would threaten abortion rights (bullshit) or laïcité (bullshit times ten), or undermine the sacrosanct French social model (unfounded nonsense). Etc, etc. The hysteria and lies went on and on. But none of the gauchistes’ objections were valid in the least. Not a single one.
At the end of the day, the failure of the referendum was the fault of Jacques Chirac, who organized it in the first place. He wasn’t obliged to. He could have simply had parliament ratify it with a three-fifths votes and that would have been that. But with the referendum called, Chirac then failed to defend the treaty, unlike François Mitterrand during the Maastricht referendum campaign 13 years prior. And UMP president Nicolas Sarkozy, obsessed with 2007, didn’t lift a finger to do so.
One positive effect of the referendum was that it got the French electorate engaged with Europe in a way it had never been before, save the 1992 campaign. Malheureusement les Français ont mal votés…
That’s the literal translation of director Stéphane Brizé’s La Loi du Marché, the market here being the neoliberal market economy (the film’s actual English title is ‘The Measure of a Man’). It was in competition at the Cannes film festival, which ended yesterday and with Vincent Lindon—the only professional actor in the film—winning the best actor award. The film opened in France last week and, as it happens, I saw it yesterday evening, learning about Lindon’s prize in a newsflash some ten minutes after leaving the theater. I can’t say if it was well-deserved, as this is the only one of the nineteen films in competition at the festival I’ve seen—which is logical, as none of the others have opened yet—though he did put in a very good performance, as he always does. Lindon is a fine actor, though his persona, for me at least, tends to overwhelm whatever role he’s playing. He does have range, though is always Vincent Lindon, if that makes sense.
In this, he plays a 51-year-old member of the skilled working class named Thierry, who has been laid off from an enterprise that, as the viewer is informed, was making a profit but with the company home office, for reasons not having to do with its bottom line, deciding to close the plant and send the personnel to Pôle Emploi. Collecting unemployment compensation for close to two years, Thierry is taking a mandatory retraining course but which is a waste of time—and he and everyone he has to deal with know it—as, at his age and given the way the system works—and with the unemployment rate in France being what it is—there is almost no chance it will yield anything for him. With a wife in a low salary job, a handicapped teenage son, and unemployment checks down to €500/month—and refusing to consider selling their modest condo, which would compromise their (barely) middle-class status and all that they had worked for—he takes a job as a security guard in a hypermarket in a shopping center (which looks to be in the Paris banlieue, though it could be anywhere), though which mainly involves monitoring the video surveillance cameras, to spot not only shoplifters but also employees—principally cashiers—who may be cutting corners or doing things they shouldn’t. And it is made clear to him that the company is looking to shed staff, so his fellow employees are particular targets of the surveillance and nabbed for transgressions that are, objectively speaking, not a big deal but nonetheless a pretext for getting fired. And in France these days, one knows what it means to suddenly lose one’s job, particularly under such circumstances and if one does not have in-demand skills to begin with. So Thierry, who lost his previous job in a company that was looking to increase its profits—and no doubt executive compensation too—at the expense of its personnel, now finds himself as a peon on the side of le patron, not only getting colleagues fired but nailing shoplifters who, in fact, don’t have the means to pay for the food they’re concealing in their coats or purses, i.e. who are in much the same financial situation he was facing before, out of desperation, he took his minimum wage job.
The pic is an obvious sociopolitical commentary from the opening scene, on the nature of capitalism in our era and the precarious state in which an ever larger portion of the workforce finds itself. Lindon and Brizé—the two collaborating closely in the film’s making—have made this clear in interviews, with Lindon—who does not conceal his gauchiste views—telling the JDD, in regard to film’s story, that “delation makes me want to vomit” and “I am a man angry [at finance capitalism] and, above all, furious at injustice,” and Brizé denouncing to Le Monde the fact that, these days, “people are eliminated for the most minor of infractions.” I thought the film handled its subject with sufficient subtlety—more so than Ken Loach or Robert Guédiguian would—notably the way Lindon’s character dealt with each situation he was confronted with. The film depicts the reality of the working lives for the lower half of French (and American, British, etc.) society more accurately than any other I’ve seen in a while. On this, it’s almost documentary-like. But some—e.g. those whose views on economic questions are akin to the line of The Economist magazine and Wall Street Journal editorial page—may find the pic’s engagé side to be heavy-handed, if not downright agitprop. On this score, there are indeed a couple of sequences, including the ending—no spoilers—, that are borderline. Mais peu importe. It’s a good film. If you are, however, the kind who sees hedge fund managers as wealth creators and “makers”—and who considers the Thierrys of this world to be “moochers” and “takers”—then the movie is definitely not for you. But if your world-view is the opposite of this, then you’ll likely appreciate it. Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes gave it the unreserved thumbs up—here, here, and here—as did those in France, whose reviews are particularly gushing. And people in the media here were positively thrilled at Vincent Lindon winning his prize. He is clearly well-liked by those who’ve met him (I’ve seen him a couple of times in public in the 6th arrondissement; he seems like a cool guy). Trailer is here.
French cinema was a big winner at Cannes, with the Palme d’Or going to Jacques Audiard’s ‘Deephan’ (which opens in August) and Emmanuelle Bercot winning the best actress award ex-æquo for her role in Maïwenn’s ‘Mon roi’ (opens in October). Bercot, it so happens, was also the director of the film ‘La Tête haute’ (Standing Tall), that opened the festival (out of competition) two weeks ago, and which immediately hit the salles here. I’ve seen it. It’s good. Will have a post on it soon. Many good films coming out in France these days. Whoever said French cinema was in decline?
One French film that came out recently, and with a very similar theme to the above discussed one, is director Pierre Jolivet’s Jamais de la vie (English title: The Night Watchman). This one is also about a man in his early 50s, here named Franck and played by the Belgian actor—and Dardenne brothers’ favorite—Olivier Gourmet—the similarities with Vincent Lindon are striking—, who, one understands, had a decent working class job—and was a union delegate—but lost it ten years prior, now works the graveyard shift as a security guard at a hypermarket in a shopping center in a soulless Paris banlieue (sound familiar?), and spends his off hours drinking en suisse in his flat in his cité high rise—he lives in la zone—where he knows and gets along with everyone, including les jeunes. He was clearly a leader during his factory/union days but has had a tough time since, and is looking at a bleak future financially, with the necessity of working till he’s 70—all but impossible in France—to collect a livable pension. The social commentary is pretty obvious, though Franck’s attention is directed not at his employer or finance capitalists but rather criminal elements among his watchmen colleagues. It’s not a bad film—it certainly held my attention—and is carried by Gourmet, who’s in almost every frame. It’s quite a performance on his part. He’s a real screen presence. THR’s review is here. Trailer is here.
Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and writer in residence at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies—and dear personal friend—has a fine review essay in the latest issue of the LRB on Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission. As one is no doubt aware by now, the novel is about a Muslim takeover of France following the 2022 presidential election, in which Marine Le Pen squares off in the 2nd round against one Mohammed Ben Abbes—candidate of a new (moderate) Muslim party, La Fraternité Musulmane—who, supported by the Socialists and everyone else seeking to block Marine LP, wins. And then the Islamization of France en douceur begins. The pre-publication hype around the novel—which fatefully hit the bookstores on January 7th, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre—made it out to be Islamophobic but Adam says that it’s not, that while “deeply reactionary” it is not only not hostile to Islam but is almost sympathetic. And as Adam emphasizes—as have Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla in their reviews of the novel—the veritable targets for backhanded scorn are the French political class and French people themselves, who willingly, without resistance, slouch towards the new Islamic republic. It is more a commentary on France than on Islam.
Soumission is, not surprisingly, a best-seller, the nº3 ranking novel two months after its release. And one may predict that the English translation, due out this fall, will also sell well. So will I read it? Most unlikely. I’m not a big fiction person to begin with, Houellebecq has a well-known twisted mind, and my fiction-reading wife, among others, says she doesn’t like his style. That’s enough for me. I also find both preposterous and mystifying the lurid fantasy—more in the Anglo-American world than in France—of Muslims/Islam taking over the European continent in the coming decades. It is such a crackpot notion that I will definitively cease listening to or taking seriously anyone—by definition an ignoramus—who adheres to it. For starters, identity Muslims in France—the Western country with the largest Muslim population, in both absolute numbers and percentage—number 4.5 million max (and probably less), representing some 7% of the French population (the higher figures one sees in the media and elsewhere are exaggerations based on not a shred of published data). And the number is unlikely to increase by even 50% in the coming decades, let alone reach 50%. How an ethno-confessional group making up a tenth of the population “takes over” a country is not apparent to me. Moreover, Muslims in France do not constitute a “community,” as Olivier Roy—whom Adam cites—has insisted. It is a disparate population divided by national origin, ethnicity, degree of religious observance, generation, social class, and you name it. French Muslims do not constitute a bloc for anything and there is not the slightest chance in the foreseeable future that even a small number among them will coalesce qua Muslims in the realm of national electoral politics or representative bodies (assertion: there will never be a “Muslim caucus” in the French National Assembly as, e.g., Afro-Americans have in the US Congress; the mere notion is ludicrous). So even if I were a novel-reading person and liked Houellebecq’s style, I am not a science fiction fan, so doubt I would expend time on one based on such a harebrained, science fiction-like premise. The reviews will suffice.
BTW, Adam has a major article coming up in The New York Times Magazine, on the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. Stay tuned.
In my December 31st round-up of French films of 2014, I mentioned that I’d have a separate post on films focusing on immigration and ethnicity, of which there were several last year. Le voici. Three discussed here have received nominations for this Friday’s César awards. ‘Bande de filles’ (English title: Girlhood) leads with four, including Best Director (Céline Sciamma) and Most Promising Actress (Karidja Touré). The story, in short: Marieme (K.Touré), a.k.a. Vic, is a mid teen girl of African immigrant stock, who lives with her hard-working mother (hotel chambermaid) and two brothers in a cité in the neuf-trois. She’s generally well-behaved but doesn’t have the grades to get into a lycée général—that would track her to higher education, which she desperately wants—and is thereby told that the only option open to her is a lycée professionnel (vocational high school), which she refuses. Following this setback she falls in with a gang of black chicks (African), led by the cool and cheeky Fily (Mariétou Touré), drops out of school, adopts an attitude, and spends her days with her new BFFs, getting into fights with other girls, riding the RER into Paris to hang out at the Forum des Halles, shoplift, and just fool around. But then the nice boy Ismael (Idrissa Diabaté) takes a liking to Vic and she to him, but as Ismael is a pal of Vic’s dictatorial older brother, who enforces the code of honor of the cités—thereby keeping tabs on his sister’s girl-boy interactions—the budding relationship with Ismael runs into logistical problems. So Vic, who’s basically a good kid, splits from the cité and takes her distance from her girl gang. It’s a coming of age movie about a black teen in the Paris banlieues who is finding her way. I was engaged enough with the film—it is well acted and certainly holds one’s attention—but won’t call it a chef d’œuvre. French critics mostly gave it the thumbs up—N.B. in particular this review on the Africultures website—and their American counterparts positively loved it (the pic opened in the US on Jan. 30th). So as cinema it may be seen; as ethnography—if one is into that—it may definitely be seen. Trailer is here (plus the great scene here of the girls dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”).
A note on the film’s choreographed opening scene, of a team of black girls playing American football, which more than one US reviewer took note of. The scene, which one may interpret as symbolizing the aggressiveness of the social interactions one sees in the film, is, as one reads, a mere clin d’œil of director Céline Sciamma at her favorite TV series, ‘Friday Night Lights’ (the players are from an amateur female American football team in the banlieue).
Also receiving a César nomination is ‘Samba’, by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, who co-directed the 2011 Über hit comedy Intouchables—which sold 19.5 million tix in France, making it the nº2 French film of all time—and became the biggest ever French film at the box office in several countries. And it propelled the career of Omar Sy—already popular with the younger generation—into the stratosphere. So seeking to capitalize on his and the film’s success, Toledano & Nakache made another movie intended to be crowd-pleasing—though this a dramedy, so more serious—with Omar Sy in the lead, and accompanied by top draws Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim (though the pic’s one César nomination went to the relative newcomer Izïa Higelin for Best Supporting Actress). In this one Sy plays an undocumented Senegalese immigrant in Paris named Samba, who has been working hard for ten years (in a restaurant kitchen), causing no trouble whatever and stealing no job from a single French person, and whose boss wants to promote him, except that he doesn’t have papers. Snared by the police, he is subjected to deportation proceedings and sent to a detention center near CDG airport. In trying to avoid deportation, he is assisted by a not very experienced immigration case worker named Alice (Gainsbourg), a corporate executive on extended medical leave for burn-out—which is, as I have learned from a friend who is suffering from it, a serious affliction indeed—who is volunteering her time with undocumented immigrants during her recovery. She is touched by Samba, develops feelings for him, and the two forge a relationship of sorts, which I didn’t find entirely convincing BTW (no spoilers, so I won’t say what does or does not happen between the two, or whether or not the pic has a happy ending). The film, which has its share of bons sentiments and tugs at one’s heart toward the end, is perfectly watchable but is not a chef d’œuvre by any stretch. French reviews were good to very good on the whole, though US critics who saw it at the TIFF were more reserved (here, here, here, and here). The word-of-mouth on the film was obviously good, though, as it sold over 3 million tix, which was nowhere near ‘Intouchables’ but still very good by any measure (and way higher than any other film discussed here). This is good and gratifying, as the film presents undocumented immigrants—and from Africa—in a sympathetic—and accurate—light, as law-abiding, hard-working potential future citizens—should they have the good fortune to have their status regularized—who want no more or less for themselves than any other Frenchman or woman. On this level—and in view of the near toxic nature of the issue in France at the present time, and with the attendant demagoguery and political surenchères—the film is salutary. Trailer is here.
Also netting César nominations is ‘Qu’Allah bénisse la France’ (May Allah Bless France), a biopic of Abd al Malik (né Régis Fayette-Mikano), the well-known Franco-Congolese (Brazzaville) slam poet and rap singer (I should say well-known in certain milieux, as I was not familiar with his music and other artistic work before the film came out; see the NYT’s 2012 portrait of him here). The pic is directed by Abd al Malik himself—earning him a César nomination for Best First Film—and based on his eponymous 2004 autobiographical novel, though his role is played by Marc Zinga (César Most Promising Actor nominee). The film begins with the teen Régis/Abd al Malik’s life in the tough Strasbourg cité of Neuhof, where he hangs out with his homies, most of whom are drug dealers and petits voyous—Régis/Abd al Malik partaking in petty crime himself—lives with his nurturing (mother-headed) Catholic family, and performs brilliantly in lycée—notably in French and philosophy—resulting in an invitation by the school to enter hypokhâgne after receiving his bac (signifying that he is indeed very bright and with marked literary talent). Needless to say, there aren’t too many cagneux around of his social class and ethno-racial background, so he kind of stands out among his fellow students. He keeps up his friendships with his gangbanger homies, though, and when one with whom he was close gets killed in a gang règlement de comptes, Régis/Abd al Malik decides to convert to Islam (and change his name). During this time he’s writing slam poetry, composing music, and gaining celebrity. Under the influence of the Franco-Moroccan Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani)—his g.f. and future wife—he moderates his religious practice and a spiritual voyage of discovery to Morocco brings about a reconversion, as it were, to sufi Islam, which gives him inner strength, peace, and everything else contemplative, mystical sufism is supposed to do. The film—which is in black-and-white, à la Mathieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine’—is understated, almost low-key. And while one hears the poetry, there should be more of Abd al Malik’s music. The film could have also delved more into what the title strongly suggests, which is Abd al Malik’s (positive) relationship with France. His life experiences and trajectory give the lie to the crap one hears almost daily about problems of integration in France—whatever “integration” is supposed to mean and which I will insist is not a problem in this country—as Abd al Malik is clearly a success story of the Republic (among other things, he has published books with titles like La guerre des banlieues n’aura pas lieu and L’islam au secours de la République). It all goes to show that, yeah, one can be a rap-singing convert to Islam of 100% African stock and love France all the same. The film received generally good reviews in France—for a US review go here and scroll to the end—but was not a box office hit, which is perhaps unfortunate in view of the present-day salience of the immigration issue and the clear message of the film. The word-of-mouth clearly did not work in Abd al Malik’s sizable fan base, a likely consequence of him opting to make a film d’auteur rather than a more conventional, bigger-budget biopic. Trailer is here.
Another recent film with an Islam/immigration focus is ‘L’Apôtre’ (The Apostle), written, directed, and produced by Cheyenne Carron—who was previously unknown to me—which opened in October in exactly one cinema (independent) in Paris, before being released on DVD the following week. The reason why the film played in only one salle: no distributor would touch it, as the subject was deemed too hot to handle. And what is the subject? The conversion to Christianity of a young Maghrebi Muslim. The story: Akim (Fayçal Safi), who’s in his late 20s, lives with his parents, older brother Youssef (Brahim Tekfa), and adoring younger sister Hafsa (Sarah Zaher) in an inner Paris banlieue. The family is close-knit and middle class (living in a house, not a flat in a cité). And they’re practicing Muslims, though “moderate”—mother and sister are not veiled—and with the father’s brother the imam at a nearby mosque. Youssef, who takes his religion seriously, is following in his uncle’s footsteps and it is hoped that Akim will become an imam too, but he declines. One day Akim is invited by his friend Fabien to attend the baptism of the latter’s baby daughter. It was Akim’s first time ever in a church. He is taken by the Catholic ritual and sets out to learn more about Christianity. The interest becomes a fascination, leading to a meeting with the priest of the local cathedral. Deciding that Catholicism suits his spiritual needs more than Islam, Akim takes the plunge and converts. And when he announces to his family that he’s found Jesus, well, a little crisis ensues, and particularly with Youssef, who considers his younger brother—the two are very close—to be an apostate and disgrace to his family. But—spoiler alert!—things work themselves out and there is no tragic ending.
I thought it was a pretty good film—the few reviews of it were positive—and on a topic of vital importance, as the issue of how Muslims deal with conversions out of Islam is a real one. The phenomenon is not insignificant in France, where the Muslim identity population (of some 4 million) is the highest in the Western world (the number of Muslim-to-Christian converts in France is into the five figures and one sees literature tables and other proselytizing efforts by Maghrebi and African Christian converts—mainly evangelical Protestant—in heavily immigrant areas). After seeing the film I was interested to know what kind of reaction it received among French Muslims. But as it played in just one theater—albeit off the Champs-Elysées—practically no one saw it (and no one I know). And I have seen no mention of it on the higher profile French Muslim websites (e.g. Oumma.com, Al-Kanz). C’est dommage. The film merits being seen and discussed. Trailer is here (followed by a 14-minute interview with actors Safi and Tekfa).
There are several more films I’d intended to discuss here. Will do so in a separate post in the next week.