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France: Surrendering to terror

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That’s the thrust of the title of an opinion piece in the New York Post—a press organ I do not normally link to favorably—by Nicole Gelinas, a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Here it is

This weekend, New Yorkers enjoyed their first of three Summer Streets weekends. Saturday, the city closed Park Avenue to cars, letting walkers and bikers take over. Paris, though, canceled its own summer streets on the Champs-Elysées Sunday.

The retreat is a victory for the thugs who have terrorized France for a year-and-a-half — and it shows other potential murderers that they, too, can change the world with a knife or a truck.

In February, Paris officials said they would close the famed avenue to motor traffic once a month during the summer. “I wanted . . . to re-appropriate an avenue like this one so that people could walk around, stroll with their families and ride bikes,” said Mayor Anne Hidalgo in May.

Tens of thousands of people enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Arc de Triomphe from the middle of the cobblestoned thoroughfare. Business owners, too, said the strolling would help sales.

Such a boost is badly needed: Tourist numbers and spending have fallen sharply after terrorists killed 130 people last November.

But after an ISIS sympathizer with a truck killed 85 people on a pedestrian waterfront in Nice on July 14, Paris canceled the August event.

Paris and other cities and towns, on the French government’s advice, have canceled other festivals, including concerts, sports, open-air movies and star-gazing. In northern France, the city of Lille canceled a massive September flea market that it has hosted since the Middle Ages — and that it hasn’t canceled since 1944.

Paris might cancel its “techno parade,” too, in September — a nearly two-decade-old event that fills the streets with music freaks from around the world.

Why such an extreme reaction? First, manpower. Officials note the “fatigue of the police” as they’ve fortified targets like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and train stations with more officers with long guns.

“We are in a situation of war,” said the defense minister about the cancellations. “We must forbid activities” if they can’t be secured.

The government has to pick what it most wants to protect — the big tourist sites, but also its Paris Plages, artificial beaches along the Seine where locals who can’t get out of the city can sunbathe.

And, two weeks after two 19-year-olds, also claiming solidarity with ISIS, killed a priest as he said Mass at a Normandy church, more guards have been stationed at churches, too.

In a narrow sense, France’s government may be right. Responsibility for public safety is a heavy burden. And defying killers would backfire if they did mow down dozens on the Champs-Elysées — sending visitor numbers plummeting even further.

But we shouldn’t pretend that the closing of the avenue is a minor concession to the times. Events like this are fun — but fun that serves a purpose.

For more than a decade, Paris has been changing its approach to the streets — taking space for walkers and bicycles and away from cars and trucks. These changes have often started with temporary events — closing a road along the Seine as an experiment, and then keeping it closed after people can see that it has cut pollution and noise.

Paris’ re-engineering of the streets has saved dozens of people from dying in car crashes over the years. In fact, Paris’ pioneering work has helped save hundreds of lives worldwide.

New York took many of its own “traffic-calming” ideas, like pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, from Paris, sharply cutting crash deaths. (Paris also had bikeshare nearly a decade before New York did.)

London, too, now has summer-streets closures. A “free cycle” bike ride two weeks ago attracted so many people that bicyclists caused congestion for each other.

Control of the streets is also symbolic. Hitler made a show of marching down the Champs-Elysées — as, later, did Charles de Gaulle.

Ceding the streets now because Paris needs fast-moving cars and trucks as a buffer between walkers and killers, then, is an ominous development, not just for Paris, but for the world.

And, in the long term, it won’t work: Cities depend on crowds of people on foot. Lose crowds, whether by decree or because more attacks keep even more people away, and the terrorists really have won.

So, whether you like summer-streets festivals or you sit in traffic stewing about them, you should feel dismay at this summer’s Champs-Elysées surrender.

The number of events cancelled on account of three terrorist attacks over the past two months—that killed 88 persons and involved exactly four perpetrators—is greater than those Gelinas mentions. In addition to the Braderie de Lille—the biggest flea market in Europe, which goes back to the 12th century—events cancelled include Lille’s annual semi-marathon the first weekend of September, the music festival in Berck (Pas-de-Calais), the Prom’Party in Nice, the Marseille Ciné Plein Air, fireworks displays in Collioure (Pyrénées-Orientales) and numerous other localities throughout la France profonde (including a big one in La Baule), the Jasmin Festival in Grasse, the big pyrotechnic festival in AvignonThe Cover music concert Mulhouse, and a whole host of events in and around Paris, among others. Tens—indeed hundreds—of millions of euros lost, millions of tourists cancelling their visits, and a country plunged into ever greater moroseness.

Pour mémoire: The atrocity in Nice was indeed that—an atrocity—but the perpetrator was one man; the stabbing death of the two police officers in Magnanville on June 13th was carried by a single, mentally ill man. The July 26th Saint-Étienne-des-Rouvray attack, which was committed by two young men, involved a single violent death apart from the murderers. This is insane. That these incidents, horrible as they were, involving precisely four men could bring France to its knees—and with politicians of major parties all but calling for a suspension of civil liberties—is beyond comprehension. One thing that is nigh certain is that there will be more such attacks in the coming period, and with France descending into ever deeper hysteria. There won’t be an end to it anytime soon. The Islamic State has won. C’est affligeant.

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The Nice atrocity

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It was such a nice fête nationale yesterday, for both me personally—spent part of the day going around Paris with a visiting friend and his daughter—and France, with a spectacular end to the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Élysées. And now this. I watched the reports on TV late last night as the news came in, hoping, praying that the number killed—said to be around 30—would turn out to be exaggerated. But now it’s 84 as I write (10am) and counting.

A few instant reactions.

First, my dominant sentiment—as it was last November 13th—is one of horror, of thinking of the victims of the atrocity, their families, and friends. If my daughter—who lives in the south of France and is presently down that way—had been in Nice last night, she would have no doubt been on or near the Promenade des Anglais with friends (and she has indeed informed me that she attended last night’s fireworks display in the city where she’s on holiday). One feels horror at all terrorist atrocities but just that much more so when they hit close to home. And I emphasize horror. Numerous persons on social media this morning have been expressing anger and rage, with these apparently being their prevailing sentiments (pressing that ‘angry’ Facebook emoticon). Sure, who isn’t angry at the terrorists? Who doesn’t want to terminate them with extreme prejudice? But not only do I not understand this being the overriding emotion to such an outrage but also find it potentially dangerous, as an enraged people will want and expect that the state respond to that. And so in anticipation of that rage, President Hollande has already announced that France will reinforce its military action in Syria and Iraq, and extend the état d’urgence (state of emergency). If one can explain to me how Rafales dropping more bombs around Raqqa will contribute to the security of the French people, I’d like to hear it. And also how prolonging the liberty-undermining état d’urgence—which didn’t prevent last night’s attack, or any other known attack in the works—will do this.

Second—and contributing to the horror—is the nature of the attack—committed with a truck, which any low IQ idiot can procure and put to use as a weapon to kill dozens—and the victims. As on November 13th, those targeted for death or maiming were not just ordinary random people but people having fun. Enjoying life. And they were mainly younger people and parents with children. If there has ever been as evil an apocalyptic death cult as the Islamic State, it does not come to mind.

Third, one learns that the truck had mowed down people for almost two kilometers before being neutralized. This is insane. How the hell could this happen?! Questions: How was a truck of this size even allowed to circulate in the center of Nice at that hour of night, let alone enter the Promenade des Anglais with so many people gathered there? And, above all, how was it that the mad driver was not quickly neutralized, i.e. shot and killed, that he was able to pursue his course folle for two goddamned kilometers?! Where were the police? Where were the soldiers one sees all over the place, toting their automatic weapons? This is, needless to say, a catastrophic failure of the French police and the security scheme it has put in place since last year’s terrorist attacks. All the soldiers in their jungle fatigues patrolling the metro stations, the security guards hired à la va vite (and no doubt paid the SMIC) to check people’s bags at malls and schools (a total joke)… C’est parfaitement inutile.

Fourth, certain analysts have already been speculating on the political fallout of the latest outrage, one being my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer, who has gone so far as to assert, in a blog post à chaud, that

It is becoming increasingly likely that Marine Le Pen will be elected next year. The government seems helpless, and little by little minds are being prepared to accept an authoritarian xenophobic response as the only conceivable next step.

On va un peu vite en besogne. It’s a little early to be advancing such lurid hypotheses, particularly when we still don’t have all the facts. E.g. at the present moment, as I write, we know nothing about the terrorist apart from his name, that he was Franco-Tunisian, and had a police record for delinquency. We don’t yet know if the act was hatched in Raqqa—which could fuel public anger—or if he was a “lone wolf” à la Orlando, which would perhaps lend itself more to public despair and helplessness. It would also be advisable to get away from the reflexive notion that terrorist acts will automatically benefit demagogic right-wing politicians or parties. In point of fact, this has not happened up to now, in either France (November 13th, Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher, Mohammed Merah, 1995, 1986) or the US (Orlando, 9/11, etc). In the case of Marine Le Pen, her popularity rating upticked four points (27% to 31%) in the IPSOS barometer after November 13th—along with every other national politician, most of whom witnessed larger gains—but dropped back a month later. Her numbers are presently 25% favorable/70% unfavorable. Poll-wise, she’s even worse off than Donald Trump. There will have to be a historic, unprecedented improvement in her polling numbers if she’s going to have a chance at winning the second round of a presidential election.

In any case, one expects—or at least hopes—that the French public, confronted with such an open-ended domestic security threat—will elect as leaders men and women who are experienced, of steady temperament, with nerves of steel and a sense of the state, and can bring people together, over those who are febrile, frenetic, polarizing, bereft of executive experience, and/or given over to trash-talking demagoguery. Such has been the case up to now. There is no a priori reason it should change.

UPDATE: Jason Burke has a piece in The Guardian, “Why does France keep getting attacked?,” which is worth the read. The lede: “France is historically seen as standard bearer of western secular liberalism and has been singled out by Isis as a key target.”

See also George Packer in The New Yorker, “The tragic and unsurprising news from Nice.” His analysis is good except for the assertion about Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump in the next-to-last paragraph, which I address above.

2nd UPDATE: For those who think that successive jihadist terror attacks will worsen ethno-confessional relations in France—and even provoke a veritable “civil war,” as certain excitable writers with vivid imaginations have ventured—do take a look at the data in the Pew Research Center’s latest study on “What France thinks of multiculturalism and Islam.”

3rd UPDATE: Franco-American anthropologist Scott Atran, who has researched and written extensively on terrorism and Islamism, has a sobering post in the NYR Daily, “ISIS: The durability of chaos.”

4th UPDATE: A number of people on social media have taken the MSM and politicians to task for designating the Nice atrocity an IS operation—before the IS had claimed any responsibility for it—and the perpetrator a terrorist, when almost nothing was known about him or his motives—and at the present moment (July 17th), little is still known. But for research scholar and MENA specialist Jean-Pierre Filiu, there is little doubt that it was an IS terrorist attack, as he explains in an interview in this weekend’s Libération, “‘La France est le seul pays pour qui Daech est une priorité’.”

Also in Libé is a tribune by the Moroccan-Dutch economist Fouad Laroui, “Arrêtons de crier au calife comme on crie au loup,” plus an article by Emmanuel Fansten and Ismaël Halissat on the apparent powerlessness of the state to anticipate attacks of this nature, “Face à la menace, l’impuissance maximale.”

5th UPDATE: The very smart geopolitical analyst François Heisbourg has an op-ed (July 15th) in the Financial Times, “Attack in Nice: The French response to terror remains muddled.”

6th UPDATE: Not that it changes anything but, as it happens, over a third of those killed in the Nice attack were Muslims.

7th UPDATE: Middlebury College political science professor Erik Bleich has an op-ed in The Washington Post (July 18th) on “Why France keeps getting attacked, while its neighbours don’t.”

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Bastille Day 2016

I watched the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Élysées this morning (on TV, comme d’hab’). It’s the greatest parade in the world, as I’ve said countless times. The rendition of La Marseillaise—the greatest national anthem in the world—at the end, by 460 middle and high school students plus the army chorus, is one of the most beautiful and moving I’ve seen and heard. Watch it and in full screen (it’s 5½ minutes, as they sing three verses, but worth it). Vive la France!

Australia and New Zealand were the guests of honor this year, to commemorate their participation in the Battle of the Somme. Check out the Maori soldiers in traditional garb (here, images 13-15).

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Euro 2016

France-Germany, Marseille, July 7th (photo: Tribune Sports)

France-Germany, Marseille, July 7th (photo: Tribune Sports)

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This is my first post on the Euro 2016—which I’ve been following for the past month, watching most of the games in whole or in part—and, if France loses to Portugal in the final tonight, will be my last. But Les Bleus should logically not lose, as France is the host country of the tournament, the game’s at the Stade de France, the nation is entirely behind them, and the victories against valiant Iceland and, above all, formidable Germany were just so thrilling. Les Bleus have the mo’. And it would just be so terribly disappointing if they lost. Also, Portugal isn’t what it used to be. Except for the semifinal against Wales, the games the Seleção won were won ugly. They have not have impressed. Voilà: Allez les Bleus!

The Wall Street Journal Europe’s sports editor Joshua Robinson has a good, informative piece, dated July 6th, on “The French soccer revolution.” The lede: “Unlike France’s last title-winning team, its Euro 2016 side features a core of key players who developed outside the country’s prestigious academy system.” As I don’t follow club soccer—i.e. I pay only passing attention to the professional leagues—I wasn’t aware of the particular parcours of Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud, and other new stars of the national team.

In this vein, also see the piece in Mediapart by Michaël Hadjenberg, “Griezmann, une histoire française.” The lede: “Bien peu de gens le savent mais Antoine Griezmann est en partie à l’origine de ‘l’affaire des quotas’.”

Soccer scholar Laurent Dubois, who teaches in the history department at Duke University, has a nice post, dated July 9th, “Paul Pogba’s joyful, exuberant moment of brilliance [in the France-Germany semi-final] was the play of Euro 2016,” on Slate’s soccer blog. Also see his June 29th post, “How football can explain a divided Europe.”

Some random comments on the tournament:

Did anyone not adore plucky Iceland and all its supporters who flew over from Reykjavik? One-tenth of that country’s population came to France to support their team. And who couldn’t love TV announcer Guðmundur Benediktsson (a.k.a. Gummi Ben)?

But the Irish fans were the greatest, no?

Les Bleus clearly didn’t miss Karim Benzema. The brouhaha over his and Hatem Ben Arfa’s non-selection—of whether or not this reflected anti-Arab racism by the FFF—was hugely overblown. In view of the sordid affair in which Benzema has found himself—and in which he is no doubt guilty—there was simply no way Didier Deschamps could have selected him. It would have been a big distraction and the French public would not have accepted it. And as the tournament was at home, the team needed the public 100% behind it. End of story.

Les Bleus are still multicultural and multiconfessional, bien évidemment.

The knockout stage bracket was too imbalanced, one consequence of expanding the tournament to 24 teams (it should have remained at 16). Too bad Germany-Italy happened in the quarterfinal (a consequence of the imbalanced bracket).

Germany’s Mesut Özil is one class act. I like the Mannschaft. A great team with cool players. Glad they lost.

Was disappointed for Belgium. France-Belgium in the final: ça aurait été beau.

Felt for England, which is normally my default team (after France). To be humiliated by little Iceland, that’s tough.

Lots of Portugal flags on display in the Paris area, including in my banlieue, where there is a sizable Portuguese community. People have no problem with Franco-Portuguese supporting the old country team. Can one imagine the political reaction if a similar number of Algerian flags were in view for a France-Algeria match? Hah.

UPDATE: A frustrating game. It started well for Les Blues but Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury—leaving the match on a stretcher and in tears—put a damper on things. The Bleus outplayed the Seleção and in all categories during regulation time but were ineffective in the penalty area. Once in overtime the Seleção took control and the Blues came apart. They were just kicking the ball around, unable to do anything. When Eder scored his excellent goal at the 110th minute, it was over. Dommage pour la France et félicitations au Portugal.

2nd UPDATE: Franklin Foer, writing in Slate’s soccer blog after last night’s game, does not mince words in observing that “Portugal’s turgid victory was the dreadful ending this terrible European championships deserved.” Can’t disagree with a thing he says.

3rd UPDATE: France’s defeat may have been disappointing—for supporters of France at least—but was not disgraceful, as no host country of a European championship or World Cup since 1980 has won the title…except for France. The historical record:

Euro 2016 – France: lost the final
World Cup 2014 – Brazil: lost semi-final
Euro 2012 – Poland & Ukraine: eliminated in group stage
World Cup 2010 – South Africa: eliminated in group stage
Euro 2008 – Austria & Switzerland: eliminated in group stage
World Cup 2006 – Germany: lost semi-final
Euro 2004 – Portugal: lost the final
World Cup 2002 – Japan & South Korea: lost in round of 16 & in semi-final
Euro 2000 – Belgium & Netherlands: eliminated in group stage & lost semi-final
World Cup 1998 – France: WORLD CHAMPION!
Euro 1996 – England: lost semi-final
World Cup 1994 – USA: lost in round of 16
Euro 1992 – Sweden: lost semi-final
World Cup 1990 – lost semi-final
Euro 1988 – West Germany: lost semi-final
World Cup 1986: Mexico: lost quarter-final
Euro 1984 – France: EUROPEAN CHAMPION!
World Cup 1982 – Spain: eliminated in second round
Euro 1980 – Italy: lost third place playoff

Arun's balcony, July 10th

Arun’s balcony, July 10th

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Michel Rocard, R.I.P.

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His death has been a leading story in the news here the past two days, which is to be expected, as he was one of the major personalities in French political life of the past five decades. As my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer has written a fine remembrance of him, I will refer the reader to his in lieu of offering my own, except to say that Michel Rocard was the French politician for whom I had the most admiration in the course of my adult life: from the mid 1970s—when I started to follow French politics—to the ’00s, when he retired from the electoral arena (though continued to write and intervene in the public square to the end). I entirely identified with Rocard politically and ideologically: in my college days, with his PSU legacy—the concept of autogestion being in vogue in my gauchiste circles of the time—and later on, in the ’80s and ’90s, with the deuxième gauche inside the PS that he incarnated, i.e. of a moderate left social democratic sensibility that recognized the permanence of the market economy and certain constraints imposed by globalization, and of the necessity of compromises between labor and capital (though capital nowadays doesn’t want to compromise over anything). In the PS of the Mitterrand era, this was, ideologically speaking, not the majority position.

I saw Rocard in person once, in November 1980, at a three-day conference in Washington (at the Capital Hilton) on Euro-socialism, hosted by the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (the future DSA)—the American affiliate of the Socialist International and that functioned as a caucus within the Democratic Party—and with numerous stars from Europe present, e.g. Willy Brandt, Olaf Palme, Tony Benn, Mário Soares, Felipe González, and, from France, François Mitterrand (six months before he was elected president), Rocard, Jacques Attali, and others. A group of friends and I drove down from New York, where I was living at the time, to attend it. It was quite an event: all these European socialist luminaries meeting two blocks from the White House less than two weeks after Reagan’s victory, entirely unknown and unnoticed in the Washington political world. Rocard spoke at a session (not plenary) with the then mayor of Minneapolis, Donald Fraser. I have no recollection of what was said but remember being highly impressed with both, and particularly Rocard (and whose English was impeccable; Mitterrand, who addressed the plenary session, spoke in French).

In the 1980s I had visions of Rocard succeeding Mitterrand as president of the republic after the latter’s first septennat, though that was clearly not in the cards. I did view Mitterrand favorably into the early ’90s, though altered that once I settled here, started to follow French politics daily, and became more aware of the political differences between the two men, their mutual detestation, and Mitterrand’s darker side. When it came to political and personal integrity, Mitterrand was not on the same level with Rocard, loin s’en faut (for my overall assessment of Mitterrand, go here). Mitterrand’s 1991 sacking of Rocard as prime minister and for no good reason—he was one of the best PMs of the Fifth Republic, not to mention the most popular with public opinion—seemed incomprehensible. And his successful maneuver to scuttle Rocard’s presidential ambitions for 1995—in launching the Bernard Tapie “missile” in the 1994 European elections—was one of Mitterrand’s more loathsome acts—and he had several—in the twilight years of his presidency.

France Inter’s Thomas Legrand had an excellent editorial this morning on Rocard, Mitterrand, and what differentiated their political world-views and, more fundamentally, their whole approach to politics (listen to and/or read it here). Legrand says that Rocardism (as an “ism”) was fundamentally about ideas, not a strategy of acquiring power. In addition to being a politician, Rocard was an intellectual, and a brilliant one. See, e.g., the discussion between Rocard and Paul Ricœur, “Justice et marché,” published in January 1991 in Esprit (h/t Marc-Olivier Padis). There are not too many politicians in France nowadays—don’t even talk about the US—who could carry on an exchange at that level. I certainly couldn’t.

UPDATE: Frédéric Martel—writer, intellectual, and youthful rocardien—has an excellent essay in Slate.fr, “Quand Rocard couvait la deuxième génération de la seconde gauche.”

2nd UPDATE: Here’s Le Monde’s obituary, by Jean-Louis Andreani and Raphaëlle Bacqué: “Michel Rocard, l’homme de la ‘deuxième gauche’.”

Also in Le Monde is an op-ed by economist Daniel Cohen and Gilles Finchelstein of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, “Michel Rocard, un esprit réaliste, voulant réconcilier la gauche et l’économie.”

3rd UPDATE: Libération’s Jean Quatremer has a remembrance, which is well worth reading, of “Michel Rocard, l’homme que les socialistes ont humilié.”

4th UPDATE: The Cimade has posted on its website a must-read explanation of what Michel Rocard meant when he uttered his famous 1989 line “La France ne peut accueillir toute la misère du monde…”

5th UPDATE: In June 2014 Michel Rocard published a tribune in Le Monde expressing his exasperation with British obstructionism in the EU. It was translated by The Guardian under the title “A French message to Britain: get out of Europe before you wreck it.” The lede: “The European Union is on its knees but you, the British, want to block even small steps to democratic legitimacy.”

6th UPDATE: Political journalist Geoffroy Clavel writes, in Le HuffPost, that “Avant sa mort, Michel Rocard a légué au PS un ultime avertissement.”

7th UPDATE: France Inter’s Thomas Legrand, in an editorial on Tuesday, argues that Manuel Valls and Emmanuel Macron are not the true hiers of rocardisme.

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Elie Wiesel, R.I.P.

Elie Wiesel at Yad Vashem, 18 December 1986 (photo: AFP/Archives/Sven Nackstrand)

Elie Wiesel at Yad Vashem, 18 December 1986 (photo: AFP/Archives/Sven Nackstrand)

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I have nothing in particular to say about him that isn’t being said by everyone else. One salutes him as a witness to the Holocaust and for the role he played in instilling the memory of this—of the greatest crime in the history of the modern world—in the collective consciousness (in Europe and North America at least). As it happens, I am presently teaching a section on the Second World War in France—in which I naturally cover the Holocaust and history of antisemitism—in a course for American undergraduates on a summer program in Paris. The day before yesterday we went to the Père Lachaise cemetery, mainly to see the steles and memorials to the wartime deportees and other victims of Nazi barbarism. We lingered for a minute at the stele to the memory of those who perished at the Auschwitz III-Monowitz Buna slave labor camp, where Elie Wiesel was deported to at age 15, before the transfer to Buchenwald in the final months of the war.

Wiesel was not without blemishes, taking regrettable positions on a number of issues, e.g. supporting the Iraq war, uncritically apologizing for Israel. As Peter Beinart, entre autres, has covered that well, I won’t. The obituary in The Forward by Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, “Elie Wiesel, the moral force who made sure we will never forget evil of Holocaust,” is worth reading. Note, in particular, Berenbaum’s discussion of Wiesel’s Francophilia

Offered French citizenship upon his arrival [in France in 1945], Wiesel did not understand the question and consequently refused the invitation. His statelessness and the intricacies of traveling without a passport was the reason he stated for becoming an American citizen a decade later. Thus, unlike many survivors who immigrated to the United States, Wiesel regarded France – and not America – as the land in which he rebuilt his life in freedom.

Those who worked with him in France remembered his intense desire to learn French and to absorb French literature and the thrills of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the purveyors of French existentialism. He had a passion for music, and earned his meager living by leading a choir and to his final days he loved to sing. He was determined to master the language. Jack Kolbert wrote that “Wiesel chose to write in French just as a convert chooses a new religion.”

Wiesel wrote: “I owe France my secular education, my language and my career as a writer… It was in France that I found compassion and humanity. It was in France that I found generosity and friendship. It was in France that I discovered the other side, the brighter side of mankind.”

Wiesel was kinder than many French Jews – and even many contemporary Frenchmen and women – who recoil at the French cooperation with the Germans in the deportation of Jewish children and the betrayal of non-citizens and even French Jews.

Like Samuel Beckett, Wiesel chose to write in his adopted language French – neither Yiddish even though Yiddish was his native tongue, nor Hebrew, the sacred tongue in which he pursued his journalistic career. And not even English, the language of the land in which he lived for more the last three score years of his life.

Also see the obituary in The New York Times by Joseph Berger.

UPDATE: I asked Holocaust scholar and friend Marc Masurovsky for his thoughts on Elie Wiesel. His response:

Elie Wiesel? He created a persona and fell into the trap of that persona. I give him tremendous credit for having put into accessible words the trauma that he survived. But I fault him for not having done enough for the cause of restitution. In fact, he never spoke out on behalf of those who sought looted art. If he had, I believe that Holocaust educational institutions would have been placed in an uncomfortable position and would have had to choose whether or not to heed his message. That’s how influential he has been and will continue to be. I do credit him for having dissented with the pre-Holocaust museum board for having presented a more spiritual vision of what a Museum should look like. But then, that’s why we don’t put poets in charge of policy and politics.

Following up

One more point. The US Holocaust Memorial Council almost threw Elie out because he threw his support behind the first iteration of the New York-based Museum for Jewish Heritage, at a time when the USHMM was not even built. Also, he supported a competing design for the museum, proposed by Israeli architects which would have been a superb memorial, devoid of content.

2nd UPDATE: The well-known gauchiste political scientist Corey Robin, playing the empêcheur de tourner en rond, has fired off a dissenting view on Elie Wiesel on his blog.

3rd UPDATE: Another Holocaust scholar friend of mine, who asked not to be named here—as he doesn’t wish to publicly debate the issue—wrote this to me about Elie Wiesel:

I deliberately didn’t post anything on Wiesel, besides the Beinart piece from Haaretz. Weisel was blind to the nature and extent of Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, and what made this so lamentable was the fact that he was the public face of defending human rights and “never again.” The letters to Weisel by Arthur Hertzburg reveal the hypocrisy or lack of moral clarity on Weisel’s part. Regarding Holocaust Studies, among specialists Weisel was regarded as a pop culture bullshit artist, claiming he had read everything there is on the subject, while remaining pretty shallow when he appeared in academic forums. Of course, there was his personal experience on which to draw, but not much more than that (despite a huge expanse of scholarly analysis). On television, he was always predictable with that studied sad, perplexed expression. One of my close friends was on the original Holocaust Museum committee, and almost quit over how much campaigning there had been to get Weisel a Nobel prize, sometimes side tracking the work at hand. During the last Gaza war, I tried to get a few of the younger Holocaust scholars to join me in addressing an open letter to Weisel, very much along the lines that Hertzberg already had laid out. No one dared to do so, though they were embarrassed by Weisel’s silence and deflecting the crucial moral issues regarding how a Jewish state, born of the Holocaust, could act with such indifference to the taking of innocent lives. That said, before the Holocaust had become a major issue and a field of study, Weisel stood almost alone in keeping the subject from passing into oblivion like so much of what had happened to civilians during World War Two. Weisel personified and embodied Jewish suffering in Europe; he was an important symbol. Eventually, in my view, his moment had passed, but he could not accommodate himself to a place outside the limelight. I tended to switch the channel whenever he was on television, rather than endure his repetitions and posturing.

4th UPDATE: Writer, business consultant, and liberal Zionist Bernard Avishai has a remembrance of Elie Wiesel in The New Yorker. Money quote

Remarkably, however, there is not a word in the Times obituary about the occupation of the Palestinian territories. That is not an oversight. To the dismay of Israeli peace activists, and their supporters abroad, who’ve seen Wiesel’s unique international stature grow over two generations—and sought his support—he rarely if ever publicly raised his voice against any Israeli actions: not the bombings of Beirut in 1982; not the subsequent massacre, by Lebanese Phalangists, at Sabra and Shatila, within the perimeter held by the Israeli Army; not the disgraceful behavior of settlers in Hebron; not the encirclement by Israeli ministries of Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood; not the obstacles placed before international efforts to restore potable water and electricity to the residents of Gaza. Many of us who admired him in our youth became increasingly impatient with his inability to see the occupation for what it was. Primo Levi, also a survivor of Auschwitz, condemned Menachem Begin’s war in Lebanon as “success achieved with an unprincipled use of arms.” For Levi, evil was too explicably human to be absolute: “I feel indignant toward those who hastily compare the Israeli generals to Nazi generals, and yet I have to admit that Begin draws such judgments on himself . . . I fear that this undertaking [in Lebanon], with its frightening cost in lives, will inflict on Judaism a degradation difficult to cure . . . I sense in myself, not without surprise, a profound emotional bond to Israel, but not to this Israel.”

5th UPDATE: Riki Lippitz, cantor of the Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange NJ—with whom I was acquainted in high school (I was, and remain, friends with her sister, Lori)—shared her personal memories of Elie Wiesel on WNYC News.

6th UPDATE: Lebanese-American writer and pundit Hussein Ibish—who is presently Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington—writes in Foreign Policy that “Elie Wiesel’s moral imagination never reached Palestine: The great writer’s humanitarianism knew no bounds — except where it met his nationalism.”

See also the op-ed in Haaretz by Simone Zimmerman and Jacob Plitman—both activists in progressive Jewish organizations—”Remembering Elie Wiesel means recognizing Palestinian suffering even if he never could.”

7th UPDATE: Two pieces on Wiesel from past years, which have been making the rounds on social media: Sara Roy, senior research scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, “Response to Elie Wiesel [on his statement on Hamas],” in the gauchiste CounterPunch (September 9, 2014); and Arthur Hertzberg, “An open letter to Elie Wiesel [in regard to his declarations on the Intifada],” in The New York Review of Books (August 18, 1988) (h/t Eric Goldstein).

Père Lachaise cemetery , Paris

Père Lachaise cemetery , Paris

Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris

Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris

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

My dear friend Adam Shatz has a post up on the LRB blog (here) on the latest political hysteria in France over Islam and the penchant of a relatively small number of French Muslim women to overtly display their religious identity in public space. The tempest was launched last week by Laurence Rossignol—the Minister for Families, Children, and Women’s rights—in a particularly dimwitted succession of public statements, and with feminist intellectual Elisabeth Badinter—the Joan of Arc of laïcité—upping the ante with her call for a boycott of brands that have invested the lucrative market for Islamic fashion in women’s clothing (e.g. here and here). This is one of those only-in-France polemics, but one on which a large number of Frenchmen and women—indeed a majority—feel strongly about. E.g. the other day a well-known academic warrior for the cause of laïcité de combat unfriended me from Facebook in a fit of pique—and then blocked me for good measure—following a snide comment I made on his timeline about Madame Badinter. People here are so sensitive when it comes to this issue. In any case, Adam nails it in his post. I could have signed it myself. And, as it happens, he mentions me by name. Merci, Adam.

UPDATE: There are several pertinent tribunes on the subject, all dated April 5th: Esther Benbassa, “Le voile, pas plus aliénant que la minijupe,” in Libération; Thomas Guénolé, “Islam, voile et ‘mode islamique’: les 6 erreurs (graves) d’Elisabeth Badinter,” in L’Obs; Anaïs Flores et al, “Islam, voile: Elisabeth Badinter sème la division; elle complique notre rôle d’enseignant,” also in L’Obs; and Saïd Benmouffok and Bérenger Boureille, “‘La crispation sur le voile ne saurait se substituer à une politique d’émancipation universaliste’,” in Le Monde.

2nd UPDATE: Robert Zaretsky, a French history specialist at the University of Houston, has an essay in Foreign Policy (April 7th) on how “French secularism became fundamentalist.” The lede: “A militant form of laïcité has taken hold in France, backed by everyone from intellectuals to government officials. Is this what the republic’s founders envisioned?” With the exception of a couple of small errors regarding the action of the Conseil d’État in the Islamic headscarf affair, I could have, as with Adam’s post, signed the piece myself.

3rd UPDATE: Historian Joan Wallach Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton has an essay in Orient XXI (April 27th) on “The veil and the political unconscious of French republicanism.” The lede: “The French obsession with the veil exceeds that of most other countries in the West. Why?” Interesting analysis, though I’m not sure about the way she links attitudes toward veiling with larger contradictions in French republicanism regarding gender equality.

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