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Dylann Roof (Photo via lastrhodesian.com)

Dylann Roof (Photo via lastrhodesian.com)

[update below]

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.

For my posts on Mohamed Merah, go here, here, and here.

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.

un français

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Posters pushing for a no vote for the French referendum on the EU constitution in Marseille

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.

As for blogger Etienne Chouard’s arguments, which were a huge hit on the noniste left, I refuted all of them at the time, as did others.

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…

655536_7_3039_la-carte-du-vote-en-france-du-referendum-du

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movies-233913-2

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 ago, 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.

jamais de la vie

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houellebecq soumission

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.

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Bande-de-Filles

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.

affiche-samba

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.

quallah benisse la france

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.

l-apotre

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les-heritiers

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, France 2 broadcast, over one week, an eight-part documentary series—totaling seven-and-a-half hours—on the Nazi extermination of the Jews, “‘Jusqu’au dernier': La Déstruction des Juifs d’Europe,” by the French filmmakers William Karel and Blanche Finger (English title: Annihilation: The Destruction of Europe’s Jews; English trailer is here). I missed it on TV but managed to see all eight episodes streamed on France 2’s website (before they disappeared, as French television regulations unfortunately only allow the viewing of programs on the web for a week after their broadcast). I’ve seen numerous documentaries on the Holocaust over the decades—and read plenty on the subject—but this one is particularly remarkable. The series, which begins with the 1933 Nazi seizure of power and closes with the memory of the Holocaust over the decades following WWII, is almost entirely composed of Nazi film footage and other images, and with the narration interspersed with interviews with some fifty historians and authors from eight countries. The documentary is a tour de force. The impetus for its making was a French public opinion survey in 2010 revealing that a majority of the under-35 age cohort had never heard of the Rafle du Vel’ d’hiv and, ergo, was ignorant of the details as to what happened to the Jews during WWII. For Karel and Finger, one of the goals of the documentary is to explain the Holocaust to the younger generation, now and in the future. It will soon be available in DVD and eventually shown in the US, UK, and elsewhere (it already has been in Germany and Belgium). It is absolutely worth seeing in its entirety by everyone, including those who think they know the subject well.

On teaching the Holocaust to the younger generation, there is a film on the subject presently showing in cinemas in France, ‘Les Héritiers’ (English title: Once in a Lifetime), and that merits mention. The pic is based on a true story, of a class of 10th graders at the Lycée Léon Blum in the Paris banlieue of Créteil during the 2008-09 school year and their participation in the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation: an annual competition, inaugurated in 1961 by the Ministry of Education, of participating 9th and 10th grade history classes, which submit class projects around a theme—set by the Ministry for the year—concerning some aspect of the resistance or deportation during the war. The theme for the 2008-09 year was “Children and teenagers in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps.” The Lycée Léon Blum class, composed mainly of turbulent 15 and 16-year-olds of immigrant families from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, ended up winning the competition.

I was particularly interested in seeing the film, on account of the theme but also because I live right next to Créteil, in the banlieue to its north, and thus know the place well. The Lycée Léon Blum, where the film was also shot, is 15 minutes by car or bus from chez moi, just off the major arterial thoroughfare and behind the Créteil mosque (which one sees in the film). Créteil, which has a population of 90,000, is not attractive—with its forests of soulless high-rises, most of them public housing—but it’s not the ghetto, let alone a “no-go zone” (a cockamamie fantasy that Fox News and certain right-wing commentators outre-Atlantique went on about after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murders last month, provoking incredulity, hilarity, and ridicule in France). Créteil has a major teaching hospital, a campus of the University of Paris system, and is the prefecture of the Val-de-Marne (94), with a multitude of civil servants employed in administrative and judicial organs of the French state there. And it’s connected to Paris by the metro (line 8). The city, which has a large post-colonial immigrant population but also a sizable middle class, votes for the left—François Hollande took 62% of the Créteil vote in 2012, ten points above his national score—and is run on the municipal level by the Socialists (not the Communists, which is normally a sure giveaway that a poor, immigrant-origin population predominates in the commune).

A notable feature of Créteil’s multi-ethnic demography is its Jewish community, which numbers some 20,000—mainly of Tunisian and Moroccan origin—and with some 15 synagogues, making it one of the largest in the Île-de-France. The different ethno-confessional populations have lived in bonne entente since the immigration waves began in the 1950s, though there have been incidents in recent years, the worst being the antisemitic crime this past December 1st, committed by three lumpen immigrant-origin youths (two African, one Maghrebi) and that happened in the area just behind the Lycée Léon Blum. ‘Les Héritiers’ does have a couple of scenes depicting the general bonne entente between Maghreb/African-origin kids and Jews, though one sees no Jewish students in the lycée itself, likely because they are few in number—most cristolien Jewish teens attending the nearby private Collège-Lycée Ozar Hatorah or one of the well-reputed public high schools—i.e. with middle/well-to-do class compositions—in neighboring, more upscale Saint-Maur-des-Fossés (one of the schools being my daughter’s alma mater).

The film hues closely to what happened in the Lycée Léon Blum class in 2008-09, as the screenplay was co-authored by one of the students, Ahmed Dramé—along with director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar—and who plays the student named Malik in the film (and for which he has been nominated for “Most Promising Actor” in the upcoming César Awards). And, as it happens, Dramé, now age 21, wrote a book, Nous sommes tous des exceptions—published last October by Fayard—about his tough upbringing—uneducated immigrant parents from Mali, growing up in a cité, raised by his mother (father absent), older brother in prison—and the lycée competition (watch him here interviewed on television last November). Dramé presents Léon Blum as the best public lycée général—i.e. for university-bound students—in Créteil and that he was determined to attend, but his 10th grade class being the most rowdy and undisciplined in the school. When their prof principale (homeroom teacher) and history-geography teacher, Anne Anglès, had to absent herself for a couple of weeks early in the year, the unruly students made life miserable for her substitute. So when Mme Anglès returned, she proposed, in order to re-establish authority and get control of the class, that the students participate in the national competition on the Nazi camps.

The students initially scoffed at the idea—as did the school principal and other teachers—saying that it was not something for them or that they were capable of. And there was reticence over the subject, with retorts to the teacher on the order of “Madame, we’ve had enough hearing about the Shoah” and “Madame, why does everyone always talk about the Jews?” As Dramé writes in his book—and that one sees in the film—the students, whose understanding of the Holocaust was rudimentary at best, viewed it as a massacre like so many others in modern times (Rwanda, Bosnia, etc). But Mme Anglès—played by the perfectly cast Ariane Ascaride (who’s been in almost all the films of gauchiste director Robert Guédiguian)—wouldn’t give up trying to persuade the students to participate in the competition. She patiently and respectfully responded to their questions, explained the specificity of the Holocaust—a genocide driven by a racialized, essentialized hatred of Jews that aimed to kill every last one the Nazis could get their hands on—, took them on a field trip to the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris—where I’ve taken American students a dozen or so times over the past decade—, all of which finally convinced the class—after three months of hesitation—to go ahead with the project (the film shows only one student refusing to participate, an ethnic French boy recently converted to Islam). But what clinched the students’ commitment to the project was a visit to the class by Holocaust survivor Léon Zyguel, who was arrested in Mont-de-Marsan in June 1942—at age 15—with his mother and siblings (his father had already been hauled off the previous year), interned at Mérignac and then Drancy, deported to Auschwitz, and who survived the January 1945 death march to Buchenwald. The students were stunned by Zyguel’s account—as the film shows and Dramé writes—and with many in tears (Zyguel is in the film and the emotion of the amateur cast was apparently for real; much of the film was indeed improvised by the cast, so it appears). So with that, the students forged ahead with the project. And they won. The ceremony at the École Militaire—facing the Eiffel Tower—and with the Minister of Education declaring the winner is a moment of high emotion in the film. Only those with hearts of stone will not be moved by it.

It’s a wonderful story—and literally so close to home for me—though I won’t say that the film, as cinema, is a chef d’œuvre. Much of it has the quality of a téléfilm, it’s replete with bons sentiments, is clichéd at times, and, helped along by the piano soundtrack, clearly seeks to jerk one’s tears (it certainly did with mine, I will readily admit). But who cares? While watching it I was reminded of the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, which I loved and found so inspiring at the time. And the experience of the Concours had such an impact on the students themselves, with all passing the baccalaureate three years later—and twenty with a mention (i.e. making the honor roll)—as one learns in this joint France 2 interview with Anglès and Ascaride the day of the film’s opening on December 3rd. It clearly affected the lives of a number of students, and, above all, Ahmed Dramé, who writes in the epilogue of his book of how the Concours National de la Résistance et de la Déportation changed both his world-view and perception of himself.

Reviews of ‘Les Héritiers’ by Paris critics have been very good on the whole—not one is negative—and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. And it’s done well at the box office, with 530,000 tickets sold so far—which is not bad at all for a film of this kind—and is still showing at 109 theaters across the country nine weeks after its release. The Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher murders have certainly increased the interest in the film. And à propos, Anne Anglès was interviewed in Le Figaro on January 23rd on how the events were perceived by the students at the Lycée Léon Blum (there were only two incidents in the school of students not respecting the minute of silence for the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher victims). Trailer w/English subtitles is here.

In the William Karel-Blanche Finger documentary on the destruction of Europe’s Jews, more than one historian interviewee mentioned that there would soon be no survivors of the Holocaust left to offer personal testimony to the younger generations. As fate would have it, Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem issued a communiqué on January 30th—nine days ago—informing the public that Léon Zyguel had passed away.

Ahmed Dramé_Nous sommes tous des exceptions

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Americans abroad

the other americans in paris

Victoria Ferauge—American in Paris, voracious reader, and friend—has a great American diaspora reading list on her (excellent) blog, The Franco-American Flophouse. She’s read far more on the subject of Americans aboard than I have, that’s for sure. One of the top books she mentions—and highly recommends—is American in Paris, historian, and friend Nancy Green’s The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941, which was published last summer by the University of Chicago Press (and whose forthcoming publication I mentioned in a post 3½ years ago on David McCullough’s best-selling—and quite certainly less good—book on Americans in Paris). Nancy kindly had a copy sent to me, though I have yet to read it (but I will, promis juré), so here’s the description from the U of C Press website

While Gertrude Stein hosted the literati of the Left Bank, Mrs. Bates-Batcheller, an American socialite and concert singer in Paris, held sumptuous receptions for the Daughters of the American Revolution in her suburban villa. History may remember the American artists, writers, and musicians of the Left Bank best, but the reality is that there were many more American businessmen, socialites, manufacturers’ representatives, and lawyers living on the other side of the River Seine. Be they newly minted American countesses married to foreigners with impressive titles or American soldiers who had settled in France after World War I with their French wives, they provide a new view of the notion of expatriates.

Nancy L. Green thus introduces us for the first time to a long-forgotten part of the American overseas population—predecessors to today’s expats—while exploring the politics of citizenship and the business relationships, love lives, and wealth (and poverty for some) of Americans who staked their claim to the City of Light. The Other Americans in Paris shows that elite migration is a part of migration tout court and that debates over “Americanization” have deep roots in the twentieth century.

In her post, Victoria also recommends my mother’s memoir of the two years our family lived in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the 1960s, and which I mentioned in a blog post 3 years ago. C’est gentil de ta part, Victoria.

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