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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

[update below]

Le 10 mai 1981. It is, as Thomas Legrand reminded us on France Inter this morning, the only election that everyone in France remembers by its full date: day, month, and year. For on that day—today being the 40th anniversary—François Mitterrand won the 2nd round of the presidential election, bringing the left to power for the first time in 23 years—and following the legislative elections the following month, enabling the left to govern without non-left coalition partners for pretty much the first time ever (even the Popular Front in 1936 included centrist Radicals). Every Frenchman and woman with the slightest political consciousness who was around on that day remembers where s/he was and how s/he felt. And for those on the left, the feeling was exhilaration.

As for moi, I wrote about the 10 mai 1981 on the 30th anniversary—in AWAV’s early days—and offered my bilan of Mitterrand’s fourteen years in the Élysée, which one may consult here. I wouldn’t modify anything I wrote then, except maybe on the Maastricht treaty (which I would now not put in the negative column). But my overall assessment of Mitterrand is now darker, with the publication in March of the report of the commission headed by Vincent Duclert and submitted to President Macron, on France, Rwanda, and the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994, and what French archives reveal on this. It’s a damning indictment of Mitterrand’s role, of continuing to support the Hutu regime even as the genocide was underway, refusing to recognize that what was happening was indeed a genocide, and of his atavistic obsession—shared by part of the French military hierarchy—with an imagined “Anglo-Saxon” (i.e. American and British) threat to the French position in Africa, and which Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front was seen as the spearhead. Mitterrand’s attitude toward Rwanda in 1994 is not news but that he was afflicted with the Fashoda complex to this extent—of viewing the USA and UK, otherwise French allies, as adversaries, if not enemies—is striking, not to mention disappointing (for more on this, watch the interview with Vincent Duclert here).

The 10 mai 1981 is of course being marked today, with the usual reportages, documentaries, talk shows, and the like. The reaction of Boomer generation lefties is bittersweet, as in 1981 the left was a political and social force—constituting half the electorate, or close to it—with an ideology, a political program, and hopes for the future and a better life for all. Today the French left is a champs de ruine: a pile of rubble, speaking for at best a third of the electorate, structurally fractured, with no credible program or leaders, and with no hope of qualifying for the 2nd round of next year’s presidential election—or winning any national election in the foreseeable future. And in the PS at least, no one has any illusions about this. The French left is hardly alone here (cf. England, Spain, Italy). I have some things to say on this general subject—of the structural decline of the left in Europe (the USA is a different matter)—and will do so at the opportune moment. In the meantime, here are the thoughts on the anniversary by my friend Guillaume Duval, director of Alternatives Économiques, posted on his Facebook page, and who has not lost hope.

Le 10 mai 1981, il y a 40 ans et j’en avais 24. J’étais déjà cependant un “vieux” militant socialiste puisque j’avais rejoint ce parti en 1973, 2 ans après le congrès d’Epinay qui avait vu sa refondation.

On aurait tort de croire toutefois que les dix années qui séparent Epinay et le 10 mai 1981 ont été une marche triomphale vers la victoire. En 1981 la gauche a gagné bien qu’elle soit profondément divisée. Depuis 1978 c’était la guerre totale entre le Parti communiste (encore très puissant à l’époque) et le Parti socialiste. Et au sein même du Parti socialiste c’était la guerre civile pratiquement aussi totale entre mitterrandistes et rocardiens.

Mais après 16 années de gaullisme conservateur, autoritaire et affairiste (l’image généralement positive qu’a désormais acquis le gaullisme à gauche a de quoi faire sourire celles et ceux qui ont vécu cette période), après 7 ans d’un giscardisme très proche idéologiquement de ce qu’Emmanuel Macron nous inflige actuellement (même si Giscard était plus progressiste qu’Emmanuel Macron sur les sujets de société) la volonté de changement du peuple français a quand même été plus forte que les profondes divisions de la gauche.

Pour ma part, bien que n’ayant jamais été mitterrandiste et connaissant déjà toutes les ambiguïtés du personnage, je m’étais engagé à fond, comme jamais depuis, dans cette campagne. Et je ne le regrette pas. Il fallait aérer le pays, rompre avec ce carcan, bourgeois, conservateur, bien pensant et policier qui nous étouffait.

Même si très vite, dès 1983, appuyé sur l’énarchie qui avait déjà phagocyté les cercles dirigeants du Parti Socialiste, ce qu’on n’appelait pas encore à l’époque le social-libéralisme (que j’ai combattu dès le départ) a triomphé. Faisant ainsi qu’au final les 2 septennats de François Mitterrand ont eu surtout comme fonction historique de rétablir les profits des entreprises qui avaient fondu dans les années 1970 sous Giscard et Chirac…

40 ans plus tard le cycle ouvert avec la rénovation du Parti socialiste (que j’ai pour ma part quitté depuis bientôt trente ans à la fin d’un second septennat de Francois Mitterrand marqué par tant d’affaires sordides) est manifestement terminé.

C’est grâce en particulier à Emmanuel Macron qu’il s’est clos : avec lui la chenille du social-liberalisme énarchique qui avait progressivement dévoré le Parti socialiste s’est muée en papillon d’une nouvelle droite aussi autoritaire que les Pasqua, Poniatowski ou Sarkozy, plus favorable encore que toutes les droites classiques aux plus riches et nettement plus antisociale encore que tous les Chirac, Sarkozy, Giscard et Barre réunis…

Est-ce que la gauche, enfin débarrassée de ces parasites qui la rongeaient de l’intérieur, régénérée par le logiciel écologiste, peut revivre, et cela dès 2022 ? Le pari est évidemment très loin d’être gagné d’avance. Mais toutes celles et tous ceux qui ont vécu la période profondément démoralisante de 1978-1981 (ou celle tout aussi déprimante de 1993-1997) savent aussi qu’il n’est pas non plus nécessairement perdu d’avance. D’autant qu’ils savent également ce qu’une victoire de l’extrême droite impliquerait. Pas une minute à perdre.

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary, France 5 aired a one-hour documentary yesterday, “Henri Weber, le rouge et la rose.” Henri Weber, who died of Covid last year, was a major figure on the French left of the past five decades: in May ’68, then the Trotskyist LCR, before joining the PS in the 1980s, converting to social-democracy, and becoming a personality in the party leadership and one of its intellectuals. For the anecdote, I had the opportunity to speak with him on the phone in 2017—a mutual friend put me in touch—to seek his help in organizing a visit for one of my classes (American students) to PS HQ on Rue de Solférino. He was warm and friendly and made the visit happen. A good man (and with good politics). The documentary may be watched for the next month here.

UPDATE: From INA: Revivez en direct la soirée électorale du 10 mai 1981 (h/t Guillaume Duval). N.B. Jean-Pierre Elkabbach and Alain Duhamel are still around and on TV regularly (I’ve seen both in the past two weeks).

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College campus follies

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American college campus follies, to be precise. Hardly two weeks goes by, or so it seems of late, without some crazy story from a US college or university about an identity-related incident or protest by performative woke student activists. The latest we’ve learned about, which actually happened in 2018, is described in detail in a front page article in The New York Times, dated Feb. 25th, by national reporter Michael Powell—whose beat includes “issues around free speech and expression, and stories capturing intellectual and campus debate”—that carried the click-bait title “Inside a battle over race, class and power at Smith College: A student said she was racially profiled while eating in a college dorm. An investigation found no evidence of bias. But the incident will not fade away.” A great elite liberal arts college in a wonderful town (if I had had a proper academic career, I would have loved to have taught there). The student in question was a woman of Malian immigrant origin—who is clearly 100% assimilated into the American Gen-Z woke culture—and with the persons who were “cancelled,” as it were, being (white) members of the custodial and food services staff. Right-wing media, e.g. Fox News (and of course Tucker Carlson), NY Post, National Review, and Commentary, naturally had a field-day with the story (which they were on to well before NYT readers learned about it). One may also add the conservative Bret Stephens’ NYT column (Mar. 1st), “Smith College and the failing liberal bargain,” which is actually not bad (and likewise, one may add, with Stephens’ Mar. 9th column, “California’s ethnic studies follies“).

Last month, before the NYT’s Smith College report, I was reminded of a similar-type story, from 2017, at Evergreen State College in Olympia WA (background here), by a stateside Francophile friend, who forwarded a 52-minute YouTube documentary that had been sent to him, titled “Evergreen et les dérives du progressisme,” with my friend saying that it looked to be the “film choc à alimenter la polémique actuelle en France” (my friend likes to mix up English and French with me), further adding that what one sees in the documentary is an “American freak show” and “fodder for a forthcoming AWAV.” Effectivement. And as a progressive US intello friend—who had not heard about the 2017 affair and to whom I thus sent the video—emailed me after watching: “MADNESS!!!!!!! This Evergreen stuff.” The film consists of footage from YouTube documentaries on the Evergreen affair culled and spliced—but not in an inaccurate or distorted manner—by a French social media personality who goes by the sobriquet “Sanglier Sympa” (Amiable Wild Boar)—and who’s pretty clearly on the right—and with his own narration, concluding with a warning that what one saw at Evergreen in 2017 risks coming to France (it being a leitmotif in France that whatever starts in America will eventually make its way here). In view of the current hysteria over “islamo-gauchisme” and denunciations (from Emmanuel Macron on down) of pernicious theories (post-colonialism, intersectionality, etc) and other identitarian threats from American and other “Anglo-Saxon” universities that are infecting French academia, le message tombe à pic.

The film is well worth the watch and with the narration, while excessive at points, not wide-of-the-mark. If one can’t follow French, then there are the English originals, notably the three-part series (1½ hours total) by filmmaker Mike Nanya, with the experience of professors Bret Weinstein & Heather Heying—the couple (evolutionary biologists both) that was constrained to resign from their tenured posts and leave the college—at the center; the 43-minute video “Evergreen madness: Why Bret Weinstein left;” and Bret Weinstein’s Congressional testimony in 2018. For those who are appalled by the spectacle of what happened at Evergreen—which I cannot imagine would not include anyone over a certain age, regardless of political views—Weinstein is the hero of the affair.

Watching the Evergreen videos I had a sense of déjà vu, as it recalled the student activism and protests of my undergraduate years at Antioch College in the mid to late 1970s, Antioch being a small liberal arts college in a bucolic village and which was, at the time, certainly the most “woke” in the country (along with Hampshire, Goddard, Evergreen, Reed, UC-Santa Cruz)—and which ultimately led to the college’s demise (well-described in a 2007 lead article in The Weekly Standard, linked to here). But the 2017 Evergreen protest was on another level altogether compared to 1970s Antioch. First, the shocking disrespect the Evergreen protesters displayed toward administrators and faculty—whom they all knew (there’s no anonymity in these small colleges)—and their copious use of obscenities; my memory may be faulty but I do not recall Antioch students addressing their elders (assembled) in such an insolent manner or using foul language during heated politicized confrontations. Second, the greater implication of the Evergreen faculty and (above all) the university administration on the side of the protesting students, some out of sympathy but more because they were cowed. The Evergreen spectacle gives an idea of what China must have been like during the Cultural Revolution—though with a slight difference: in China, teachers and other adults who ran afoul of teenaged Red Guards were in danger of physical mutilation or worse, whereas any Evergreen adult who stood up to the student mob risked little more than a screaming torrent of verbal abuse. From the student mob, at least. And if one needs reminding, the Chinese Red Guards were unleashed by adults, who then put an end to them when they decided to.

In this respect, the Evergreen protest and its outcome—as at Smith and countless other such incidents—points to the main culprit in what’s going off the rails in American higher education, which are the university administrations, which systematically cave in to the students and do not defend their professors or staff (in almost any dispute involving students). US universities are also pris au piège—entrapped—by their business model, of tuition-paying students and America’s customer-is-king ethos; they have become businesses and run by administrators from the business world—or, if they were initially academics, have assimilated the ethos and values of that world—and with the commensurate private sector salaries (whereas teaching is increasingly carried out by adjuncts who are more poorly paid than three decades ago). More on this below.

The Evergreen affair reinforced a thought I had after reading the long 2016 article on Oberlin College in The New Yorker—a sort of case study of the woke culture in liberal arts colleges—”The new activism of campus life: On trigger warnings, allyship, intersectionality, and what’s really eating Oberlin.” It seemed to me that the complicating factor in the toxic political climate on these campuses—and I say this at the risk of being “cancelled”—is the central role of students of color, women, and LGBTQs in the protest movements. If the woke student vanguard were made up of straight white dudes, the colleges could deal with them, and probably would forthrightly. But when women and/or persons of color are in the forefront, matters become more delicate, for administrators and professors alike, and which causes a modulated reaction on their part.

Another “cancel culture” brouhaha last month—this involving woke high school students—was the Donald McNeil/New York Times affair, which happened in 2019 but only came to public light in the last six weeks, following the exposés by reporters Maxwell Tani and Lachlan Cartwright in The Daily Beast, the titles and ledes telling you what you need to know. The first, on Jan. 28th: “Star NY Times reporter accused of using ‘N-Word,’ making other racist comments: The paper’s top COVID reporter joined a group of students on a trip to Peru in 2019. Participants alleged he repeatedly made racist comments;” and the second on Feb. 3rd: “NY Times staffers send ‘outraged’ letter to bosses demanding reporter apologize for racial slur: More than 150 employees excoriated paper brass for what they said was an insufficient response to allegations that a top reporter made racist comments on a 2019 trip with students.” The journalist, Donald McNeil, who was/is 67-years-old, had been at the NYT since 1976, and was the paper’s top science and health reporter—and with the Covid-19/pandemic beat over the past year—suffered the same fate as Bret Weinstein at Evergreen: forced to resign, here by the NYT “brass.”

As this latest instance in “cancel culture” involved The New York Times, it became a big media story last month, with reporting and/or commentary—for those not riveted to Twitter and who thus may have missed it—by, among others, Nancy Rommelmann in Newsweek, Jonathan Chait in New York magazine, Aaron Sibarium in the conservative Washington Free Beacon, and Erik Wemple and Sarah Ellison & Jeremy Barr in The Washington Post. As for the NYT itself, Bret Stephens wrote a column on the McNeil ouster that the paper’s higher-ups spiked, which was subsequently obtained and published by the NY Post as “the column the New York Times didn’t want you to see.” NYT staff reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones—who created the 1619 Project—was interviewed in Slate “on Donald McNeil’s resignation, what the reporting got wrong, and how she was involved.” And the NYT’s smart media columnist, Ben Smith, explained “Why the morality plays inside the Times won’t stop.”

On “cancel culture,” which is not a phenomenon I think actually exists—as people have been “cancelling” or been “cancelled,” and across the political spectrum, since forever; there’s nothing new in it—Peter Beinart had an excellent post dated Mar. 1st on his Substack site.

Last month, I participated in an extended exchange on the NYT/McNeil affair with an informal email discussion group I’m a part of, of mainly US (and New York)-based intellos (writers, journalists, NGO executives, academics), almost all Gen-Xers and Boomers, and all politically progressive (Sanders and Warren supporters during the Democratic Party nomination campaign). Trying to figure out what had happened inside the NYT (and with some having inside sources), a general consensus formed that while McNeil may be a curmudgeon and with a style—personal and as a reporter—that’s a throwback to a now bygone era in journalism (and in American culture), he had hardly committed a fireable offense. Losing his job over what reportedly transpired with the students on the 2019 Peru trip was unjust.

One thing that cannot be emphasized enough is that woke-related and “cancel culture” episodes do not cleave along left vs. right or liberal/progressive vs. conservative lines. The conflict is not ideological but rather generational. Solidly left-wing Boomer and Gen-X professors—and I know quite a few—have little patience for the performative wokeness one sees on college campuses (which Marxists of my day would label ‘ultra-leftism’, seen as an infantile disorder). The conservative anti-Trumper Charlie Sykes picked up on this recently in recounting, in The Bulwark, a story from Madison WI, which he said

exposes an under-appreciated aspect of the woke wars: the targets are not always retrograde conservatives. In woke precincts, it is actually far more likely that the targets will instead be other progressives who are insufficiently woke.

On Mar. 1st—after our discussion group exchange on the McNeil/NYT affair had wound up (and some 80 emails later)—McNeil offered his version of what had happened, in a very long and detailed four-part post published on Medium (Medium calculates that all four posts are an 81-minute read). Reading/skimming through his (convincing) explanation, with his detailed description of the interactions with the students on the Peru trip—almost all white and from exclusive prep schools—it’s hard not to side with him. A right-leaning friend was indeed so indignant and irate after reading it that she tweeted:

The NYT is in the hands of people who are both stupid and vicious. The idea that they would even for a moment take seriously the complaints of these pampered, self-righteous little shits is depressing.

And adding for good measure:

Pampered, ignorant, spoiled children, callow and ignorant of life, are now running the cultural show. The adults—who are supposed to teach them and set limits on behavior like this—are instead cowed by them, turning them into petty tyrants.

My friend’s ire was misdirected IMO, not to mention excessive in its censoriousness toward the behavior of a handful of 16-17-year-olds (who are not running a cultural show or anything else; and something I insist on: high school students are not “children;” post-pubescent juridical minors are adolescents, or teenagers, and should be referred to as such; they are not children). Among other things, McNeil in no way suggested that he held the students responsible for his termination at the NYT. Neither they nor the organism that sponsored the trip demanded his firing or had anything to do with what happened to him a year-and-a-half after the fact. As his account makes clear, the exclusive responsibility for his termination lay with the adults who run The New York Times—just as it was the Evergreen administration, not the screaming students, who forced Bret Weinstein’s resignation.

Returning to the Evergreen psychodrama and the warning by “Sanglier Sympa” that what one saw there presaged the future in universities in France: this is most unlikely given the centralization of the French educational system—and with the ministry of higher education at the pinnacle—and the fact that university professors (the ones with stable posts) are fonctionnaires (civil servants) and with full union rights. A Bret Weinstein-like story is not possible here. This said, the Red Guard-like mob dynamics of the woke Evergreen vanguard have long been present in French student movements, as they have everywhere.

I discussed my thoughts on this a week ago with a brilliant sociologist friend, who’s taught for some twenty years at the Université Paris-8 (Saint-Denis)—which is the most “woke” university in France (and the polar opposite of the institution I teach at)—was a Trotskyist (LCR) militant in his youth (wasn’t everyone?), and is a specialist of social movements and collective action. Prior to the discussion, I asked him to watch the Evergreen video (he has no personal experience with American universities, so found the Evergreen spectacle jarring; he joked that I had him watch the video to give him a “nightmare”). While appalled by the Evergreen students and their antics, he found them almost gentillet (nice, sweet) compared to student movements in France, which involve hardened militants, with barricades, occupation of university buildings (and the vandalism that ensues), and the real threat of violence—and with the engagement of non-student elements: of anarchists and other currents of the ultra-left, who infiltrate the movements and with the aim of clashing with the police (French universities—which are not residential—being fully a part of their urban environments; e.g. Paris-8 is at the terminus of a metro line and a stop on the tramway that plies the Seine-Saint-Denis). For this reason, university presidents confronted with occupations—and with the identity of the occupiers uncertain—will nonetheless not request police intervention, lest all hell break loose. And as my friend pointed out, university presidents also have to take care not to alienate the students or enter into a frontal conflict with them, as students (and the highly politicized national student federations: UNEF etc) are a component of the electoral college that elects those presidents to their posts—so thus a constituency to be courted. But my friend did agree that the outcome of the Evergreen protest is not possible in France, as there are too many institutional guard rails (note, e.g., the recent incident at Sciences Po Grenoble, of the two professors accused of “Islamophobia,” which was quickly nipped in the bud). And students themselves (not the anarchists, black blocs, and other outside agitators), unlike their woke American cousins, are not so ill-behaved and foul-mouthed in dialogue with administrators and professors.

There is also, at present, the prevailing political climate in France, which is hostile to eventual identity-type revindications expressed by the woke Evergreen student counterparts here. And the intellectuals fueling that hostility are highly organized and with a supportive audience in the centers of power that count.

I mentioned above that I would have more to say about US university administrations. On this, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an excellent essay (May 19, 2020) by François Furstenberg, who teaches in the history department at Johns Hopkins University, titled “University leaders are failing: The pandemic reveals ineptitude at the top. Change is needed.” The essay may be read for free following registration. It’s well worth it.

UPDATE: My French sociologist friend wishes to add two points to what I roughly quoted him saying above. One is that while the Evergreen students may be “gentillet” compared to their French counterparts in their action (which in France invariably includes non-students of the ultra-left), there is, as he put it, a psychological violence in their behavior and words that can be traumatizing to those on the receiving end, and which may be experienced as a threat of actual physical violence. The second is that the situation in France in regard to the issues discussed here can change very quickly. Social media mobs, as with real mobs, are dynamic and unpredictable.

N.B. I have edited and modified parts of this post since initial publication, notably the sixth paragraph, so as to avoid misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

A further thought, on the intemperate, foul-mouthed Evergreen media arts professor one sees in the videos, who has manifest anger management issues (and eventually resigned from her tenured position): I find it inconceivable that such behavior would be tolerated from a colleague in a French university.

2nd UPDATE: On “cancel culture,” which certain progressive friends assure me does indeed exist, Tim Miller of The Bulwark has a take (Mar. 21st) worth reading, “Let’s talk about ‘cancelling’: People are conflating one real problem with two fake ones.” And Michelle Goldberg, reminding us that “cancel culture” is more a thing on the right than the left (and which is definitely the case in France, BTW), had a must-read column in the NYT dated Feb. 26th, “The campaign to cancel wokeness: How the right is trying to censor critical race theory.”

Also note Thomas B. Edsall’s NYT column dated Mar. 17th, “Biden wants no part of the culture war the G.O.P. loves.” Another salutary position by President Biden, as I have been uncompromising in my insistence that politicians should stay out of culture wars and identity-related issues (beyond defending 1st and 14th amendment rights). Let these play themselves out in the cultural and societal realms (and eventually in the courts).

3rd UPDATE: On “cancel culture” primarily being a phenomenon of the right—as a weapon in the American right’s assault on higher education, among other domains of American life—what is happening in the state of Idaho is a case study (Idaho, along with other states in the mountain west, having experienced an important in-migration of conservatives from California since the 1990s). See the disquieting report (Mar. 15th) by The Chronicle of Higher Education’s senior reporter Emma Pettit, “A county turns against its college: In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, as in places across America, disdain for higher education is thriving.” The college that is being turned against is not a big university with lots of leftists but the local community college. A quote:

What’s happening at North Idaho [College], while it reflects an increasingly common antipathy toward higher education, is also unusual. Even harsh critics of the sector, research has shown, tend to feel positive about their local campuses. But in Kootenai County, once dubbed the most Republican county in the most Republican state, many on the right have focused their ire not on the state flagship hours away but on the community college down the street.

And on the subject, see also Michelle Goldberg’s March 26th column, “The social justice purge at Idaho colleges: Republican lawmakers try to cancel diversity programs.”

4th UPDATE: From The Chronicle of Higher Education (Mar. 25th), a table with data on “Executive compensation at public and private colleges.” Obscene. What we also need is data on compensation for adjunct professors.

5th UPDATE: Blake Smith, a Harper Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, has a provocative article in Tablet (Apr. 5th), “The Woke Meritocracy: How telling the right stories about overcoming oppression in the right way became a requirement for entering the elite credentialing system.” (h/t David A. Bell)

6th UPDATE: Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, has a lengthy piece (Apr. 5th) in the libertarian webzine Reason, “A professor pushed back against ‘white fragility’ training. The college investigated her for 9 months.” The lede: “The chaos at Lake Washington Institute of Technology is by no means an isolated occurrence.” The professor in question has some issues—notably her dodgy political views—but what happened to her was unacceptable. (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld)

Robin DiAngelo, the author of the NYT bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press, 2018) and who appeared in the Evergreen story, also figures in this one. Her “diversity training” workshops sound like political reeducation camps in Maoist China or post-1975 Vietnam.

7th UPDATE: The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Emma Pettit has another report (Apr. 5th) from Idaho, “‘Anti-American,’ pushing ‘Marxism,’ and more: Do you recognize your college here? A free-market group escalates its war against higher ed, one robocall at a time.” It begins:

If you live in Idaho and you’ve recently flipped on the radio or picked up a landline phone when it rang, you may have heard a confident male voice on the other end, painting an ugly portrait of higher education in the Gem State. Public colleges are teaching students “to hate America,” the voice says, in at least one version of the recorded message. These institutions are promoting Marxism and socialism. They’re “attacking law enforcement, the Second Amendment,” and “pushing the cancel culture that threatens all of us.”

It’s time, the voice insists, to take a stand, and for Idaho to become the first state to stop “leftist indoctrination” on college campuses. “Will it work?” the voice asks before it answers in the affirmative: “We say, Yes.”

The “we” saying yes is Idaho Freedom Action. It’s the advocacy arm of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which describes itself as a free-market think tank. Idaho Freedom Action’s campaign says it is an effort to “Fix Idaho Colleges” by pressuring state lawmakers to end “anti-American programs” on campuses, and says Idaho students are being conditioned to “apologize for being white” and “shut up because of their gender or race.” (The campaign lists more grievances, but you get the idea.) So far, Freedom Action has spent thousands of dollars on radio ads to reach “freedom-loving Idahoans” and placed tens of thousands of phone calls to inform citizens about “social justice on campus,” it says in a recent campaign email.

This culture war we’re in is not going to end anytime soon. And particularly with elected officials such as this.

8th UPDATE: More on the right’s assault on higher education—and free speech—this from the Miami Herald (Apr. 6th), “Florida GOP targets ‘intellectual diversity’ on campus with survey about beliefs.” It begins:

In a push against so-called cancel culture, the Republican majority in the Florida Legislature is ready to pass legislation that would require public colleges and universities to survey students, faculty and staff about their beliefs and viewpoints.

The survey is part of a broader measure that would also bar university and college officials from limiting speech that “may be uncomfortable, disagreeable or offensive,” and would allow students to record lectures without consent to support a civil or criminal case against a higher-education institution.

The objective, according to the bill sponsors, is to protect the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on state campuses. But university faculty members worry the proposal, House Bill 233, is likely to send a chilling effect on their freedom of speech.

N.B. The assault is only beginning.

9th UPDATE: I received this comment in an email (Apr. 7th), from a professor at an elite university:

[S]ome quick reactions. Basically, I think that the campus “follies” are mostly just that. The college kids – or faculty – get riled up about something and have a big protest. Usually, although not always, this happens when someone deliberately provokes them. And it usually passes. The kids forget about it, graduate, and there is no suite. A reign of terror it isn’t.

To give one example from my own university. This past summer, in the middle of the BLM protests, a group of several hundred faculty got together and signed a provocative letter to the administration. It called for all sorts of “woke” measures, including, most provocatively, the formation of a new disciplinary body to police faculty scholarship for signs of racism, sexism, etc. There was huge pushback from other faculty, including me. The letter was immediately cited throughout the media as a sign of the new cancel culture on campus. But what happened? Nada. There was never any danger of this new disciplinary body being created. And in fact, absolutely none of the measures proposed were ever enacted. It was performance art, not a reign of terror.

I don’t want to minimize the effects. The fear of being targeted does have a chilling effect. For people who are called out by the “woke mob,” the consequences can occasionally be very bad, although nearly all of the people targeted at places like Yale and Princeton (e.g. [a conservative colleague of mine]) are still fully ensconced in their protected, tenured positions. And there are a few places, like Evergreen, where the effects are worse. But even at Oberlin, the protests tend to have little suite. A few years ago, at Oberlin (where my daughter was studying music), a black student group called for the immediate firing of a dozen faculty and staff members they said were racist. They called for the immediate tenuring of all non-tenured black faculty. They demanded that all classical music students be required to study jazz, since the jazz students had to study classical music. What came of all this? Absolutely nothing. On the other hand, a (black) non-tenured faculty member who was found to have been posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media was fired.

The other point is that none of this stuff really compares with the much more traditional, conservative form of cancel culture which really does threaten far more American academics. A friend of mine, a non-tenured faculty member at a Texas public college, tweeted about Mike Pence’s “demon eyes” during the VP debate last fall – and she was fired. Various state legislatures are moving ahead with bills banning the teaching of “critical race theory.” There’s lots more of this sort of thing on. Conservative members of congress and state legislatures targeting academics have real power, unlike student groups or faculty.

10th UPDATE: Another excellent piece (Apr. 8th) by François Furstenberg of Johns Hopkins University in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The era of artificial scarcity: Administrators have rushed to embrace austerity measures. The faculty should call their bluff.” In detailing the recent actions of the administration of his university, he describes “how fully a Wall Street mind-set had captured the nation’s university leadership,” and how their behavior is akin to that of “private-equity titans after a hostile acquisition.”

11th UPDATE: The typically smart and thoughtful Ezra Klein, in his NYT column (Apr. 18th), puts forth “A different way of thinking about cancel culture.”

12th UPDATE: Bret Weinstein, who now lives in Portland OR, reports in the UnHerd websize (Apr. 19th) on how ultra-leftists—the kind of people who tormented and verbally abused him at Evergreen State College—are wreaking havoc in that city.

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He was buried today, the funeral being a private family affair as he wished (though it would have happened that way in any case given the confinement and pandemic rules). His death late Wednesday evening has naturally been the nº 1 story here the past two days, with the usual retrospectives on TV and dossiers in the press. He was a consequential president of the republic—as all French presidents of the Fifth Republic have been (with some maybe a little less so)—having come to power at the precise end of the trente glorieuses—the “thirty glorious years” (actually more like twenty-five) of postwar economic expansion—and the beginning of the seemingly endless era of slow economic growth and high unemployment, though this was not apparent when he was elected in May 1974, at age 48, following the short campaign after Georges Pompidou’s death—narrowly defeating François Mitterrand, no doubt thanks to his zinger in the first-ever French presidential debate (voilà the whole thing here).

One of the leitmotifs of pundits and the press for Giscard’s presidency is “modern”: he was a président moderne, or at least billed himself as such. And he did indeed set about to modernize France—hitting the ground running—in the early years of his septennat, instituting economic (read: neoliberal) reforms, which the left (then strong) naturally opposed, and societal ones, which the left could only support. The latter are well-known and enumerated like a laundry list: lowering the voting age to 18, legalizing abortion (in the face of the hostility of much of his political camp), no-fault divorce, full reimbursement of oral contraception by the Sécu—though one Giscard-inspired reform has been overlooked in the retrospectives: ending the censorship of films X; so when I came to Paris in 1975, ‘Gorge profonde‘ was playing at the otherwise mainstream theater (Gaumont Alésia) in my quartier. And then there were important political reforms (which, again, the left could hardly oppose): empowering a quorum of parliamentary deputies or senators to refer cases to the Constitutional Council, proposing the direct election of the mayor of Paris (for the first time since 1793; enabling Giscard’s by then enemy, Jacques Chirac, to gain a formidable power base), equally proposing direct election by universal suffrage to the European parliament in Strasbourg (realized in 1979), loosening (though not ending) state control over the broadcast media. To these may be added the creation of the collège unique (a single middle school for all 6th to 9th graders), which considerably democratized access to high schools tracking to higher education.

In the cultural realm, Giscard saved the Gare d’Orsay from being razed, wishing it to be transformed into a museum. For this, it is presently being speculated that the Musée d’Orsay may be renamed after him.

Giscard’s “modern” image didn’t last, with his arrogance, haughtiness, and royalist impulses getting the better of his attempts to connect with regular people (on this score, he couldn’t compete with Chirac), which, along with economic austerity (“rigueur” it was called) at a time of stagflation, made him unpopular in the latter years of the septennat. He was still sure that he would defeat François Mitterrand again in their 1981 rematch, though, and with elite opinion thinking likewise. E.g. the NYT’s Paris-based foreign affairs columnist, Flora Lewis, predicted a Giscard victory prior to the 2nd round, because, as everyone knew, “the Frenchman’s heart is on the left but his pocketbook is on the right, and when in the voting booth, he votes his pocketbook” (the election outcome happily buried that cliché forever). But if Giscard “won” the 1974 debate with Mitterrand, the latter clearly did the one in 1981, and getting in his own zinger while he was at it, though would have likely won anyway, as the score was not close. Giscard’s eight-minute farewell address to the French people—made while still in a state of shock—is probably his most famous (go here and, if impatient, skip to 7:30; I used to reenact the end in front of my American students, which was fun).

My own observations of Giscard are mainly from the years after his presidency—when I started to live here permanently—as he remained a high-profile political personality into the ’00s. I generally disliked him, for some of his positions (on which more below) and his persona, though readily acknowledged his brilliance. When he published a front-page tribune in Le Monde, I read it without fail. His style and the methodical manner in which he constructed his arguments were simply very impressive—though we would hardly expect less of one who graduated at the top of his class at both the École Polytechnique and ENA. I saw him speak twice, the first time in April 2005 before a packed amphitheater at the École Militaire (which seats some 600), six weeks before the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which was the subject of his talk. He was simply excellent, rien à dire. And since he was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, he concluded with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, prefacing it by telling the audience that since they were all perfect Anglophones he was going to give the quote in English, with no translation. Only in France could a politician get away with something like that. Imagine the reaction on Fox News et al if Barack Obama, even out of office, were to conclude a speech with a quote by Montesquieu or Rousseau and in the original French (not that he speaks French or any other foreign language).

There was a report on the TV news a decade or so ago of Giscard in China with a delegation of some sort, showing him give a speech in what looked to be fluent Chinese. Now that was impressive.

The second time I saw him speak was in late 2011 at the Institut Catholique de Paris, one of the establishments of higher education at which I teach, where he gave a talk on the crisis in Europe. A smaller auditorium and no quotes  in foreign languages. I regretted that he didn’t speak longer.

In my book, Giscard, in his post-presidential years, had one big strike against him and one big one for. The strike against was his discourse on immigration, crystalized in his September 1991 tribune in Figaro-Magazine, in which he referred to immigration (read: from the African continent) as an “invasion” and called for an end to jus soli in French nationality law. Giscard’s discourse shocked a lot of people, including in his own political family in Europe, as it was one normally associated with the far right (in France at least). Giscard was a moderate conservative—an ‘Orléanist’ in René Remond’s typology of the French right; in the USA he would have been an Eisenhower-Nixon Republican—but his rhetoric pointed to a more conservative side. In this respect, it may be noted that while jeunes giscardiens of the 1970s ended up moderately conservative (Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Dominique Bussereau) or centrist (Marielle de Sarnez), the older members of VGE’s political inner circle were well to the right, e.g. Michel Poniatowski, who appeared publicly with the radioactive pariah Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1990s. And à propos, VGE himself had cordial relations with Le Pen, the two men being elected to the National Assembly in 1958 with the very conservative CNIP, in whose parliamentary group they sat together for four years. And while Giscard supported De Gaulle on Algerian independence, his entourage was replete with nostalgics for Algérie française. As for the party he formed in 1962, the Républicains Indépendants, it and its successors covered the spectrum from moderate to very conservative. Pas ma tasse de thé.

The strike in Giscard’s favor was the central role he played in the construction of Europe, from his presidency of the French Republic—during which he forged a close relationship with West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt (whom I have an R.I.P. post on)—to his presidency of the Convention on the Future of the European Union, which met in Brussels from February 2002 to July 2003 and produced the European Constitutional Treaty mentioned above. Giscard’s appointment to preside the European Convention—essentially imposed by President Chirac and PM Lionel Jospin, who both, for their own reasons, wanted to get VGE out of Paris—was ridiculed by other Europeans (particularly the Brits), who saw the French ex-president as a has-been over-the-hill dinosaur from another era, but he turned out to be the right person for the job. The European Convention was a model of democracy and transparency, VGE’s leadership was dynamic, and the treaty was a good one, and it was a damned shame that it was rejected by the French electorate in the referendum that Chirac stupidly organized (as he was under no obligation to do so). I’ve already written about the ECT and May 2005 referendum here so won’t go over it again, except to assert that the nefarious culprit in the ECT’s unfortunate demise was the French radical and extreme left (toward whom I developed a special loathing during this episode). The ECT’s demise also confirmed that referendums are almost always a bad idea (I’ll grant Switzerland as an exception), as most people have no idea what the hell they’re voting on (there, I said it!). If referendums must be held, they should never offer the voters a simple one-word binary choice (yes/no, remain/leave). Make the question complex.

John Lichfield has a good piece in Politico.eu comparing Emmanuel Macron to VGE and on what the former can learn from the experience of the latter. The two men have much in common, as more than one has observed: from well-to-do families (in VGE’s case, very well-to-do), brilliant parcours scolaire, grandes écoles (ENA, of course) and graduating in la botte, brilliant early career in the grands corps de l’État (Inspection Générale des Finances for both), intellectually brilliant and imbued with high culture, strong supporters of Europe, elected to the Élysée at a young age and with a modernizer schtick that ended up not wearing well, insufferably arrogant and full of themselves…

There are naturally a few differences: VGE was a first-tier politician and with a long record (as Minister of Finance) when he acceded to the presidency, whereas Macron was unknown to the public three years before his election and had never run for public office. VGE had a political party in 1974 and sponsored the creation of a larger structure while he was president—the UDF: a confederation of five distinct centrist and conservative formations—to serve as his power base and a counterweight on the right to Chirac’s neo-Gaullists, and which outlasted his 1981 defeat, whereas Macron’s République en Marche is an empty shell that will most certainly vanish if Macron is defeated in 2022. Like VGE, Macron is expecting/hoping for a rematch with his 2nd round opponent in the previous election, albeit with a different outcome. If it comes to that—which will be really terrible for the political health of France—we can only hope that Macron—however one feels about him—will not suffer VGE’s fate in 1981. Otherwise, le déluge.

Art Goldhammer posted an à chaud remembrance of VGE at Tocqueville 21 and Jim Hoagland, who was based in Paris during VGE’s presidency (and interviewed him more than once), has an obituary in The Washington Post.

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Emily in Paris

Taking a break from politics (ouf). This Netflix series has been the talk of the town—ça défraie la chronique—on my Twitter feed over the past ten days among Americans in Paris and other Francophiles, and has received media coverage on both sides of the pond, with reviews and reports in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Financial Times, and New York magazine entre autres, the leitmotif being the torrent of American stereotypes and clichés in the series about the French and France. As for the reaction here in France, it has been, so far as I’ve seen, largely negative (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here)—i.e. the series has been panned across the board—with the prevailing sentiment summed up in a two-minute commentary by France Inter’s Nicolas Demorand last Friday, who, “hate-watching” (his words, in English) ‘Emily in Paris’, slammed it as “un navet, mon dieu quel navet” [navet = a dud, a turkey].

The cleverest, most amusing commentary has come from the University of Cambridge’s Lecturer in the History of France and the Francophone World, Arthur Asseraf, who has been tweet storming on each episode (the first two are here and here).

I personally had no interest in watching ‘Emily’, particularly after reading some of the above-linked articles and following the Twitter reactions, and declared to one friend that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that I was going to waste my time with this manifest dreck. As I’ve never seen even five minutes of ‘Sex in the City’, creator Darren Star’s claim to fame, there’s no logical reason for me to see this one, even if it has a Paris theme (as if I can’t see Paris every day of the week, on the screen and in real life).

But then last Friday I went on to Netflix to see what was new and, coming across the ‘new & popular’ category, noted that ‘Emily’ was in first place and ranked #1 in France. So I clicked on the trailer, what the hell, just to see. Finding it a total LOL, I thus reflexively, spontaneously clicked on episode 1 and started watching. And, lo and behold, I was LMAO from the get-go. It’s hilarious, the most uproarious comedy I’ve seen since the 2014 knee-slapper Le Crocodile de Botswanga. On the laugh-o-meter, ‘Emily’ is up there with Le Dîner de cons and Didier, indeed Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby.

People are missing the point of ‘Emily’. It’s satire, a parody of American clichés of France and the French—and with Emily (Lily Collins, impeccable in the role) the stereotypical twenty-something American woman, full of exuberance and enthusiasm, whom we adore, but ingénue and clueless. I’m amazed that people, and particularly in France, are at all taking it seriously, let alone taking umbrage. It’s total second degree humor. Obviously the series creator knows that one does not light up a cigarette in an office in France, that the workday does not start at 10:30, that concièreges are not always irritable (and where there are still concièreges, as few buildings outside upscale quartiers still have one). And that there would obviously never be a photo shoot of a woman walking butt naked across the Pont Alexandre III in broad daylight. Allez. The clichés are the point. And the joke is on Americans, not the French.

I’ve watched four episodes so far (at 25 minutes or so each, it’s not a huge time commitment). They remain funny, though the laugh-o-meter has dropped a notch. Will see how the series holds up.

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And police racism. The George Floyd murder and subsequent protest movement have reverberated across the globe, as one is likely aware, and particularly in France, beginning with the big June 2nd anti-police violence rally on the esplanade of the Paris Tribunal—organized via social media by a committee led by the family of Adama Traoré, a black man who died in police custody in 2016 (details here)—and followed up by the comparably large June 13th demo at the Place de la République. The June 2nd event took everyone by surprise; and few Parisians would have come across it, the Paris Tribunal being on the periphery of the city (at Porte de Clichy). As Le Canard Enchaîné reported in its June 10th issue, the intelligence service of the Paris Police Prefecture was blindsided by the unauthorized demo, getting wind of it only that morning and projecting an eventual crowd size of 500 to 1,000, when some 23,000 ultimately showed up. Sociologist Abdellali Hajjat, in a Mediapart post reflecting on France’s racism problem, remarked that the June 2nd and 13th events were the largest anti-racism rallies in France since the final day of the famous 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism. Now that’s noteworthy.

So France’s answer to #BlackLivesMatter is now a durable reality, as is the debate over statues and other historical symbols regarding France’s history of colonialism and slavery. As Abdellali Hajjat observes in his Mediapart post, the American protest movement has spawned an internationalization of the antiracist cause. What is striking here in France is the somewhat panicky reaction of politicians and mainstream media commentators, from the right to center-left, with their hoary invocations of the universal values of the hallowed French republican model, which does not recognize the existence of race or ethnicity—unlike the “modèle communautariste anglo-saxon” of the French imagination—so whatever racism that exists in France can only be epiphenomenal, not at all structural. French politicos and pundits—and French people in general—have a hard time dealing with race and ethnicity when it relates to France’s colonial past—epitomized most recently by the disgraceful manner in which Emmanuel Macron spoke on the matter in his televised address this past Sunday (and which 14 prominent scholars with specialized knowledge of the subject properly shredded in a collective tribune in the June 23rd Le Monde).

When it comes to police violence, French commentators are right to say that France is not the USA; as I wrote in my June 3rd post on the George Floyd protests, there is no comparison between the two countries on this score. French police behave in many nasty ways but do not draw their guns and pull the trigger as do their US counterparts. Swarthy and dark-skinned persons in France may experience humiliations or indignities when encountering flics—the contrôle au faciès, which I wrote about eight years ago and is the subject of a Human Rights Watch report released just last week, is an old and never-ending story, and police violence is a reality (and concerns not only members of visible minorities)—but, notwithstanding bavures that end in a fatality, French persons of color do not fear for their lives as do their counterparts outre-Atlantique (for the latest account on this, see the powerful NYT op-ed by Ishmael Reed).

While the French police are less violent than the American—at least when it comes to killing people—they are no less racist in their attitudes; e.g. the well-known pollster and political analyst Roland Cayrol, who is hardly a woke gauchiste, insisted on this himself on France 5 a couple of weeks back. With 54% of French cops reportedly having voted for Marine Le Pen in the 1st round of the 2017 presidential election (she received 21% nationally), why would it be otherwise? In a tribune in the June 10th Le Monde, social scientist Rachid Benzine and Catholic priest Christian Delorme—who was an initiator of the above-mentioned 1983 march—weighed in on the causes of the hostile relationship between the police and the younger generation of France’s visible minorities. Comparing France and the USA, they observe [N.B. for the benefit of non-Francophone readers, the passages below have been fed through Google Translate and edited]:

And even if, in effect, Emmanuel Macron’s France is not Donald Trump’s America, and if the police of the two countries cannot be equated, what is happening in America works like a magnifying mirror of our own reality.

On the quasi impunity of the police, which in France appears almost to be greater than in the USA:

No government in any country in the world can afford to have its police against it, and that is why, almost every time when violence or racist behavior is reported by members of the security forces, the tendency of political authorities is to almost systematically let them off the hook. The judiciary itself, which cannot too strongly oppose the police as an institution, which is its “armed wing,” also cannot allow itself to too harshly sentence police officers or gendarmes [prosecuted for violent behavior].

Overly flagrant behavior is sanctioned on rare occasions and “bad apples” punished, but for forty years there has been, on the part of government officials and the national police [which is under the authority of the Ministry of Interior], a refusal to question the depth of the dysfunctions in the relationship between the police and “youths of the suburbs” (jeunes des banlieues), a euphemism for young blacks and North Africans.

Benzine and Delorme do observe that the police in France, quite unlike their US counterparts, are often afraid to go into the banlieues, less because they fear for own physical integrity than they might wound or kill someone themselves.

They conclude:

It is therefore urgent to call into question the root causes of this divide between the jeunes des banlieues and the police. These are obviously multiple, notably linked to economic disparities and urban segregation. But they have, above all, a historical foundation: that of a French police force which, after the Second World War, was constructed in the fight against Algerians in France who agitated for Algerian independence.

Since 1954 [when the Algerian war of independence began], the relationship between the police and “visible minorities” has not changed. And whether we like it or not, there is a link between the Algerians who were thrown to the Seine on October 17, 1961, by the police, then headed by the sinister Prefect Maurice Papon, and the black or North African victims of recurrent police “blunders.”

It is a legacy issue. It is a problem of colonial and post-colonial culture. It goes beyond individuals and is thus not a matter of indiscriminately condemning people. But if you close your eyes too much about it, the Republic is, as it were, hitting a wall. As we know: fear leads to violence.

The legacy of Algeria. À propos, I am looking at a (448 page) book on a shelf in my study by political scientist Emmanuel Blanchard, La police parisienne et les Algériens (1944-1962) (Paris: Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2011). Vast subject.

It’s possible that I’ve missed it but I have heard or seen no mention in the media debate over the past three weeks of last fall’s hit film, Les Misérables, the subject of which is precisely the relationship between the police and youthful members of visible minorities (mainly black) in the banlieues. The film is, as I’ve written elsewhere, the best in the North/Sub-Saharan African immigrant-populated banlieue ghetto genre in years, if not ever. It was a box office success, with over 2 million tix sold (a lot for France); received stellar reviews; won the Jury Prize ex æquo at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the 2020 César award for Best Film; was nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film; and was just one of those movies people saw and talked about. If one wants to know about the interface between the police and the “jeunes des banlieues,” the scene in the trailer (at the 0:16 mark) sums it up. Such happens every day somewhere in France and has been experienced by countless youthful members of visible minorities.

The film depicts the day in the life of three cops of the BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminalité), whose beat is the Cité des Bosquets in Montfermeil, a Paris banlieue in the Seine-Saint-Denis (the famous “neuf-trois”: the poorest and most heavily immigrant populated department in France): the rookie good cop (actor Damien Bonnard, always first-rate), the bad cop (Alexis Manenti, who won the César award for Most Promising Actor), and the visible minority cop (Djebril Zonga), who grew up in a cité (public housing project) himself (and visible minority cops being a recent phenomenon in France). The BAC, which specializes in muscular interventions in “quartiers sensibles,” i.e. cités in the banlieues, has a terrible reputation with the youths who encounter it; anthropologist Didier Fassin, who gained authorization to embed himself with a BAC unit in the Paris region for 15 months (in 2006-07)—and wrote a book based on his field work—witnessed up close the unit’s “racist discourse,” “discriminatory practices,” “scenes of humiliation,” “abusive contrôles au faciès,” and the like. As for Montfermeil’s Cité des Bosquets, which has been labelled the “worst ghetto in the Seine-Saint-Denis,” director Ladj Ly grew up there, so knows it rather well. Montfermeil is also particular, as it is, minus the Bosquets, one of the most well-to-do (and “white”) communes in the “neuf-trois.” It has also been (along with neighboring Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 riots started), poorly served by public transportation (until the long-awaited extension of the T4 tram line six months ago), thus isolating it from Paris (and employment prospects for Bosquets residents).

I was interested in the Bosquets/Montfermeil side of the film, as I visited that cité once, in 1998, during the campaign for the regional elections that March. I accompanied a candidate, Jamel Sandjak—a well-known personality in the soccer world of the Île-de-France and an activist in the center-left PRG (an eternal junior ally of the Socialist party)—on a campaign foray into the Bosquets. Three things struck me about the place. First, its spatial isolation. We parked the car in a quartier pavillonnaire—a neighborhood of nice, single-family homes—and walked a half kilometer or so, through open terrain, to reach the cité. It was another world from the main part of the town. Second, as it was a Saturday morning and market day, the commercial center of the Bosquets was bustling, with lots of people out and about. No one looked to be ethnically French. I saw one or two “white” persons—who were probably Portuguese or something, not Français de souche—but everyone else was of North or Sub-Saharan African origin (with maybe some Turks and Sri Lankans). The ambiance was North African-Middle Eastern, not at all French. I indeed had the strange sentiment that I was not in France. Thirdly, the physical state of the cité was terrible. It was run down; in short, a slum—and in contrast to the buildings of the bordering cité (Chêne Pointu) in Clichy-sous-Bois, which were freshly painted and looked not bad. In France, the physical upkeep of public housing projects is the responsibility of local government. So whereas Clichy-sous-Bois had a Socialist mayor, who put money into the maintenance of public housing in his commune, Montfermeil’s ultra right-wing mayor, named Pierre Bernard, did the opposite. A royalist and for whom Jean-Marie Le Pen was too moderate (I’m not kidding), Mayor Bernard—who ran on the partisan label divers droite, which signifies way out there on the right—did absolutely nothing for the Bosquets, needless to say. I was reliably informed that young people who ventured in to the center of Montfermeil were made not to feel welcome—the attitude being ‘get back to your ghetto!’

Bernard’s successor in the Montfermeil mairie—who has seven children and hails from the Vendée (you can’t make these things up)—doesn’t look more moderate. And if what one sees in ‘Les Misérables’ reflects reality, the physical state of the Bosquets has, if anything, gotten even worse. One of the salutary aspects of the film is that it doesn’t focus exclusively on les jeunes but also gives attention to their elders. So one sees the BAC cops interacting correctly with the older men—mid 30s and 40s—who run the local kebab joint or have other above ground jobs—or maybe not—many of whom have done time in prison and almost all of whom have found religion (i.e. Islam). The men are the cops’ informal informants as to what’s going down in the cité. The relationship is uneasy but what choice is there. And then there are the bearded, djellaba-wearing salafis—the heavies—who clearly exercise authority in the cité, moral and maybe otherwise, with the cheeky teenage boys behaving deferentially in their presence, and respectfully listening to their entreaties to come to the mosque and learn about religion. As they are key social actors, the cops also have to deal with them. Again, no choice.

What is so exasperating about the maddening French polemicizing over communautarisme—a bogus neologism devoid of social scientific value—is that while politicians and pundits go on about the supposed existence of this phantasm chez les Anglo-saxons and how un-republican French it is, the very thing they execrate has been happening right under their noses in France for decades, and for which those who head the French state have no response apart from empty ideological exhortations and even emptier promises to fight discrimination. Emmanuel Macron and other politicians can denounce “communautarisme“—and now “separatisme,” whatever that’s supposed to mean—but they have no idea what to do about it. They have not a clue as how to change the reality of the Bosquets or all the other such ghetto cités.

If the French political class were serious about tackling the problems in the banlieues, and particularly the execrable relationship between the police and les jeunes, one positive step would be to legalize the consumption and sale of cannabis and other soft drugs, as the French state’s futile, unwinnable war on drugs is responsible for much of the police-jeunes tension (abusive identity checks, muscular interventions of the BAC, etc; again, see the beginning of the film’s trailer linked to above), not to mention the drug-trafficking gangs that rule the roost in so many cités, and with the consequent criminalization of so many youths, who end up with police records, do prison time, and you name it. But for incomprehensible reasons, the very debate over legalizing, or even decriminalizing, the recreational consumption of cannabis—as has happened in many countries and American states—has remained a near taboo subject in France. Emmanuel Macron endorsed decriminalization during the 2017 campaign but dropped the idea once elected. Even the PS has been skittish on the question.

The portrait of France depicted in the film is not all somber. It begins with footage of the wild celebrations that followed France’s victory in the World Cup final on July 15, 2018—and is the image chosen for the film’s poster—which united Frenchmen and women of all origins. As I posted at the time, the jeunes of immigrant origin waved the French tricolore, not the flags of their parents’ countries. It was a gratifying multiracial/multiethnic moment of communion and celebration.

‘Les Misérables’ has naturally been compared to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 landmark film La Haine, which it does take after (and particularly the final scene). ‘La Haine’, which I’ve seen three or four times, was one of the first in the genre and generated a lot of buzz when it came out: PM Alain Juppé deemed it so important that he held a screening at the Matignon and invited his ministers to attend, and Jodie Foster was so impressed with it that she supervised the English subtitling (she’s a perfect Francophone) and fast-tracked its US distribution. The pic has much to recommend it IMO (e.g. the scene of the three buddies venturing into Paris and their behavior at the vernissage is brilliant), but I am not an unconditional fan. First, the wellsprings of “the hate” that is the film’s theme are not made clear. Second, the fact that the three buddies were multiracial—black-blanc-beur (black-white-North African)—privileged a social class reading of the cleavage over an ethno-racial one, when the reality in the banlieues is the precise opposite. Third, the Vincent Cassel character—the “white”—overwhelmed the two others. Moreover, he was Jewish; I’m sorry but the image of the angry banlieue Jew just won’t fly. It’s not credible. There are plenty of Jews (Sephardi, from North Africa) in banlieue cités (notably in Sarcelles and Créteil)—though their numbers are declining as they move/flee to other parts of the Paris region (and some to Israel)—but their teenage sons tend not to hang out with groups of beurs et blacks. ‘La Haine’ was already surpassed in the genre by Abdelllatif Kechiche’s excellent 2003 ‘L’Esquive’ (English title: Games of Love and Chance) and has definitely been by ‘Les Misérables’.

The 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism, mentioned above, also received cinematic treatment, with the 2013 film La Marche, by Belgian director-actor-screenwriter Nabil Ben Yadir and with an ensemble cast of well-known actors and actresses, including Olivier Gourmet, Jamel Debbouze, Hafsia Herzi, Lubna Azabal, and Vincent Rottiers. The film’s release was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the final week of the march, which arrived in Paris on December 3rd and with tens of thousands having joined in, seven weeks after the original 17 marchers set out from Marseille. It received buzz in view of the anniversary and I naturally saw it right away, but it was a box office failure and received middling reviews (here’s a positive US one), with many criticizing distortions or fictionalizations of the event, plus the fact that the film ended with the December 3rd Paris rally and famous audience/photo op with President Mitterrand at the Élysée (this scene from newsreel footage), when this was only the opening act in a new social movement of French-born children of immigrants from the Maghreb. The film did specify at the outset that it was “inspired” by the veritable history of the march, so there was inevitably going to be some fictionalization (notably with the characters’ names), but I thought it hued fairly closely to the historical record, so far as I’ve read about it at least. Lots has been written on the event but, from a social scientific standpoint, the reference is Abdellali Hajjat’s La Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2013). Excellent book. As for the film, I didn’t think it bad. If one has any interest in the subject, it may certainly be seen.

I will resist the temptation to go on further on the 1983 march, which was a seminal event. Just a few points. First, the catalyst of the march was the abusive or violent behavior of the police toward les jeunes des banlieues (the epicenter at the time being the big cités in the satellite towns east of Lyon). Thirty-seven years later, nothing has changed on that score. Second, the march may have brought the Maghrebi second-generation (les beurs) to the attention of public opinion, and in dramatic fashion, but the political activism of young Franco-Maghrebis was already intense at the time (and a significant part involving the offspring of Harkis, whose situation had its specificities). Associational life in the banlieues—a good part of which was linked to the radical left—was teeming, though associational activists, notably in the Lyon area, were cool to the march. There was, initially at least, not a groundswell of militant support for it. Third, once the march gained media coverage, the political class, both left and right—save the Front National (1983 was its breakout year)—expressed sympathy for the marchers. That the left was in power was important (the Socialists’ efforts to co-opt and tame the élan of the movement came later). Fourth, the historiques of the 1983 march saw their action as following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. One may also note that the 17 original marchers included two Catholic priests—one the engagé Father Delorme—and a Protestant pastor, and that the Lyon chapter of the historically Protestant humanitarian NGO Cimade played a key role. There was little mention of Islam during the march. Matters are somewhat different today.

À suivre.

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De Gaulle

He’s a leading story in the news today, in France at least. If one needs reminding, today is the 80th anniversary of the Appel du 18 juin, the brief address of the great general—though who was not too well known at that moment—to the French people, from London over the airwaves of the BBC, calling on France to continue resisting the German invaders and not capitulate in suing for an armistice—which is what the newly-appointed prime minister, Philippe Pétain, did four days later (de Gaulle returned to BBC HQ on that day to rerecord the address; listen to it here). As we know, hardly anyone in France heard the address and no recording of the original remains, but, as British historian Julian Jackson states in the opening paragraph of his 928-page biography of the general—called “monumental” and “magisterial” on both sides of the Channel and Atlantic—it was with this that De Gaulle “entered history,” ultimately becoming the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century—though as Jackson reminded the audience on France Inter this morning, it could not have happened without Winston Churchill.

There’s so much to say about Charles de Gaulle—I spend several classes on him in courses I teach on France and 20th century Europe: WWII, Algeria, the Fifth Republic and the 1960s—but will just mention the movie here. Churchill got his with director Joe Wright’s  riveting 2017 Darkest Hour—for which Gary Oldman justly won the Academy Award for Best Actor—entirely set in May 1940, when Churchill, almost seul contre tous, refused to capitulate to Hitler. De Gaulle receives like treatment in Gabriel Le Bomin’s biopic, simply entitled De Gaulle, which opened here on March 4th—two weeks before the beginning of the confinement, when all theaters shut down. The film covers the catastrophic seven weeks of the Fall of France, in May-June 1940, and of de Gaulle, literally seul contre tous, refusing capitulation to Hitler. It’s a movie for the masses and a tad hagiographic—de Gaulle is portrayed as both defender of the honor of France and a devoted husband and father (which he was)—but I liked it all the same. On the Allociné scale, I rated it 4.0 (very good). The historical details are accurate and the acting first-rate, notably Lambert Wilson as de Gaulle, Isabelle Carré as wife Yvonne, and Olivier Gourmet as the hapless PM Paul Reynaud. It’s a well-done film, which did not merit the mixed reviews of US film critics I otherwise hold in high esteem. With cinemas reopening next Monday, its run in France will resume. Trailer with English s/t is here.

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Pandemic lockdown: week 6

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

[update below]

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

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

Hôtel de Ville

Rue de Rivoli (at the Louvre)

Boulevard Montmarte

Bd des Italiens & Bd Haussmann

Place de la Bourse

Rue Saint-Antoine

Place de la Bastille

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

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

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

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

I began to lose it this week.

And concludes:

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

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

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

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

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

The worst is just beginning.

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

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

There is so much more to say.

La prochaine fois.

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

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

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Jean-Noël Roy, R.I.P.

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

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

Jean-Noël Roy, né le 26 décembre 1927,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pandemic lockdown: week 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scary.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Jean Daniel, R.I.P.

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

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Jacques Chirac, R.I.P.

AFP photo / Patrick Kovarik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[update below]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris, 19 May 2019

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Notre-Dame de Paris

(Photo: Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Charles Aznavour, R.I.P.

His death is, not surprisingly, dominating the news here today. As I didn’t grow up in France, I was not overly familiar with his music until I started living here permanently in the early 1990s. I’ve been a big fan since, needless to say. If there is a Frenchman or woman who is not a fan of Charles Aznavour, I would like to know his or her name. I’ve had Aznavour’s greatest hits double CD, 40 chansons d’or, since it came out and which I’ve listened to countless times. I will state categorically that Charles Aznavour is France’s greatest singer (chanteur) of our era, i.e. of my lifetime—and my wife, who knows French music better than I, entirely agrees (the greatest chanteuse is, of course, Edith Piaf). If I have to choose my three favorite Aznavour songs, they would be Emmenez-moi—depending on my mood, this one can almost bring tears to my eyes; je suis un sentimental, qu’est-ce que vous voulez—Désormais, and La Bohème.

Aznavour did not retire. His last concert was in January, at age 93. Watch him here at Paris-Bercy last November. His last television interview—25 minutes—was three days ago. And he had a concert tour coming up. At age 94. Amazing.

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In English: The Bureau. In my last post, on Icelandic films, I mentioned the French actress Florence Loiret-Caille, who plays a character in this brilliant, excellent, terrific French TV series created and directed by Eric Rochant, the first three seasons of which my wife and I binged-watched (on DVD; yes we still watch stuff on those) over the past couple of months. I had been hearing about the series—which began in 2015—for the past year, notably from dear friend Adam Shatz, who deemed it sufficiently compelling to devote a post to on the LRB blog (the series may be viewed subtitled in the US and most everywhere else).

In short, the series centers on the deep cover section of the DGSE (the French CIA)—dubbed “le bureau des légendes”—its operatives, and their operations, notably in the Middle East (and principally in Syria, with ISIS and all). It’s a French version of ‘Homeland’ but is far superior (I watched three seasons of the latter before abandoning it). There is no comparison between the two when it comes to the sophistication of the screenplays and knowledge of its subject matter (espionage, the Middle East, etc). The geopolitical knowledge is indeed very good and numerous languages are spoken by the French agents—English, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew—which one does not see in ‘Homeland’, needless to say. The Middle East-North Africa scenes—here, Iran, Syria, Algeria—are naturally shot in Morocco, as in ‘Homeland’, but are pulled off much better (e.g. the scenes in Tehran really do look like Tehran—so much as I imagine Tehran, at least—though the ones in Algiers were admittedly rather obviously shot in Casablanca; bon, a minor detail). And the CIA and Mossad naturally figure.

The pacing is not Hollywoodish, that’s for sure. If you like high octane, edge-of-your-seat action thrillers, with car chases and explosions, ‘Le Bureau des Légendes’ is probably not for you. On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde

As for the casting, it’s stellar, with well-known French actors of the big screen: Matthieu Kassovitz, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Léa Drucker, Sara Giraudeau… And then there’s the Nadia El Mansour character, played by the Franco-Moroccan actress Zineb Triki—her Syrian Arabic accent is impeccable, so I am told—who is quite simply one of the most beautiful women on this planet (there is a developing consensus on this among both men and women I know).

In short, if you loved The Wire, you are certain to feel likewise about ‘The Bureau’, no two ways about it. The fourth season debuts on Canal+ this fall (and which is focused on Russia, so one reads). Will binge-watch when the whole thing is available.

UPDATE: My wife and I binge-watched season 4 (July 2019) on DVD. It’s excellent, as expected, taking place mainly in Russia, with the FSB, CIA, Russian militiamen in Ukraine, and all (and none are good guys—and certainly not the DGSE). The way the final episode ends insures that there will be a season 5. On l’attend avec impatience.

2nd UPDATE: We binged-watched season 5 (May 2020), streamed on Canal+. Excellent again, as expected. It takes place in Russia (Moscow), Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt (Cairo, Sinai), and Cambodia (Phnom Penh). Not too much in Paris. Several of the French agents speak Russian, including Mathieu Amalric’s character, “JJA” (Jean-Jacques Angel), a clin d’œil to James Jesus Angleton (JJA, as the new chief of the bureau, descending into paranoia). Jacques Audiard directed the final two episodes (9 and 10), though will apparently not be taking over the series from Eric Rochant—who’s stepping down—if there’s a 6th season, which the (stunning, unexpected) end of the final episode leaves open.

3rd UPDATE: Uber-pundits Max Boot and Fareed Zakaria praised the series to the high heavens, in a survey (December 16, 2020) of The Washington Post columnists’ favorite series, movie, book, etc of the year.

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

I am presently watching, as I write, the triumphal descent of Les Bleus—who just arrived from Moscow—down the Champs-Élysées in the open top double-decker bus. The crowd—who number in the high six figures, maybe a million, who knows?—is naturally delirious. What a spectacle. After yesterday’s wild-and-crazy final, aptly described by one observer as truly bonkers—if anyone wants to know what I thought of the game as it unfolded, here’s my running Facebook commentary—I went in to Paris to check out the ambiance. La folie furieuse, comme on dit. People were so happy. I took a few short videos, which I tweeted here, here, and here. My wife, who’s down south in Sète, took some pics (here) of the celebrations there. The ‘black-blanc-beur’ thing of ephemeral 1998 fame, which was subject to so much mythologizing, certainly seemed real to me yesterday. The multitudes in Paris—younger rather than older, naturally—were as multiracial/ethnic as you can get in this country, and with everyone so happy and communing together. And as both my wife and I observed, there were far fewer Algerian (and Moroccan, Tunisian etc) flags than in 1998. The young people of Maghrebi origin—not to mention African—were waving the tricolore. It’s a new generation out there, who barely remember 1998, if at all—Kylian Mbappé wasn’t even born—and whose identities are not constructed in the same way as those who are now in their 30s and 40s.

I have more to say and could drone on—for sharp commentary, I refer all to my friend Akram Belkaïd’s blog—but will end this post now, with an open letter to Didier Deschamps by faithful AWAV reader Michel Persitz, who lives in the south of France and goes by the nom de plume Massilian, which he sent me earlier today and that I am taking the liberty of copying-and-pasting

Thank you Didier !

Thank you for resisting all kinds of pressures and having built such a beautiful team of inspiring brilliant young sportsmen who love France, respect the republic and sing the Marseillaise without back thoughts.

Thank you Didier !

Because until late into the night, young people made a great, noisy, joyful, parade on scooters, motorcycles, cars, in the streets of Marseille, waving French flags.

Not so long ago, but with a different coach and a different team, I witnessed noisy parades, with many of the same youth waving Algerian flags because of one stupid demagog brilliant player.

Thank you Didier !

We had the greatest need to teach love of France to our young ones. You showed that hard work, solidarity and fraternity do bring better results than individual egos.

On the other hand, Didier, you gave us a kind of “Französische Mannschaft”, rather cold blooded, solid, very lucid, very technical, very realistic, but whose game aside from occasional brilliant flares of great talent is not that exciting to watch. The contrast with the fiery Croatian, Argentinian, Uruguyan, Belgium teams was striking. Yet I know, they all lost.

I guess you can’t have it all and if I have to choose, considering the benefits for morale of the country, I prefer a winning team. And I do enjoy the perfume of victory. Twenty years ago I was revving up my motorcycle engine and blasting my horn on the Champs-Elysées for the greatest pleasure of my ten years old son screaming and waving his arms behind me.

Football is fine, it is a highly popular sport, but it is only a game. The sudden tsunami that is taking over the country by storm after such a victory and which turns every brave Frenchman into a brilliant, heroic, proud, two-stars Frenchman, amazes me and also scares me a little !

During the world cup, the hazard made me read a book by the great Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999) : “Journal de la guerre au cochon”(1969). I was struck by this sentence : “The strength of demagogues is that they make outcasts aware of their dignity.”

Amitiés triomphales !
Michel

Très bien, though I am personally not worried about some future demagogue channeling the collective joy on the streets and squares of France last night, let alone toward nefarious ends.

À propos, the Bleus’ victory has knocked every other story off the news here today. Nothing on the unbelievable Trump-Putin meeting, which is dominating commentary on Facebook and Twitter feeds from people stateside. More on that very soon.

UPDATE: Vox has a six-minute video (July 10th), which is well worth watching, on why “France produces the most World Cup players.” Spoiler alert: it has to do with immigration, but not only.

2nd UPDATE: FT Paris correspondent Simon Kuper has a nice piece (July 18th) in the New Statesman, “A victorious World Cup team made in the multiracial Paris banlieues: Football is the bit of French society where I’ve seen integration work best.”

Kuper has a similar one in Le Monde dated July 19th, “Des terrains de banlieue au stade Loujiniki, une éclatante réussite d’intégration.”

Don’t miss the post (July 12th), by Australian sports sociologist Darko Dukic, on the Run Repeat blog, “Most World Cup talent are born in France (data analysis).”

3rd UPDATE: Everyone is au courant by now (July 20th) of the exchange between Gérard Araud and Trevor Noah, and particularly Noah’s response to the French ambassador, which has gone viral on social media. I found Noah’s response pretty good, but particularly like the reaction on Facebook by my (Indian-born) friend Leela Jacinto, of the English service of France 24

This identity business is so boring! So, the French ambassador could have been a bit more nuanced. But know what, just ask the players & they’ve reiterated, individually, time & again, they’re French. As I’ve snapped at countless clueless, well-meaning folks, ‘I’m not about to be your little brown girl in the ring. I have a US passport, French residency & I feel at home & a stranger anywhere. So stop telling me who I am.’ When I see first-hand how countries in Asia, Mideast, Africa treat their own immigrants/refugees & their diasporas wank on about hyphenated identities, assimilation blah-blah, I see stones pelted from glass houses. The point is, do you have equal rights, face discrimination – that’s the issue. If you know a country, language, culture well for whatever reason, that’s great. But your identity is your own bloody problem, so stop boring me.

À propos, see Zach Beauchamp’s post (July 19th) on Vox, “Trevor Noah’s feud with France over race, identity, and Africa, explained: The feud involves the World Cup, jokes, differing ideas of citizenship, and Noah’s French accent.”

See as well the provocative commentary (July 20th) by Hudson Institute research fellow Benjamin Haddad, who’s French, in The American Interest, “Multiculturalism and the World Cup: Why American liberals celebrating the French team’s ‘Africanness’ are making common cause with Jean-Marie Le Pen.”

4th UPDATE: See the intriguing analysis by Alternatives Économiques journalist Vincent Grimault, posted June 8th on the Alter Éco website—a week before the tournament began—”Pourquoi la France va gagner la Coupe du monde de football (ou presque).” The reason? Because France has a high level of taxation. N.B. the article, it is specified at the end, is “(relativement) sérieux.”

5th UPDATE: Political scientist and public intellectual Yascha Mounk has a typically thoughtful commentary (July 24th) in Slate, “Trevor Noah doesn’t get to decide who’s French.” The lede: “The Daily Show host says his critics in Europe missed the context of his World Cup commentary. But he’s making the same mistake.”

In his piece, Mounk links to one by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, dated July 16th, that I missed, “The French World Cup win and the glories of immigration.”

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Today is Bastille Day, when people here are supposed to feel a little more patriotic than they normally might—and particularly if they watch the parade on the Champs-Élysées—I never miss it myself (on TV)—and then La Marseillaise at the end, which moves me in a way The Star-Spangled Banner never does (and the way things are going stateside, likely never will). Everyone will certainly be feeling more patriotic tomorrow, with Les Bleus meeting Croatia in the World Cup final. Can anyone who is not Croat and maybe Algerian—for whom opposing France is part of the national DNA—possibly be for Croatia and against the excellent and sympathique French team? I was disappointed England didn’t make it, as I was hoping for a France-England final—ça aurait eu de la gueule—but the Croats deserved to win the semifinal. From the 2nd half onward, they were the superior team. C’était ainsi. Needless to say, the level of excitement here—since Les Bleus’ well-merited victory over Belgium on Tuesday—is palpable, possibly even greater than in 1998.

The 20th anniversary of Les Bleus’ glorious victory over Brazil was two days ago, which everyone born before, say, 1988 is recalling and recounting—me, le vieux, to my daughter (who was 4 at the time) and her friends. It was a great team and with players we all got to know and love. And they have not been forgotten, not a single one (not by me, that’s for sure). It was exhilarating being at Place d’Italie after the game (I was living in the 13th) and observing the wild celebrations. People were so happy. Me too. And then there was the mythologizing over the feel-good ‘black-blanc-beur’ team and ‘la France de toutes les couleurs’. It felt real at the time—and I still think there’s reality in it. Not to be un empêcheur de tourner en rond, though, but in recounting le bons vieux temps to the young people, I nonetheless have to say something that few will admit, which is that the broad French public did not, in fact, jump on Les Bleus’ bandwagon in the 1998 tournament—and despite it being played in France—until after the victory over Italy in the quarterfinal (a soporific 0-0 game at the Stade de France that was settled in a penalty shootout—during which I was so anxiety-ridden that I could barely watch). In the round of 16 game against Paraguay five days earlier—also a soporific 0-0 affair, won with Laurent Blanc’s golden goal in the 114th minute, thus avoiding a shootout against the redoubtable Paraguayan goalkeeper—Le Monde described the crowd in the stadium in Lens as “éteint” (it was, admittedly, a hot, sunny afternoon). At a press conference before the quarterfinal, a frustrated Emmanuel Petit said something to the effect of “Come on people, get with us! We need your support!” (I’m recalling this from memory).

The fact is, France has historically not been a big soccer/football country, at least not compared to the rest of Europe. There are reasons for this: the absence of a major Paris team until the 1970s and of two or more first division teams in other cities, and thus derbys and intense local rivalries (based on rival parts of town, ethno-confessional groups, social class; cf. the UK, Italy, Spain, etc); the preeminence of rugby in the southwest and cycling in the west; the past disinterest, indeed disdain, of the bourgeoisie and intellectuals for the game… Even today, French fans do not travel to games in nearly the same numbers as do their European and other counterparts.

But 1998—and the quarterfinal victory—changed all that, when everyone got with the program and Gloria Gaynor. And everyone is with the program today, in 2018 (though not with Gloria Gaynor, as ‘I Will Survive’ is just so 1998).

As for Croatia tomorrow: we met them, if one will recall, in the 1998 semifinal, for which Lilian Thuram will forever be remembered. The last 15 minutes of that one were among the most stressful of my life, with France playing a man down—Laurent Blanc having been sent off with a red card, for a manifest dive by Slaven Bilić—and fending off a relentless Croatian counterattack. C’était chaud. But we held them off and won.

And inshallah, we will again.

Stade de France, July 12 1998

 

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Antoine Griezmann & Kylian Mbappé,
France-Argentina, Kazan, June 30th (photo: AFP)

[update below] [2nd update below]

The World Cup has now been underway for three weeks but this is only my first post on the tournament, whereas I had ten on the last one, in 2014. I am naturally following this one closely—as I have every World Cup since 1998 (from 1982 to ’94, I only watched the final; before that, I cared not at all about soccer)—but was maybe a little less enthusiastic about it this time, with the absence of soccer powers Italy and the Netherlands, plus other countries that one expects to be there, such as the United States and African powerhouses like Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Cameroon. Too bad none of these qualified, particularly Italy (though I am absolutely not a fan of the Squadra Azzurra). Also disappointing that Team USA was eliminated, in view of the increasing popularity of international soccer in the US (though losing the final qualifying match to Trinidad and Tobago—which is not known for its football prowess—and at home no less, was truly pathetic). Interest in the World Cup is thus down this year in the US, though close to 30% of Americans say they still have some level of interest in the current games, which isn’t bad IMHO.

But the country that mainly interests me is, of course, France, who qualified relatively easily—not having to go to a run-off, as with the last two World Cups, and with near-death experiences—and have played well enough in the group stage (okay, the game against Denmark was a snoozer but we were already qualified for the round of 16). If one had any doubt that Les Bleus have what it takes to go all the way to the final, that was settled with last Saturday’s spectacular victory over Argentina. Now I am not a specialist of soccer/football—I didn’t grow up with the game and do not at all follow league play—so lack the competence to engage in any sort  of commentary on or analysis of the sporting side of it (not that anyone would be interested even if I did). One friend who does possess an impressive knowledge of the subject is Akram Belkaïd of Le Monde Diplomatique, who has had twenty posts on the tournament so far on his blog. The New York Review of Books has also had a running series of essays on the World Cup (and with the latest on the host country Russia).

Back to France and Les Bleus, Rory Smith and Elian Peltier had lengthy piece in the NYT (June 7th), “Kylian Mbappé and the boys from the banlieues.” The lede: “The vast sprawl of suburbs and satellite towns around Paris, disdained by some as a breeding ground for crime and terrorism, is home to the greatest pool of soccer talent in Europe.” Taking up the soccer/banlieue theme from a more academic angle is my friend Paul Silverstein, who teaches anthropology at Reed College, who has a post on the Pluto Press blog, “World Cup summer in postcolonial France.” The lede: “France is a bellwether for postcolonial anxieties and populist politics. Football is the stage wherein these anxieties and politics often play out. In this blog Paul Silverstein, author of Postcolonial France: Race, Islam, and the Future of the Republic, considers how the social and cultural contours of the nation are represented during the 2018 World Cup.” Paul is very smart and knowledgeable but I have a few comments to make on his (jargon-heavy) piece. Maybe later. (N.B. I wrote about the banlieue/immigration aspect in my 2014 series, so am not going to do so again).

A few random comments on the tournament so far, most of the games I’ve watched in whole or part:

Stunning that Germany crashed out in the group stage, and finished last in its group to boot. Doubtful anyone predicted that, particularly after the Mannschaft’s breathtaking victory against Sweden. With that and pathetic Spain’s inglorious defeat by f*cking Russia on Sunday, the bracket is out of whack.

Really disappointed for Egypt and Mo Salah. It would have been nice if they’d at least beaten Saudi Arabia. Also sad for Senegal, which did not deserve its early elimination, particularly after its whacking of Poland.

Portugal-Spain: what a great game! As for Portugal, I’m glad they got knocked out by Uruguay, as I didn’t want to face yet another France-Portugal elimination match (Euro 2000 semi-final, 2006 World Cup semi-final, Euro 2016 final: all stressful and tedious at the same time).

Serbia-Switzerland sure was riveting, not least because of the political and identity issues involved. (I wrote about the multicultural Swiss team in 2014).

Belgium-Japan: what an incredible second half! Great performance by both teams.

Not too impressed with England, who were lucky as hell to advance to the quarterfinals. But I hope they go all the way to the final, where we (Les Bleus) will easily defeat them…

Brazil? Bof. I was hoping Mexico would win that one. Tant pis.

More to follow, after the quarterfinals.

UPDATE:  The excellent Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe, with whom I am normally in 100% agreement on matters Russian (and on most other issues as well), has a piece in The Washington Post (July 2nd) on “Russia’s World Cup win [being] good for Putin [but] Russian dissidents loved it anyway.” The lede: “Beating Spain may make for good propaganda, but it’s also legitimately thrilling.” Nice for the Russians, though one does have to be Russian, or a serious Russophile, to support that country in any team sport, let alone football.

À propos, RFE/RL senior correspondent Peter Baumgartner has an article (June 30th; tweeted by Ioffe d’ailleurs) on the ethnocentrism/racism of Russian soccer, “Russia’s World Cup team bucks multiethnicity seen on Swiss, other teams,” which is one reason, among many others, why I can only hope Russia loses. Always. It begins

While there is a splash of ethnic diversity on virtually every team playing in soccer’s 2018 Russia World Cup, many cite the Swiss national team for setting the standard for being multicultural.

Known affectionately by its fans in Switzerland as “the Nati,” 14 of the 23 members of the Swiss team were either born outside of Switzerland or are “secondos” — a word used by the Swiss to denote the offspring of immigrants.

Switzerland is not the only team that came to the World Cup in Russia with a sizable portion of players from the country’s migrant or ethnic minority communities.

More than three-quarters of France’s team (18 players) are from the country’s varied communities of immigrants, while the Belgians have 11 such players, England 10, and Germany six.

Baumgartner could have also mentioned Denmark’s national team, whose star forward, Pione Sisto, was born in Uganda to South Sudanese refugee parents, as one reads in this piece on The Guardian’s ‘World Cup Experts’ Network’, as well as in Le Monde, which opines that Sisto incarnates “le métissage réussi du football danois.”

Further down the article, Baumgartner writes

In a strange reversal, 17 of Morocco’s 23 players at the World Cup and 11 of Tunisia’s were born in Europe — mainly in France and the Netherlands. They spurned their home countries to play for the birthland of their parents or grandparents.

“Many of the players now choose to play for Morocco instead of the Netherlands,” said Frank van Eekeren, an assistant professor and researcher on sports and society at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

“There is a change [going on] there — I’m not sure if it’s a change in the whole society or just in this particular group that feels a different kind of connection to our country,” he said. “It could be a sign of players that don’t feel at home in the country [in which] they were born.”

It is likewise with Algeria’s national team, which, as we saw in 2014, is mainly comprised of dual-national Franco-Algerians born and raised in France.

As for why these players opt for the national teams of their parents’ countries of origin, the reason has less to do with identity than the fact that they are far more likely to be called up regularly by the Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian teams than the talent-heavy French (or Dutch etc). Professional considerations override personal sentiment. Seriously, if any of those dual-national players on the aforementioned Maghreb teams had been called up by Les Bleus early on in their football careers, what do you think they would have done?

2nd UPDATE: Afshin Molavi, who is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, has an opinion piece (July 6th) in The Washington Post on “What France and Belgium’s World Cup success says about European immigration.”

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Maryam Pougetoux

Okay, hysteria may be excessive. It’s more a brouhaha. Or maybe a tempest in a teapot. But whatever one calls it, it is surely another of those only-in-France incidents in regard to expressions of Muslim religiosity in public space. If one is not au courant of the affair, please read the dispatches by James McAuley in The Washington Post, “For some French officials, the headscarf is such a threat they are attacking a teenager,” and Aida Alami in The New York Times, “The college student who has France’s secularists fulminating.” Both McAuley and Alami, with their “Anglo-Saxon” sensibilities, take a dim view of the reaction by the usual suspects in the French political class and punditocracy to the specter of the 19-year-old, hijab-wearing Maryam Pougetoux being elected president of the University of Paris-IV chapter of UNEF, France’s most important student union. My knee-jerk sympathies are naturally with my “Anglo-Saxon” associates, as well as with more Gallic voices such as that of Rokhaya Diallo, who posted a tribune in The Guardian on “[a] student leader [being] the latest victim of France’s obsession with the hijab.” And my knee is doubly jerked when seeing the charge against Mademoiselle Pougetoux—would I have been as articulate, poised, and self-confident at that age as she—being inevitably led by the warrior for the cause of laïcité de combat, Laurent Bouvet, of whom I am, needless to say, not a fan. I am resolutely not in the camp of the Printemps Républicain. As Monsieur Bouvet has blocked me from Facebook, signifying that he does not want me to read him, I would normally not bother doing so—he is, in fact, one of those pundits I decline to read—but did make an exception here, particularly as he and McAuley have been exchanging barbs on Twitter today.

I hate to say this—this is very hard—but despite my knee jerk reactions, I am not entirely, 100% in disagreement with Bouvet on this very specific matter. As it happens, I had a Twitter exchange with my friend Karim Emile Bitar some two weeks ago on the question of Mlle Pougetoux, in which I expressed conflicted feelings on her being an official spokesperson for UNEF. As a civil society association, UNEF can, of course, elect anyone it pleases to posts of responsibility and it is, in principle, not for non-members to be weighing in on this. And not even the laïcard Bouvet would have a problem with simple members of UNEF—which has historically been linked to the Socialist Party—wearing hijabs or other accoutrements of religious belonging. But… Mlle Pougetoux’s hijab is pretty strict, suggesting strict religious observance. Again, we’re not talking about a simple UNEF member here but a president of one of its chapters. Given UNEF’s history on the French left, I do think this raises some issues. And for UNEF old-timers, it is a problem.

E.g. one may presume that Mlle Pougetoux eats only halal. This is, of course, her right. But if one is strictly halal, this necessarily limits the extent to which one can fraternize with one’s comrades who are not. A personal anecdote: my wife has a couple of nieces in their 20s who are French of three-quarters Algerian origin—they grew up in the Lyon banlieue—and while not veiled, strictly respect halal (they’re under the influence of their Algerian mother, who’s from the bled). Inviting them over to our place for dinner, or to a restaurant in Paris—both of which we’ve done in the past couple of years—is a pain in the ass, as they won’t eat what we serve them (and I’ll be damned if I’m going to buy the beef for my chili con carne at a halal boucherie). And at most restaurants, they can’t order most of what’s on the menu. I told my wife to kindly tell them that if they’re going to maintain their strict halal regime, they will ultimately only be able to have sustained friendships with other Muslims. That is, of course, their right but they will have to make that choice. Just as orthodox Jews, or observant Mormons, find themselves only with their own kind in their private lives. I’m not sure that’s what they want, as they’re otherwise open-minded and on upward social trajectories, but they’ll have to decide.

In Mlle Pougetoux’s case, if she is like our nieces in question, then—if I were a UNEF member—I would have to oppose her being a chapter president and spokesperson. I’m sorry but this is France, and a high degree of religiosity is simply incompatible with exercising posts of responsibility in otherwise laïque civil society associations, and particularly on the left (personally speaking, I would oppose it in the United States too). And it’s not just about religious practice but also attitudes toward certain burning social issues. E.g. what is Mlle Pougetoux’s position on gay marriage or abortion, questions she has so far avoided answering? If she is opposed to these, then she has no business holding a post of responsibility in UNEF. Period. It is, ça va de soi, inconceivable that UNEF would elect a president who participated in the 2013 anti-gay marriage Manif pour tous movement, or is opposed to the Loi Veil. Just as it is inconceivable that UNEF would choose a president who wore a crucifix. Or a kippa, and who followed all the precepts of orthodox Judaism.

That said, politicians should still keep their noses out of this matter. Let the left deal with it. C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.

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May ’68: Fifty years later

It’s not even May yet and the anniversary is already being marked here in a big way, with the inevitable slew of new books, dossiers in the press, documentaries on TV, and the like. As it so happens, I covered May ’68 last week in a course on modern France that I teach to American undergraduates (some of whose parents weren’t even born then) on a semester abroad in Paris. I always enjoy talking about the events and situating them in the larger context of what was happening in the world in that momentous year (which, being 12 years of age, I remember fairly well, the American side at least).

The purpose of this post is not to talk about May ’68—of which I have nothing new or original to say—but simply to link to a very good piece posted ten days ago on NYR Daily, “1968: When the Communist Party stopped a French revolution,” by Mitchell Abidor, author of the just published book May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France. The NYR Daily title is somewhat misleading, as there was never the slightest chance that the student protests and worker strikes of May ’68 would lead to “revolution”—soyons sérieux—but it is useful to recall on this 50th anniversary that the PCF—which represented over a fifth of the French electorate at the time—was deeply distrustful of the students and did all it could to calm the ardor of the younger workers who were on the streets. This was because the PCF understood the “latent conservatism,” as Abidor puts it, of the larger part of its working class base—and because the PCF itself, and in spite of its orthodox Marxism, was fundamentally a conservative party that worked within the system to advance its economic agenda.

Something I’ve been thinking about of late, and particularly with Trump and the evolution of the Republican Party electorate in the US, is that the working class is nationalist and authoritarian almost by nature and if unmoored from labor unions, will not vote for parties of the left (except if they adopt a nationalist, populist, anti-liberal rhetoric, e.g. Jean-Luc Mélenchon). The working class is an essential part of a progressive coalition but only with the existence of robust labor unions. If unions weaken, then the left is in trouble, as workers—those who don’t retreat into abstention—will gravitate to the populist right..

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books leads with an interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit—the ultimate soixante-huitard and antithesis of the PCF Weltanschauung—by German political scientist Claus Leggewie, “1968: Power to the imagination.” Dany le Rouge is my man, qu’est-ce que vous voulez que je dise…

For the best book (in English) on May ’68, see the instant history by Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville, which I posted on several years ago here.

À suivre très certainement.

June 1968 legislative
elections campaign poster.

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