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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

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, 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.

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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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