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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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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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