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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

houellebecq soumission

Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and writer in residence at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies—and dear personal friend—has a fine review essay in the latest issue of the LRB on Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission. As one is no doubt aware by now, the novel is about a Muslim takeover of France following the 2022 presidential election, in which Marine Le Pen squares off in the 2nd round against one Mohammed Ben Abbes—candidate of a new (moderate) Muslim party, La Fraternité Musulmane—who, supported by the Socialists and everyone else seeking to block Marine LP, wins. And then the Islamization of France en douceur begins. The pre-publication hype around the novel—which fatefully hit the bookstores on January 7th, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre—made it out to be Islamophobic but Adam says that it’s not, that while “deeply reactionary” it is not only not hostile to Islam but is almost sympathetic. And as Adam emphasizes—as have Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla in their reviews of the novel—the veritable targets for backhanded scorn are the French political class and French people themselves, who willingly, without resistance, slouch towards the new Islamic republic. It is more a commentary on France than on Islam.

Soumission is, not surprisingly, a best-seller, the nº3 ranking novel two months after its release. And one may predict that the English translation, due out this fall, will also sell well. So will I read it? Most unlikely. I’m not a big fiction person to begin with, Houellebecq has a well-known twisted mind, and my fiction-reading wife, among others, says she doesn’t like his style. That’s enough for me. I also find both preposterous and mystifying the lurid fantasy—more in the Anglo-American world than in France—of Muslims/Islam taking over the European continent in the coming decades. It is such a crackpot notion that I will definitively cease listening to or taking seriously anyone—by definition an ignoramus—who adheres to it. For starters, identity Muslims in France—the Western country with the largest Muslim population, in both absolute numbers and percentage—number 4.5 million max (and probably less), representing some 7% of the French population (the higher figures one sees in the media and elsewhere are exaggerations based on not a shred of published data). And the number is unlikely to increase by even 50% in the coming decades, let alone reach 50%. How an ethno-confessional group making up a tenth of the population “takes over” a country is not apparent to me. Moreover, Muslims in France do not constitute a “community,” as Olivier Roy—whom Adam cites—has insisted. It is a disparate population divided by national origin, ethnicity, degree of religious observance, generation, social class, and you name it. French Muslims do not constitute a bloc for anything and there is not the slightest chance in the foreseeable future that even a small number among them will coalesce qua Muslims in the realm of national electoral politics or representative bodies (assertion: there will never be a “Muslim caucus” in the French National Assembly as, e.g., Afro-Americans have in the US Congress; the mere notion is ludicrous). So even if I were a novel-reading person and liked Houellebecq’s style, I am not a science fiction fan, so doubt I would expend time on one based on such a harebrained, science fiction-like premise. The reviews will suffice.

BTW, Adam has a major article coming up in The New York Times Magazine, on the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. Stay tuned.

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Bande-de-Filles

In my December 31st round-up of French films of 2014, I mentioned that I’d have a separate post on films focusing on immigration and ethnicity, of which there were several last year. Le voici. Three discussed here have received nominations for this Friday’s César awards. ‘Bande de filles’ (English title: Girlhood) leads with four, including Best Director (Céline Sciamma) and Most Promising Actress (Karidja Touré). The story, in short: Marieme (K.Touré), a.k.a. Vic, is a mid teen girl of African immigrant stock, who lives with her hard-working mother (hotel chambermaid) and two brothers in a cité in the neuf-trois. She’s generally well-behaved but doesn’t have the grades to get into a lycée général—that would track her to higher education, which she desperately wants—and is thereby told that the only option open to her is a lycée professionnel (vocational high school), which she refuses. Following this setback she falls in with a gang of black chicks (African), led by the cool and cheeky Fily (Mariétou Touré), drops out of school, adopts an attitude, and spends her days with her new BFFs, getting into fights with other girls, riding the RER into Paris to hang out at the Forum des Halles, shoplift, and just fool around. But then the nice boy Ismael (Idrissa Diabaté) takes a liking to Vic and she to him, but as Ismael is a pal of Vic’s dictatorial older brother, who enforces the code of honor of the cités—thereby keeping tabs on his sister’s girl-boy interactions—the budding relationship with Ismael runs into logistical problems. So Vic, who’s basically a good kid, splits from the cité and takes her distance from her girl gang. It’s a coming of age movie about a black teen in the Paris banlieues who is finding her way. I was engaged enough with the film—it is well acted and certainly holds one’s attention—but won’t call it a chef d’œuvre. French critics mostly gave it the thumbs up—N.B. in particular this review on the Africultures website—and their American counterparts positively loved it (the pic opened in the US on Jan. 30th). So as cinema it may be seen; as ethnography—if one is into that—it may definitely be seen. Trailer is here (plus the great scene here of the girls dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”).

A note on the film’s choreographed opening scene, of a team of black girls playing American football, which more than one US reviewer took note of. The scene, which one may interpret as symbolizing the aggressiveness of the social interactions one sees in the film, is, as one reads, a mere clin d’œil of director Céline Sciamma at her favorite TV series, ‘Friday Night Lights’ (the players are from an amateur female American football team in the banlieue).

Also receiving a César nomination is ‘Samba’, by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, who co-directed the 2011 Über hit comedy Intouchables—which sold 19.5 million tix in France, making it the nº2 French film of all time—and became the biggest ever French film at the box office in several countries. And it propelled the career of Omar Sy—already popular with the younger generation—into the stratosphere. So seeking to capitalize on his and the film’s success, Toledano & Nakache made another movie intended to be crowd-pleasing—though this a dramedy, so more serious—with Omar Sy in the lead, and accompanied by top draws Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim (though the pic’s one César nomination went to the relative newcomer Izïa Higelin for Best Supporting Actress). In this one Sy plays an undocumented Senegalese immigrant in Paris named Samba, who has been working hard for ten years (in a restaurant kitchen), causing no trouble whatever and stealing no job from a single French person, and whose boss wants to promote him, except that he doesn’t have papers. Snared by the police, he is subjected to deportation proceedings and sent to a detention center near CDG airport. In trying to avoid deportation, he is assisted by a not very experienced immigration case worker named Alice (Gainsbourg), a corporate executive on extended medical leave for burn-out—which is, as I have learned from a friend who is suffering from it, a serious affliction indeed—who is volunteering her time with undocumented immigrants during her recovery. She is touched by Samba, develops feelings for him, and the two forge a relationship of sorts, which I didn’t find entirely convincing BTW (no spoilers, so I won’t say what does or does not happen between the two, or whether or not the pic has a happy ending). The film, which has its share of bons sentiments and tugs at one’s heart toward the end, is perfectly watchable but is not a chef d’œuvre by any stretch. French reviews were good to very good on the whole, though US critics who saw it at the TIFF were more reserved (here, here, here, and here). The word-of-mouth on the film was obviously good, though, as it sold over 3 million tix, which was nowhere near ‘Intouchables’ but still very good by any measure (and way higher than any other film discussed here). This is good and gratifying, as the film presents undocumented immigrants—and from Africa—in a sympathetic—and accurate—light, as law-abiding, hard-working potential future citizens—should they have the good fortune to have their status regularized—who want no more or less for themselves than any other Frenchman or woman. On this level—and in view of the near toxic nature of the issue in France at the present time, and with the attendant demagoguery and political surenchères—the film is salutary. Trailer is here.

affiche-samba

Also netting César nominations is ‘Qu’Allah bénisse la France’ (May Allah Bless France), a biopic of Abd al Malik (né Régis Fayette-Mikano), the well-known Franco-Congolese (Brazzaville) slam poet and rap singer (I should say well-known in certain milieux, as I was not familiar with his music and other artistic work before the film came out; see the NYT’s 2012 portrait of him here). The pic is directed by Abd al Malik himself—earning him a César nomination for Best First Film—and based on his eponymous 2004 autobiographical novel, though his role is played by Marc Zinga (César Most Promising Actor nominee). The film begins with the teen Régis/Abd al Malik’s life in the tough Strasbourg cité of Neuhof, where he hangs out with his homies, most of whom are drug dealers and petits voyous—Régis/Abd al Malik partaking in petty crime himself—lives with his nurturing (mother-headed) Catholic family, and performs brilliantly in lycée—notably in French and philosophy—resulting in an invitation by the school to enter hypokhâgne after receiving his bac (signifying that he is indeed very bright and with marked literary talent). Needless to say, there aren’t too many cagneux around of his social class and ethno-racial background, so he kind of stands out among his fellow students. He keeps up his friendships with his gangbanger homies, though, and when one with whom he was close gets killed in a gang règlement de comptes, Régis/Abd al Malik decides to convert to Islam (and change his name). During this time he’s writing slam poetry, composing music, and gaining celebrity. Under the influence of the Franco-Moroccan Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani)—his g.f. and future wife—he moderates his religious practice and a spiritual voyage of discovery to Morocco brings about a reconversion, as it were, to sufi Islam, which gives him inner strength, peace, and everything else contemplative, mystical sufism is supposed to do. The film—which is in black-and-white, à la Mathieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine’—is understated, almost low-key. And while one hears the poetry, there should be more of Abd al Malik’s music. The film could have also delved more into what the title strongly suggests, which is Abd al Malik’s (positive) relationship with France. His life experiences and trajectory give the lie to the crap one hears almost daily about problems of integration in France—whatever “integration” is supposed to mean and which I will insist is not a problem in this country—as Abd al Malik is clearly a success story of the Republic (among other things, he has published books with titles like La guerre des banlieues n’aura pas lieu and L’islam au secours de la République). It all goes to show that, yeah, one can be a rap-singing convert to Islam of 100% African stock and love France all the same. The film received generally good reviews in France—for a US review go here and scroll to the end—but was not a box office hit, which is perhaps unfortunate in view of the present-day salience of the immigration issue and the clear message of the film. The word-of-mouth clearly did not work in Abd al Malik’s sizable fan base, a likely consequence of him opting to make a film d’auteur rather than a more conventional, bigger-budget biopic. Trailer is here.

quallah benisse la france

Another recent film with an Islam/immigration focus is ‘L’Apôtre’ (The Apostle), written, directed, and produced by Cheyenne Carron—who was previously unknown to me—which opened in October in exactly one cinema (independent) in Paris, before being released on DVD the following week. The reason why the film played in only one salle: no distributor would touch it, as the subject was deemed too hot to handle. And what is the subject? The conversion to Christianity of a young Maghrebi Muslim. The story: Akim (Fayçal Safi), who’s in his late 20s, lives with his parents, older brother Youssef (Brahim Tekfa), and adoring younger sister Hafsa (Sarah Zaher) in an inner Paris banlieue. The family is close-knit and middle class (living in a house, not a flat in a cité). And they’re practicing Muslims, though “moderate”—mother and sister are not veiled—and with the father’s brother the imam at a nearby mosque. Youssef, who takes his religion seriously, is following in his uncle’s footsteps and it is hoped that Akim will become an imam too, but he declines. One day Akim is invited by his friend Fabien to attend the baptism of the latter’s baby daughter. It was Akim’s first time ever in a church. He is taken by the Catholic ritual and sets out to learn more about Christianity. The interest becomes a fascination, leading to a meeting with the priest of the local cathedral. Deciding that Catholicism suits his spiritual needs more than Islam, Akim takes the plunge and converts. And when he announces to his family that he’s found Jesus, well, a little crisis ensues, and particularly with Youssef, who considers his younger brother—the two are very close—to be an apostate and disgrace to his family. But—spoiler alert!—things work themselves out and there is no tragic ending.

I thought it was a pretty good film—the few reviews of it were positive—and on a topic of vital importance, as the issue of how Muslims deal with conversions out of Islam is a real one. The phenomenon is not insignificant in France, where the Muslim identity population (of some 4 million) is the highest in the Western world (the number of Muslim-to-Christian converts in France is into the five figures and one sees literature tables and other proselytizing efforts by Maghrebi and African Christian converts—mainly evangelical Protestant—in heavily immigrant areas). After seeing the film I was interested to know what kind of reaction it received among French Muslims. But as it played in just one theater—albeit off the Champs-Elysées—practically no one saw it (and no one I know). And I have seen no mention of it on the higher profile French Muslim websites (e.g. Oumma.com, Al-Kanz). C’est dommage. The film merits being seen and discussed. Trailer is here (followed by a 14-minute interview with actors Safi and Tekfa).

There are several more films I’d intended to discuss here. Will do so in a separate post in the next week.

l-apotre

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les-heritiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahmed Dramé_Nous sommes tous des exceptions

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Americans abroad

the other americans in paris

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

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

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

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

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Understanding Charlie Hebdo

charlie hebdo tout est pardonné

I got up early Wednesday morning, along with countless others, to buy the new issue of Charlie Hebdo but all the newsstands in my quartier were sold out, though I was able to get my hands on a copy that evening (via a vital personal connection). And I learn via social media that today, Saturday, the newsstands—which are being resupplied every morning—are still quickly selling out. Everyone will eventually get their copy. One, of course, should buy it out of solidarity but this issue reminds me of why I have not been a CH regular, mainly seeing it though selected articles photocopied at the library (quite unlike that other satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné, which is an indispensable source of information on French politics and that I have bought every week without fail for the past twenty-plus years). The cartoons are typically CH: a few are clever and/or witty, others sophomoric or just not funny. As for the columns, they’re uneven. I’ve long followed Jean-Yves Camus—one of France’s best specialists of far right and antisemitic movements, who has a commentary here on conspiracy theories—and “uncle” Bernard Maris (an older piece of his is in the issue). Charb could be quite good—see, e.g. my post on a commentary of his a year ago on Zionism and anti-Zionism—but he’s not in the issue, of course. I can’t speak to most of the other writers and columnists, who haven’t seemed too interesting (admittedly subjective on my part). This is no doubt the first time most of those who are queuing at the newsstands have ever bought CH (or tried to). I’d be surprised if most will continue to do so, including those for whom it was regular reading during their leftist/anarchist high school and college years—an important past CH demographic—before moving on (pour mémoire, CH’s readers have always been exclusively on the left; right-wingers never look at it). Without Charb, Wolinski, or Cabu, the overall quality of the cartoons—already dubious—will be affected (who knows, maybe they’ll try to hire back the 86-year-old Siné, whose 2009 firing caused a sharp drop in CH’s readership). And CH will need both new writers and new issues to riff on about, as trashing religion is just so boring and has-been. Absolutely everyone in France—including all Muslims—support laïcité (as spelled out in the 1905 law). Going on about it in 2015 is so much flogging the dead horse. It will also be helpful if CH drops its price, which, at €3, is high for what it is (Le Canard Enchaîné—which, like CH, carries no ads—has held steady at €1.20 for years).

The current issue of CH is supposed to be translated into 16 languages, or something like that. What a mistake. Much of CH’s content is untranslatable. Most of those who lack familiarity with French culture, politics, and satire will be scratching their heads, as they often do when reading or hearing about something going on in France. À propos, a week ago, while still in the US, I had an email exchange with an American journalist friend in Paris, who wrote the following

It is becoming harder, not easier, for me to write about CH, because—predictably and as always—I realize that I’m up against an audience that just doesn’t get it. Even France, a country better known to Americans than any other non-Anglophone country, is still an absolute mystery to them. The entire literary tradition they represented means nothing to them; the difference between this and other terrorist attacks is not immediately obvious to them; and once certain rumors start flying around the American media, they are just impossible to dispel…

In this vein, another American friend—who grew up in Paris and lives in Washington—wrote the following on social media the other day, in response to my posting of a New York Observer interview on the Charlie Hebdo massacre with the cartoonist Robert Crumb, who has lived in France for the past 25 years

[Robert Crumb] spent enough time offending “les bien pensants” with his sexually graphic graphics to last him a life time. And yet… He nails it on the head. Yes, there is a fundamental cultural divide (in my humble opinion) between the US and France about what constitutes speech. I was at a dinner several nights ago surrounded by local DC pundits… They were all appalled at Charlie Hebdo and its insistence/raison d’être to satirize to the outer limits anything that smacks of idolatry, statist ideology, dogma, doctrine, establishmentarianism of any sort regardless of political or religious belief. That’s who they are. Get over it! I tried to tell these pundits that no one makes you read Charlie Hebdo. It’s healthy to have a rag like that in the public sphere that pushes the boundaries. It’s there for you to explore. Just like the Marquis de Sade’s writings are available for you to explore the most arcane usages of sexual whatever. Oh no!!! We can’t have that in the US.

How sadly true!

In this trans-Atlantic failure to communicate, the main difference IMO—in culture and sensibility—is the satirizing of religion. America values free speech as much as France does—even more so, I’d argue—but there is a respect for religion in America and a taboo on ridiculing the religious beliefs of others that simply doesn’t exist in France, or at least in a large part of French society (and particularly those on the left side of the political spectrum). As one of my social media interlocutors commented the other day

[Charlie Hebdo is] a hard one to explain to North Americans because it is so culturally specific and subjective. People are not used to seeing this kind of imagery used in the way CH does. Also North American liberals and leftists usually don’t understand enough French and they have an approach that is more direct and preachy. I also think leftists in the States are fundamentally more respectful of religion from the get go. I think this is because religion in the States has been progressive at times: Black church, Quakers, Liberation Theologists, and because religion and the idea of freedom of religion are so central to the culture that progressives in NA have tended to leave it alone and organize coalitions across religious lines around issues that matter.

To which a friend added

I think the greater respect for religion is due to never having had to suffer a state religion. We take that separation (except when the Christian Right tries to throw its weight around) for granted.

I will add to this that liberals and leftists in America cannot conceive of a mass political movement that doesn’t involve the active participation of churches (and synagogues). Every last antiwar demonstration in America of any consequence—in my lifetime, at least—has seen important contingents of church groups (Quakers, Unitarians, Catholics, etc) and other religious organizations. When I lived in New York City in the late ’70s-early ’80s, one of the main sites for leftist political events was the Riverside Church (interdenominational). In Washington DC it was All Souls Church (Unitarian). When I was active in immigration issues in Chicago in the 1980s, associations linked to the Catholic church were important actors in the local activist coalition. And then there was the civil rights movement, almost every last leader of which was a religious figure (Martin Luther King Jr, you name it; and Malcolm X too).  In France, religiously based associations, personalities, and publications have participated in progressive causes over the years—e.g. Cimade, Témoignage Chrétien, Abbé Pierre—but, generally speaking and given the history of conflict between organized religion (i.e. the Catholic church) and the Republic, the benevolence toward religion and close association with religious organizations that one finds on the American left is incomprehensible and alien to its counterparts in France.

Back to Charlie Hebdo, on understanding its cartoons, reader Conor Meleady alerted me to the invaluable website with precisely this name, Understanding Charlie Hebdo cartoons. If you’re a mystified Anglo-American who doesn’t know French—or even if you do—this is where to go to make sense of CH.

Here are a few of the good essays I’ve read (in English) over the past several days:

British-Canadian journalist Leigh Phillips has a terrific piece on the Montreal-based website Ricochet, “Lost in translation: Charlie Hebdo, free speech and the unilingual left,” aimed at leftist Anglo-Americans who have absurdly labelled CH “racist,” “bigoted,” and “Islamophobic” (among these my friend Anne Norton, who had a piece a week ago in the Huffington Post, “Charlie Hebdo and Europe’s rising right,” with which I am, needless to say, in strong disagreement).

Also critiquing a certain knee-jerk, ill-informed reaction to CH on the American left is Seth Ackerman of Jacobin, who asserts that “The Right is trying to essentialize Muslims. The Left should not fall into the same trap.” Money quote

Allergic as I am to intemperate rants, I am equally allergic to insult humor, and that is why I don’t particularly enjoy or approve of cartoons of this genre. But many of the first reactions on the US left — seeing Charlie as a kind of French Der Stürmer — were based on a serious misreading of a paper whose now-dead editor was a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause and a longtime illustrator for the anti-racist group MRAP. (Its slogan: “Everyone is not alike, Everyone is equal.”)

To drive home the point, Ackerman posted on his own “Too Hot for Jacobin” blog his translation of CH religion editor Zineb el-Rhazoui’s December 2013 essay, “If Charlie is racist, then I am.”

To those Anglo-American leftists who think that CH was “racist”: Did you see the TV reports of Charb’s funeral yesterday, where Jean-Luc Mélenchon, entre autres, gave a eulogy and the Internationale was sung? As one distinguished Washington-based political scientist wrote on social media today

Charb, cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, was interred to the music of the Internationale and of a New Orleans jazz band. For me that pretty much sums up Charlie Hebdo.

Addressing the other side of the US political spectrum, Paris-based journalist and friend Claire Berlinski had a salutary post last Monday on a website also called Ricochet—this one a “conservative conversation and community”—that she entitled “Paris update or, “Who should I believe? You or my lying eyes?” Nice job, Claire (though you overstate the facility with which people in France can obtain firearms; hunting rifles are sold over-the-counter but handguns require a prior police permit—which one needs a good reason to obtain—and the private possession of assault weapons is, of course, illegal).

Steven A. Cook, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, has a post on his CFR blog on the “disturbingly equivocal” reaction in Turkey to the CH massacre. Money quote

According to the always-excellent Arun Kapil…

شكرا يا ستيف

Hussein Ibish, the well-known Palestinian-American publicist, has a sharp commentary on the Lebanese website NOW on how “Charlie Hebdo’s latest cover isn’t objectionable; it’s brave and touching.”

Cambridge University prof Olivier Tonneau—and member of J-L Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche—has a “letter to my British friends” in The Guardian, in which he explains that “it’s important to understand the role the magazine played for the French left, rather than judge its content out of context.”

Writing in the HuffPost, UC-Davis law prof Karima Bennoune says that “One week after the Charlie Hebdo attack [we must] refuse to sign up for the clash of civilizations.”

If one didn’t see it, Andrew Sullivan, posted on Wednesday his first commentary on the CH killings, “Charlie, blasphemer,” in which he got it just right.

À suivre, évidemment.

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B6_ozmuIQAAhWPS

I arrived in Paris from the US on Sunday morning, got home toward 1:30, dropped off my stuff, and took the train back to the city to participate in the march (my wife, who was part of her union delegation—in the high-security section of the procession—was already there). I’ve never seen so many people on a Sunday afternoon on the RER line A. And I’ve quite simply never seen so many people on the streets: in my life and anywhere. Everyone has read that, at some 1.3 to 1.5 million (or however many there were; who knows?), it was the biggest march in French history. And in a country where street demonstrations happen rather more often than just about anywhere else. In addition to being the largest march I’ve ever witnessed, it was the most exhilarating, with the countless citizens—of all backgrounds, ages, and political convictions (a few excepted)—turning out on their own volition, in a spirit of fraternity, and to defend and express the values of liberty, democracy, tolerance, and the republic. I was genuinely moved by what I saw during the 2½ hours I weaved my way through the (very dense) crowd, mostly going in their opposite direction. What I continually thought to myself throughout was: Vive la France! I’m a French citizen (for ten years now) and feel it fully.

Everyone has seen the reportages and images of the march. I took some photos—with my Galaxy 4—which may not be as good as these ones, but here they are:

First, the route:
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Corner of Avenue de la République & Boulevard de Ménilmontant (Père Lachaise metro station). I got off at the Philippe Auguste station and walked up. It’s 3:15pm. Weather: around 6°C/low 40s F. No rain or wind. Good day for a demo.

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I am Charlie, Jewish, policeman.

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Marine [Le Pen]: Beat it!

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[OMG] He’s coming back.

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I am Charlie (there are a couple of errors in the Arabic rendering of this but the effort is appreciated nonetheless).

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Solidarity against all fascisms, be they nationalist or religious.

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Lycée Voltaire. Appropriate.

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Atheists are right.

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The banlieue is here too.

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Together united for democracy.

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The hiers of the Enlightenment.

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We’re all French today (en anglais).

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We are Charlie.
Love is stronger than hate.

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We are all Jews, and moreover “I am Charlie.”

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Blood flows but ink remains: CharLiberty.

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The cartoon that made Charlie Hebdo (in)famous outside France (in 2006). Personally, I loved it.

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I am not politicians
I am all the victims
I am freedom of expression
I am Charlie

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I am Charlie Hebdo
Eternal hero in the face of medieval barbarism.

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I am…here to defend non-violence and freedom of speech, with respect for others.

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Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies!

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I am Charlie
I am a cop
I am French
I am Jewish
I am sad

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All the metro stations along the parade route were closed.

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Muriam (private message): In France these are your people.

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Eduardo, this one’s for you:
I am Charlie
France and Brazil
I love France

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America.

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Love is the path to peace.

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Not afraid.

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Tunisia.

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I am Charlie
Cop
Jew
Don’t touch my France

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Let this day remain a popular citizen movement of fraternity in the face of hate, stigmatization, and discrimination.

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There was no chanting of slogans. Just periodic clapping and cheering.

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I think, therefore I am Charlie.

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We are Charlie
Jews
Muslims
Seculars
Long live France
Long live the Republic

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Where is Charlie? I’m here!

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Morocco.

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Intersection of Avenue de la République & Boulevard Richard Lenoir.

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I am Muslim
I am Christian
I am Jewish
I am peace
and Long live the Republic

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Police vans heading up Boulevard Richard Lenoir.

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Cheering the police vans as they passed. As a majority of marchers were no doubt voters of the left—I am quite sure of this—this had to be a first in French history.

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Republic of the Congo. I also saw a DRC flag.

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Turkey.

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It’s now 5:00pm. I’ve been on my feet for two hours.

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I’m now on Boulevard Voltaire, looking toward Place de la République.

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Now walking with the marchers down Bd Voltaire, toward Place de la Nation. There’s some singing of La Marseillaise.

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It’s moving slowly.

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France, LGBT, European Union.

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I decided to hang a right on Boulevard Richard Lenoir and head toward Bastille. This is a spontaneous commemoration spot on Richard Lenoir, near Charlie Hebdo’s office. At this point my phone battery stupidly ran out, so I returned to the spot yesterday (Monday) afternoon to finish taking the pics.

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The spot on Bd Richard Lenoir (50 meters down from the one above) where policeman Ahmed Mrabet was murdered in cold blood by the terrorists during their getaway.

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Looking down toward Place de la Bastille.

20150112_160156Entrance to Rue Nicolas Appert. Charlie Hebdo was at nº 10.

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There are some three dozen people milling about, 24 hours after the march.

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Uncle Bernard.

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Jim Sciutto, CNN chief national security correspondent, reporting live from Paris.

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You wanted to kill Charlie
You have just made him immortal

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I’m getting ready to leave for Paris in a few hours and have lots of stuff to do, so this will be short and to the point. I’ve been riveted to the events in Paris of the past three days, along with several hundred million other people, and have had numerous exchanges on the subject via social media. One theme I’ve been seeing, mainly from English-speakers—academics, journalists, sundry political activists, and the like—is that Charlie Hebdo is a bigoted, racist publication and, in its cartoons on Islam, has, as one academic blogger put it, “targeted a weak and despised minority.” As one who lives in France and has read Charlie Hebdo off and on over the years, I can categorically assert that CH is not bigoted or racist and has not singled out Islam for special treatment. Those who insist that it is and has done these things have most certainly never picked up a copy of CH in their lives, or, if they have—assuming they have the requisite fluency in the French language—maybe done so only once or twice and just to look at its cover cartoon. In other words, they don’t know WTF they’re talking about. The fact is, CH is on the left, targets all religions—but not their believers—in equal measure, and aims its main fire at politicians, and particularly the right (and, above all, the Front National). CH comes out once a week, i.e. 52 times a year. A handful of its issues—less than a dozen—over the past decade have had cover cartoons mocking radical Islamism (not Islam or Muslims). A drop in the bucket in terms of what CH has published. And most of these cartoons have been pretty good actually. Witty and on target. A few in the inside pages—which could only be seen if one purchased the issue, as CH puts almost nothing on its website—were in poor taste (and the cover cartoon from last October on the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram—which was situated in the context of the then French debate on family allowances—was definitely in very poor taste), but, taken as a whole, could in no way be taken as denigrating to Muslims qua Muslims. And then there’s the actual content of CH’s columns and articles, which absolutely no CH detractor mentions (as they have most certainly never read any). I will defy anyone to find any of these—published at any point over the years—that could in any way be considered racist or Islamophobic.

That’s it. I just needed to get this out. I’ll develop it at further length in the coming days—as I have much more to say on the subject—when I’m back in Paris. For my various posts on CH over the past three years—in which I elaborate upon some of what I’ve written above—see the links in the preceding post.

Paris, Place de la République, January 7th

Paris, Place de la République, January 7th

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