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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They conclude:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

À suivre.

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[update below]

The Democrats are gearing up for their second debate this week, with questions on immigration and the crisis at the border certain to be posed. In informing oneself on the subject, which all concerned citizens should be doing, some advice: ignore the pundits and pay attention to the specialists and practitioners, i.e., to those who know what they’re talking about. A good piece to start with may be found on the Foreign Affairs website (dated July 16th), “Trump’s incendiary rhetoric is only accelerating immigration: The crisis at the border is of Washington’s own making,” by Randy Capps, who is Director of Research for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute.

See likewise the commentary on the MPI website, co-published with the El Colegio de México, by MPI president Andrew Selee et al, “Strategic solutions for the United States and Mexico to manage the migration crisis,” in which five recommendations are advanced, one of which is increasing pathways for legal migration of Central Americans to both the United States and Mexico. If the US wants to reduce illegal immigration, it must increase legal migration, e.g. circular migration schemes (see my post on ‘the border’ from last March). There is no other way.

Another informative commentary may be found on the Washington Office on Latin America website, “There is a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s manageable,” by Adam Isacson et al.

It is well-understood that the majority of migrants trying the enter the US from the southern border are not Mexican but rather from the Northern Triangle of Central America. There has also been an upsurge of Africans, notably from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, which Randy Capps discusses in his Foreign Affairs article:

These migrants are the leading edge of a trend that will likely preoccupy the United States for years to come. African countries have among the highest birth rates, lowest per capita incomes, and most unstable governments in the world. Demographers project that due to rapid population growth and high poverty rates, Africa will produce more international migrants than any other continent in coming decades. Conflicts in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, and Burundi have already displaced millions of people in recent years. And in the DRC, where 4.5 million people are currently internally displaced (300,000 of whom were uprooted in the last month), a combination of ethnic conflict, political instability, and state repression has the potential to produce as many international migrants as conflicts in the Middle East and Central America.

Even though the vast majority of African migrants remain in neighboring countries, more are seeking to leave the continent. Hundreds of thousands headed to Germany, Sweden, and other European countries during the peak of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis in 2015–16. But their main route across the Mediterranean has been cut off as a result of European policies to thwart boat crossings and increasing violence and insecurity in North Africa, particularly in Libya, the most popular launching point. With this route blocked, migrants from the DRC and other African countries are turning their attention elsewhere, including to the United States. (…)

The flow of migrants from Africa and Asia to the U.S.-Mexican border is unlikely to abate soon. The world is experiencing the greatest humanitarian migration crisis since World War II, and most of the displaced are living on those two continents. Until recently, the United States was largely insulated from these pressures by geography. But with refugees and other migrants finding new routes and adapting to shifting policies, that may not remain true for much longer. (…)

On the African migratory flow to the US, see also this AP dispatch linked to in Capps’ piece.

À propos of all this, the latest issue of The New York Review Books (dated August 15th), has an excellent, must-read review essay by Joseph O’Neill on Jill Lepore’s This America: The Case for the Nation, and This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, by Suketu Mehta, who is a naturalized American citizen from India. The gist of Mehta’s argument is that the rich countries of Europe and North America have no moral right to erect barriers to migration from countries in Africa and Asia that were pillaged over centuries of Western colonialism and imperialism. In this respect, Jason DeParle, in a review essay in the August 16th 2018 NYRB on Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, reminds the reader that seven of the ten largest immigrant groups in the US—Filipinos, Salvadorans, Vietnamese, Cubans, Dominicans, Koreans, and Guatemalans—come from countries the US invaded or where it had a large military or imperial presence—and eight if you go back far enough to count Mexico. Salvadorans—the subject of Markham’s book—are here in the US in part because of what we did there in El Salvador, he says. Quoting Markham: “We have played a major part in creating the problem of what has become of Central America.”

Likewise with a smaller immigrant/refugee population in the US that we’ve been hearing a lot about lately: from Somalia, a country the US sent soldiers to in the early ’90s. The initial motives may have been high-minded and humanitarian but the Americans quickly—and calamitously—involved themselves in Somalia’s civil war, the consequence of which was to worsen what was already a nasty tribal conflict—and which saw the entry of new, Islamist actors (Islamic Courts Union, Al-Shabaab) that were themselves a by-product of Washington’s Global War on Terror. Somalia had never been a country of emigration but, thanks in significant part to the United States, it became one.

Back to Suketu Mehta, while one may not share his view that the US and Europe should institute what would be, in effect, a veritable open borders regime with the rest of the world—and I’m not with him on this, for a couple of specific reasons—his argument merits a respectful, well-considered response.

Hari Sreenivasa interviewed Mehta on CNN’s Amanpour & Co. on May 21st, which may be seen here. I don’t agree with Mehta on all the particulars but think he has the big picture right.

Among other things, Mehta aptly asserts that the US could triple the number of Green Cards handed out, to three million a year, and not only would it have no downside but would make the country better. In this vein—and departing from my above admonishment not to pay attention to media pundits on the immigration issue—the NYT’s Bret Stephens—whom I would normally not quote favorably—began his column dated June 21st 2018 with this:

I prefer the window seat.

I like to idle away time on flights trying to guess where and what I’m flying over, without the benefit of the map. I’m hypnotized by the red-beige-brown carpet of California desert; mesmerized by the unbroken wilderness of northern Maine; awed by the peaks and valleys of the Cascades; calmed by the serenity of the Great Lakes.

And I draw a political conclusion: America is vast, largely empty and often lonely. Roughly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, covering just 3 percent of the overall landmass. We have a population density of 35 people per square kilometer — as opposed to 212 for Switzerland and 271 for the U.K.

We could use some more people. Make that a lot more.

Right. If the US population were to double via immigration—to 660 million—the country would still have a lower population density than three-quarters of the member states of the European Union. And like the latter, the US would necessarily have a more elaborate welfare state and greater environmental consciousness—and witness the extinction of the Republican Party in its current form to boot. And what sentient person cannot hope for that!

À suivre.

UPDATE: For those who may have missed it, a polemic was sparked over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referring, on June 17th, to the migrant detention centers on the border as “concentration camps,” with Republicans and right-wing media—plus Jewish organizations—denouncing AOC for what they considered to be an obscene use of the term. Following suit, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington released, on June 24th, a “Statement Regarding the Museum’s Position on Holocaust Analogies,” thus aligning the USHMM with the attacks on AOC. This provoked a response by several hundred historians and other scholars, who signed “An Open Letter to the Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum,” published in the NYR Daily on July 1st.

One critique of the New York Congresswoman was penned by Robert Rozett, who is Senior Historian in the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, in The Times of Israel, “What exactly is a concentration camp, AOC? The prison camps the lawmaker referenced were many things, but they were not detention or internment camps in a classic sense.” Holocaust scholar Omer Bartov was asked by friends and associates to respond to Rozett, which he did on his Facebook page on July 16th:

[H]ere is my response. I’ll now opt out of the rest of this debate since I think I have said everything I can say at the moment.

The article by Rozett makes the obvious point that the Nazi concentration camps were not the same as other detention and concentration camps. It evades the issue that most concentration camps were in fact not where Jews were killed, and that most Jews were not killed in concentration camps. About 3 million Jews died in extermination camps, which were indeed a unique feature of the Nazi regime. The other 3 million were mostly shot where they lived or died in ghettos. The Nazis did not invent concentration camps, and if you read about the horrors of such camps under other regimes and at other times you will discover the family resemblance. Even in WWII, Jews were interned in camps, e.g. in France, that were similar to other detention camps in history, before they were handed over to the Germans, so that such detention camps were a link in the chain leading to extermination. Most important, the term “never again,” as it was understood also by the most prominent and articulate survivors of the Holocaust, was specifically intended to make future generations not repeat the process of dehumanization of other groups of people that could eventually lead to violence and mass murder. It was not meant to prevent what had already happened, which could no longer be undone. What people such as Jean Améry and Primo Levi appealed for was to recognize the humanity of others.

What the current inhabitant of the White House is doing is an intentional dissemination of an idea, and implementation of policies, intended to dehumanize others, be they foreigners, minorities, Muslims, or what have you (including Jews). He is opening the gates, both rhetorically and by bureaucratic measures, to an unmooring of the greatest aspect of American society, from which many, including myself, have benefited immeasurably – the acceptance of people from elsewhere and the fundamental rejection of the blood and soil nationalism that was at the root of Nazism and fascism. The brutality toward children on the border is a manifestation of this new worldview, which must be rejected at all cost because it would undo American society and bring out, as it has already begun, the worst demons that inhabit its fringes.

I won’t go here into the reasons for Yad Vashem’s protection of the notion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which is an ahistorical concept that hampers the very idea of studying the event, something that can only be done by way of comparison. In this I of course supported the letter of hundreds of historians and other scholars to the USHMM (which has yet to respond) for its bizarre rejection of analogies. The current Israeli government has in fact been utilizing the Holocaust in order to legitimize its insupportable policies viz-à-viz Palestinians. Unfortunately, it too has forgotten nothing and learned nothing from the Holocaust, namely, that dehumanizing others dehumanizes oneself. It is tragic to see this same predilection now threatening to erode American democracy as well. This erosion will harm all minorities, and American Jews who believe that they will be spared it are fooling themselves as Jewish nationalists have done in other places in the past. Allow me not to continue this discussion, I am sure there are those who disagree but these are my views.

Historian Timothy Snyder had a comment in Slate (July 12th), “It can happen here: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s decision to speak out against Holocaust analogies is a moral threat.”

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Australia had a parliamentary election on Saturday, if one didn’t know, with the outcome a shocker, as the incumbent conservative coalition led by PM Scott Morrison won against all expectations, the polls having unanimously pointed to a decisive Labor Party victory. One does not have to care one way or another about Australian politics to regret this result, as the very conservative Morrison—who’s a Pentecostal (already one strike against him)—is not good on the climate change issue—which is particularly important there (Great Barrier Reef, etc)—and is downright execrable on immigration, which he was in charge of as a government minister in 2013-14, putting in place Australia’s cruel policy of sending asylum seekers (principally from Iran and Afghanistan) to Christmas Island, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea, where they are kept in what are in effect prison camps for years on end, their asylum applications rejected but with repatriation manifestly inadvisable (if one wishes to read about this—and be indignant—see the reportages by Roger Cohen here and here). Scott Morrison is not a good man.

One of the news articles I read about the Australian election referred to “the cut-throat world of politics in Canberra.” As it so happens, I just watched in the past month—on the recommendation of a political science friend—the full two seasons (six episodes each) of the riveting Australian Netflix series Secret City, which is entirely set in and around Canberra (with a few brief scenes in Adelaide in season 2). It’s all about espionage, geopolitics, and just Australian politics, and boy, it sure is cut-throat, both figuratively and [spoiler alert!] literally. Here’s a brief description from IMDb:

Beneath the placid facade of Canberra, amidst rising tension between China and America, senior political journalist Harriet Dunkley uncovers a secret city of interlocked conspiracies, putting innocent lives in danger including her own.

That’s as much as one needs to know. The screenplay is sophisticated—it’s very well written—the pacing impeccable, and the acting first rate. It’s an Aussie answer to the brilliant French series The Bureau (and is, needless to say, on a far higher level than ‘Homeland’). It’s just all around excellent. In the first season the bad guys appear to be China but that’s somewhat of a ruse, as in season 2 [spoiler alert!], a Deep State theme is developed (yes, there is indeed one Down Under). The message, and which holds everywhere: if you want to know where the real threat to your homeland comes from—to your security and freedoms—look at your own state. The threat is at home.

A sub-theme in season 2 [spoiler alert!] is drone warfare, of Australian military drones in action over Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of the international coalition in that conflict—and of the PTSD-suffering drone pilot having notched 448 kills, so we learn, not all of whom were Taliban and other bad guys. This reminded me of the 2015 Hollywood movie, Good Kill, by director Andrew Niccol, which, to my knowledge, was the first one of its sort to focus on the ethical dilemmas of military drones, here via the états d’âme of the protag drone pilot, played by Ethan Hawke, who kills people in Af-Pak daily—who may or may not be combattants—whom he sees on his console screen at a base in Nevada, after which he goes home to wife and children in his sub-division. The film deals ably with its subject, though is somewhat marred by a Hollywoodish sub-plot about the protag’s marital problems. Reviews were middling, including in France, but the pic may certainly be seen (and Allociné spectateurs liked it more than did the critics).

On drone warfare and the effects it has on the soldiers who wage it via remote control, see the excellent New York Times Magazine article (June 13, 2018) by Eyal Press, “The wounds of the drone warrior.” And going back a few years: “Confessions of a drone warrior,” by Matthew Power, in GQ; “Everything we know so far about drone strikes,” by Cora Currier, in ProPublica; and Jane Mayer’s “The predator war: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” in The New Yorker.

Back to ‘Secret City’, as much as I liked it I hope it doesn’t go to a third season. It achieved closure at the end of season 2. Nothing is left hanging and it said what it needed to say.

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This is an utterly frivolous post that would not have occurred to me even two hours ago. Turning on the idiot box this evening and zapping with the remote, I came across the Eurovision contest on France 2, which I have no recollection of having ever watched in the past but decided to linger on, in view of the controversy over it taking place in Israel (which, not being a BDSer, I could not care less about myself). The pop songs of the different national contestants not being bad at all, one watches, and along the way there was the popular Israeli singer Idan Raichel, who performed an interval act. I hadn’t heard of him. His song is terrific (here). He is apparently of Eastern European heritage but his music has a lot of Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, and Roma influence. Such has been the case with Israeli music for decades now.

One may deplore Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the right-wing lurch of the electorate there but Israel remains a strikingly multiracial, multicultural society, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Then there was the Swedish singer John Lundvik, who narrowly missed winning. Really nice song (here). As for his ethnic origins, they’re uncertain (he’s adopted), but he’s the face of Sweden today.

Likewise with Italy’s contestant, Alessandro Mahmood (half Egyptian)—simply known as Mahmood—whose song (here) almost won.

The Washington Post’s fine Paris correspondant, James McAuley, had a dispatch dated March 12th on France’s Eurovision nominee, Bilal Hassani, a gay 19-year-old of Moroccan origin.

As for who won: Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands (here). Pourquoi pas?

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The border

Tijuana, Baja California

[update below]

The article at the top of The New York Times website late yesterday was headlined “Border at ‘breaking point’ as more than 76,000 migrants cross in a month.” Trump’s histrionics over his famous wall have clearly not deterred migrants and asylum-seekers south of the US-Mexico border from reaching and trying to enter the United States. Asylum-seekers need to be emphasized here, as, according to the NYT article, more than 90% of the new arrivals are from Guatemala. Some of these are no doubt “economic migrants” fleeing poverty and seeking a better life tout court, but one may be reasonably certain that a larger number are quite literally fleeing for their lives.

On this, the March 7th issue of The New York Review of Books has an absolute must-read article by the Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano, entitled “The Migrant Caravan: Made in USA,” though on the NYRB cover it is simply headlined “The nightmare they’re fleeing.” The nightmare is in the Northern Triangle of Central America—Guatemala, El Salvador, and, above all, Honduras—where the levels of violence and death are comparable to countries in the midst of full-fledged civil wars. The organized crime and gang phenomenon—the maras—in the three countries are well-understood, with Saviano, who has gained fame for his work on the Neapolitan Camorra—and at some risk to his life—well-qualified to inquire into the situation there—and Honduras in particular—and further our understanding. In becoming a narco state, Honduras is, in effect, witnessing state collapse, where ordinary people are left to fend for themselves in the face of daily danger to their and their families’ lives. Thus the flight to the United States. And the United States, Saviano emphasizes, bears huge responsibility for the catastrophic situation, in view of its insatiable domestic demand for cocaine and other narcotics, the militarized War on Drugs, flooding the region with weapons during the US-sponsored counterinsurgencies of the 1980s, deporting back to the region young men who had fled to the US during the 1980s and were initiated into the Los Angeles gang culture, et j’en passe. Insofar as the nightmarish situation in the Northern Triangle is largely of American making, the US has a moral obligation in addition to a legal one—if international conventions on refugees and asylum-seekers mean anything—to be generous with Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans arriving at US ports of entry.

Saviano’s article should be obligatory reading for any American who has the slightest interest in what’s happening on the southern border. Or even if s/he has no interest but votes. If you, dear reader, haven’t read it, do so. Now.

In a similar vein is an enquête in Le Monde (Feb. 2nd) by correspondent Angeline Montoy reporting from San Pedro Sula, “Au Honduras, l’exode pour seul horizon.” The lede: “Les caravanes de migrants en route pour les Etats-Unis fuient la misère, la violence et la répression politique de l’Etat d’Amérique centrale.”

And there’s this piece in the NYT yesterday, “Border patrol facilities put detainees with medical conditions at risk.” The lede: “The deaths of two children in Border Patrol custody point to shortfalls in health care provided to migrants, who sometimes arrive with serious illness and injury.”

And this from the NYT (Mar. 3rd): “‘You have to pay with your body’: the hidden nightmare of sexual violence on the border.” The sexual violence is, of course, not only at the border but at every point along the way. And back home.

Seriously, anyone with the slightest sympathy for Trump’s position, or who otherwise favors an ungenerous policy toward Central American asylum-seekers, is a moral midget who should be ashamed of him or herself.

À propos, I recently read a lengthy article in the March 2016 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, “Why border enforcement backfired,” by Douglas S. Massey (who is the leading social science specialist of Mexican migration to the US), Karen A. Pren—both of Princeton University—and Jorge Durand, of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City. The abstract:

In this article the authors undertake a systematic analysis of why border enforcement backfired as a strategy of immigration control in the United States. They argue theoretically that border enforcement emerged as a policy response to a moral panic about the perceived threat of Latino immigration to the United States propounded by self-interested bureaucrats, politicians, and pundits who sought to mobilize political and material resources for their own benefit. The end result was a self-perpetuating cycle of rising enforcement and increased apprehensions that resulted in the militarization of the border in a way that was disconnected from the actual size of the undocumented flow. Using an instrumental variable approach, the authors show how border militarization affected the behavior of unauthorized migrants and border outcomes to transform undocumented Mexican migration from a circular flow of male workers going to three states into an 11 million person population of settled families living in 50 states.

What Massey et al definitively demonstrate in their study has been known for some time, which is that restrictionist immigration policies do not only not significantly reduce migrant or refugee flows—their effect is minimal—but have perverse, unintended consequences, which include dramatically increasing the size of the undocumented migrant population by effectively shutting down longstanding circular migratory practices, increasing the costs to the migrants (and thus considerably lowering their standard of living), and fostering criminal networks (of gangs who lend the migrants the substantial sums of money for their voyage, cross-border smugglers, and the like).

As the article is behind a paywall (accessible for free for those with university accounts), here are a few passages:

By any standard, the surge in border enforcement after 1986 constituted a massive policy intervention into the workings of a vast and complex social and economic system that had evolved since the 1940s in response to changing social and economic circumstances on both sides of the border (Massey et al. 2002). Critically, this massive intervention was undertaken for domestic political purposes and not based on a rational assessment of the forces actually driving undocumented migration or a reasoned consideration of how one might manage it. Whenever a policy is derived in a climate of fear without any real understanding of the actual workings of the social or economic system it aspires to influence, the stage is set for unintended consequences. (p.1563)

And this

Although U.S. policies may have decreased expected net earnings gain from undocumented migration by lowering wages and increasing crossing costs, the net differential in expected earnings between Mexico and the United States never came close to being eliminated. Under these circumstances, the changes induced by U.S. policies functioned less to deter undocumented migration than to compel migrants to work longer to earn back the costs of crossing and make the trip profitable. Moreover, having experienced the risks of a desert border crossing migrants would logically be loath to relive the experience. Finally, given longer stays north of the border and more attachments formed to people and places in the United States, permanent settlement is expected to become more likely. Given these changed circumstances at the border and within U.S. labor markets, we hypothesize little effect on the decision to depart for the United States without documents but strong effects on the decision of undocumented migrants to return to Mexico. (p. 1582)

And the conclusion begins

The principal substantive finding of our analysis is that border enforcement was not an efficacious strategy for controlling Mexican immigration to the United States, to say the least. Indeed, it backfired by cutting off a long-standing tradition of migratory circulation and promoting the large scale settlement of undocumented migrants who otherwise would have continued moving back and forth across the border. This outcome occurred because the strategy of border enforcement was not grounded in any realistic appraisal of undocumented migration itself but in the social construction of a border crisis for purposes of resource acquisition and political mobilization. Although these arguments have been made previously, never before have instrumental variable methods been applied to such a wide range of border outcomes and migrant behaviors to assess the causal effect of U.S. border enforcement.

How Border Enforcement Failed

Our estimates reveal that the rapid escalation of border enforcement beginning in 1986 had no effect on the likelihood of initiating undocumented migration to the United States but did have powerful unintended consequences, pushing migrants away from relatively benign crossing locations in El Paso and San Diego into hostile territory in the Sonoran Desert and through Arizona, increasing the need to rely on paid smugglers, and substantially increasing the costs and risks of undocumented migration. The increase in border enforcement, meanwhile, had only a modest effect on the likelihood that an undocumented migrant would be apprehended during a crossing attempt, one substantially mitigated by the greater use of coyotes and higher quality of services they offered, and no effect at all on the likelihood of gaining entry over a series of attempts.

The combination of increasingly costly and risky trips and the near certainty of getting into the United States created a decision-making context in which it still made economic sense to migrate but not to return home to face the high costs and risks of subsequent entry attempts. (…) (p. 1590)

And some policy options

Aside from doing nothing, however, there were other policy options available to officials beyond attempting to suppress migration through police actions at the border. One such option would be to accept Mexican migration as a natural component of ongoing economic integration under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Between the agreement’s implementation in 1994 and 2010, for example, total trade between Mexico and the United States rose 5.3 times, while according to data from the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics (2014) entries by business visitors increased 3.6 times, exchange visitors 6.2 times, tourists 12.1 times, intracompany transferees 17.4 times, and treaty investors more than a thousand times. Within an integrated economy, people inevitably will be moving.

As the experience of recent decades has shown, however, in practical terms it appears to be difficult if not impossible to integrate markets for goods, commodities, capital, services, and information while keeping labor markets separate (Massey et al. 2002). A more realistic option would have been to manage migration in ways that benefit both nations while protecting to the degree possible the rights and interests of both migrants and natives, much as the European Union did with the creation of its internal labor market (Fernandez-Kelly and Massey 2007; Massey 2008, 2009). Ironically, a more open border would likely have produced less permanent immigration and slower Mexican population growth in the United States by facilitating cross-border circulation. Indeed, the recent analysis of Massey, Durand, and Pren (2015) shows that documented migrants are now the ones circulating back and forth between the two nations, even as undocumented migrants remain trapped or “caged in” north of the border.

Rather than blocking the revealed preference of the typical Mexican to move back and forth temporarily for work in the United States, policies could have been implemented to encourage return migration, such as lowering the cost and risk of remitting U.S. earnings, paying tax refunds to returned migrants, making legal immigrants eligible for U.S. entitlements even if they return to Mexico, and cooperating with Mexican authorities to create attractive options for savings and investment south of the border. The billions of dollars wasted on counterproductive border enforcement would have been better spent on structural adjustment funds channeled to Mexico to improve its infrastructure for public health, education, transportation, communication, banking, and insurance to build a stronger, more productive, and more prosperous North America and eliminate the motivations for migration currently lying in ineffective markets for insurance, capital, and credit (Massey 2008). (…) (p. 1595)

The Washington Post has a report (Feb. 7th) from Nogales, Arizona & Sonora: twin cities divided by a border but that have always existed in symbiosis, with families on both sides, people crossing back and forth freely… Until the militarization of the border, with a wall and concertina wire separating the two cities as in a war zone. According to the Post, the city of Nogales AZ—which has had no say in the matter—has had enough. Borrowing from Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!”

UPDATE: On circular migration, see the paper by Patrick Weil, “All or nothing? What the United States can learn from Europe as it contemplates circular migration and legalization for undocumented immigrants,” published in 2010 by the German Marshall Fund of the United States in its Immigration Papers Series.

Nogales, AZ (credit: Jonathan Clark/Nogales International/AP)

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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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Jihadi terrorism, that is. The news was dominated this past week by the terrorist attack in Manchester. There is not a sentiment I can express about it that hasn’t been by everyone else. Targeting youngsters for death and maiming, and at a festive event no less: ça dépasse l’entendement. One has no words. Je ne sais pas qu’est-ce qu’on peut dire de plus.

I did not scour the internet for articles to read on the atrocity, though stumbled across a few, such as this one from The Independent, “Salman Abedi: How Manchester attacker turned from cannabis-smoking dropout to Isis suicide bomber;” Emily Crockett’s comment in Rolling Stone, “Why Manchester bomber targeted girls: As is so often the case, misogyny was woven into this act of violence;” and the report in The Telegraph that the security services ignored reports from Muslims in Salman Abedi’s neighborhood about his erratic, worrisome behavior. And this editorial in The New York Times: “When terrorists target children.”

Some ten days ago I took a group of a dozen journalists from Denmark, who work the immigration/Islamic radicalism/terrorism beat in their country, on a walking tour of “immigration and the changing face of Paris,” which I periodically lead for the Paris office of Context Travel. The leader of the group was a sharp Copenhagen journalist named Jakob Sheikh (he’s Danish-Pakistani), who has reported extensively on the radicalization of young Muslims in Denmark. Two articles of his have been translated into English, which are particularly pertinent at the present moment, “My childhood friend, the ISIS jihadist,” in Mashable (October 15, 2014), and “Meeting the foreign fighters: how does Islamic State recruit thousands of Westerners?,” in the New Statesman (December 1, 2015).

My mother emailed me the other day, asking, in the context of the Manchester atrocity, if I had done a blog post on Udayan Prasad’s 1997 film My Son the Fanatic, the screenplay of which was written by Hanif Kureishi (and inspired by his 1994 short story in The New Yorker of the same title). I have not, in fact, had a post on the film, as it’s been over ten years since I last saw it. The one thing I’ll say about it here—in addition to it being first-rate and with a great performance by lead actor Om Puri—is that it remains, twenty years after its release, one of the best cinematic treatments one will find of the religious radicalization of the youthful offspring of immigrant families from Muslim countries—here, Pakistanis in the British Midlands—and of the perplexity, indeed despair, this provokes in their parents, who seek nothing more than to work, better their families’ lives, and integrate into the receiving society. But their children feel no such need to “integrate”—whatever integration for them is supposed to entail (those who yammer on about this never say)—or to keep their heads low and not make waves, because they were born into that society and are of it. Anyone interested in the subject should see the film (which is available on Netflix). The late, great Roger Ebert’s review of it is here and the trailer is here. See also Hanif Kureishi’s piece in The Spectator last December 10th, “‘My son the fanatic’ revisited: Can one generation’s mistake be corrected by the next?”

À propos, jihadi terrorism has been the subject of some six French films—feature-length, that have opened theatrically or were initially slated to—over the past couple of years, all which I have seen. If there’s a pic on the topic, I’ll see it, no matter how mixed or negative the reviews. And the reviews are often this, as of the six or so films in question, only one gets the thumbs up from me—more or less—and may be recommended—more or less—which is Le Ciel attendra (English title: Heaven Will Wait), by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar (who also directed the 2015 Les Héritiers). Moreover, it is the only one of the six or so that found an audience (330K tix sold, which isn’t too bad for a film of this genre).

The story is of two typically French middle-class teenage girls, Sonia (Noémie Merlant, nominated for the ‘most promising actress’ César for her performance) and Mélanie (Naomi Amarger, who lives in Créteil in the film, près de chez moi), with stable, loving families (Sonia’s father is Algerian but totally laïque) and who are doing well at school, but have become self-radicalized, via the internet, into Islamic State-style jihadi Islam. The film depicts their solitary descente aux enfers into Islamic extremism, the desperation of their parents (Sandrine Bonnaire plays the mother of Sonia) when they realize what is happening, and then the efforts to deradicalize them in therapy sessions led by the anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who plays herself.

Bouzar has had a high-profile in France over the past decade, for her work on Islam and France—she publishes a book a year—and the tidy subventions she has received from the state for her association—the Centre de Prévention contre les Dérives Sectaires liées à l’Islam—and proactive work on deradicalizing French adolescents who have returned from Syria, been caught trying to get there, or contemplated doing so. For the anecdote, I saw Bouzar speak to a packed auditorium at the École Militaire, which seats 700, in January 2015 and which was streamed live to audiences throughout the world, but with her face blurred on the screen for security reasons (as if it was not already well-known to those who would want to know it). She was quite the star.

As for Bouzar’s arguments on self-radicalization and how to counter it—which I won’t try to summarize here—I found them interesting enough, though she has been severely criticized by academics and others who work in her domain, for, entres autres, her exclusive focus on juridical minors (those under age 18), emphasis on converts to jihadi Islam (including heretofore non-practicing Muslims), and of Facebook and other social media as a vector of radicalization. Bouzar and her work are controversial among practitioners and specialists, who consider her analysis of the wellsprings of jihadi radicalization to be problematic (there is also a personal side, as all of Bouzar’s university degrees were obtained after age 35, so she is not considered by some to be a bona fide member of the academic club, even though Olivier Roy was her doctoral thesis supervisor).

Back to Mention-Schaar’s film, French reviews were good (Paris press) to very good (Allociné spectateurs), though Hollywood critics who saw it at the Locarno film festival—here, here, and here—found it unsubtle, overly didactic, and with unconvincing performances. I won’t quibble with the stateside critics, though their objections didn’t bother me as much. One didactic point in the pic’s favor is that it depicted the reality of jihadi self-radicalization in this web 2.0 era by teenagers who have never set foot in a mosque or had actual face-to-face contact with real live salafis. Trailer is here.

As for the other films:

Made in France, by Nicolas Boukhrief: This was scheduled to open in theaters throughout France on November 18, 2015, and with big eye-catching posters (below) in the metro stations and elsewhere in public in the weeks prior. But then there was the terrorist atrocity of November 13th. Bad timing for the pic, the release of which was naturally postponed to a later date, and with the distributor finally announcing that it would go straight to VOD in January ’16 and not open theatrically at all. So one had to see it chez soi, on the small screen. That’s okay. It’s a by-the-numbers thriller, about a Franco-Algerian journalist named Sam (Malik Zidi) who infiltrates a jihadi cell in the Paris area (an alternative English title of the film is ‘Inside the Cell’) to land the big scoop. But then he gets caught in the engrenage—from which he cannot extricate himself—with the fanaticized cell leader Hassan (Dimitri Storoge), who is determined to commit a terrorist atrocity (spoiler alert: nothing happens), and flanked by the other cell members, all stock characters: Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed), the not-too-bright Maghrebi thug; Sidi (Ahmed Drame), the black, who’s not a bad guy deep down; and Christophe (François Civil), the Français de souche convert who’s settling personal scores. A genre film from A to Z. While entertaining, it’s not on the same pedagogical or sociological level—if one is looking for that—as Philippe Faucon’s 2012 La Désintégration. And the depiction of the cell—comprised of men who have not personally known one another for long—is of a bygone era. Jihadi terrorist cells in Europe nowadays are invariably composed of blood relatives. Hollywood press reviews—here and here—are more positive than for ‘Heaven Will Wait’. Trailer is here and interview with the director in The Guardian is here.

Les Cowboys, by Thomas Bidegain: This one, which opened two weeks after the November 13th atrocity, is less about terrorism than the sudden indoctrination of one’s child into a cult—here, salafi Islam, presumably terrorist-inclined—though which is not actually seen. It’s an odd film and from the opening scene, of a Western-style rodeo and hootenanny, with everyone dressed up like cowboys and cowgirls, contra dancing to country music, eating barbecue and burgers et le total, except that they’re all French people in the Bas-Bugey and in precisely 1994, when the story begins. Alain (François Damiens), Stetson on his head, is dancing with his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, who then vanishes from sight. Alain and his wife, Nicole (Agathe Dronne), find a letter she has written them, saying that she has moved on to another life and bids them adieu. As they quickly learn, she has absconded with her petit ami, named Ahmed, who had become a salafi. She could be in Algeria—then in throes of the Islamist insurgency, though Ahmed’s Algerian immigrant parents, whom Alain knows, have no idea—the Middle East, Afghanistan, or anywhere. So Alain sets out on the obsessive quest to find his daughter, which takes him to Yemen, Pakistan—where he is helped by an American CIA type (played by John C. Reilly)—and other points on the globe, and that spans 17 years, though with him being killed in an automobile accident along the way, and with the search continued by his son (and Kelly’s younger brother), Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), who finally, maybe locates his sister in 2011.

Reviews of the film were good, including in the US, and with Damiens and director Bidegain receiving César nominations. It certainly held my attention, though I had mixed feelings about it. One understood Alain’s desperation as a father but his persona irritated me throughout, with his incessant blowing his stack and flying off the handle. And the ending left me unsatisfied. Bidegain was, as every review took care to mention, inspired by John Ford’s 1956 Western ‘The Searchers’, with Damiens obviously the John Wayne character and modern-day Muslims the savage Comanches. Having never seen ‘The Searchers’, I got it on Netflix in the US after seeing ‘Les Cowboys’. I was fully aware that Ford’s classic is considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest Westerns ever made—that, e.g., Martin Scorsese considers it one of the greatest films ever, period—but, personally speaking, thought it was crappy 1950s dreck, with wooden acting, a stupid story, and racist in the way it portrayed American Indians. And my mother, who has highbrow film tastes and knows well American cinema of the ’50s—when she was a young adult—entirely agreed with me. And no patient explanation of the film’s qualities will change our minds. Voilà. ‘Les Cowboys’, despite its flaws, is better. Trailer is here.

Taj Mahal, by Nicolas Saada. This one opened three weeks after the November 13th terrorist attacks. It reenacts the November 2008 terrorist operation in Bombay by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba—that lasted three days and killed 164 people—entirely from the perspective of an 18-year-old Franco-British girl named Louise (Stacy Martin, the protag in “Volume 1” of Lars von Trier’s preposterous 2014 ‘Nymphomaniac’), who found herself trapped during the attack in a suite at the Taj Mahal hotel, where she was staying with her parents. One hardly sees the terrorists as they maraud through the luxury hotel on their murderous campaign, the idea presumably being that one is supposed to feel the terror of a potential victim as she hides in the suite, keeping in touch with her parents, who are outside, via mobile phone.

I saw the film at an avant-première—on precisely the seventh anniversary of the first day of the attack—with the director and part of the crew present, plus members of the Association Française des Victimes du Terrorisme, who wholeheartedly endorsed the film. The intentions of the director were laudable and the film does have some merit—it was partly shot on location in Bombay—but unfortunately it’s a turkey. If one is expecting a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat thriller, this film is not it. One is struck by the blasé, low-key attitude of the parents (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Gina McKee) as they await the dénouement of the terror attack, and with their daughter at imminent risk of violent death. If it were me and my wife, we would, at minimum, be panic-stricken, if not downright hysterical. The general sentiment of Hollywood press critics is that the film was “inert” and low energy (here, here, here, and here). French reviews were more respectful—possibly because director Saada was a longtime critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, so a member of the club—though Allociné spectateurs were not so indulgent. The pic, needless to say, was a total box office failure. French audiences simply didn’t want to see such a film less than a month after November 13th. Trailer is here.

Salafistes, by François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem. This is a  71-minute documentary that opened in late January 2016 and to controversy, as the Ministry of Interior sought to prevent its release—arguing that it constituted an “apology for terrorism” (a criminal offense in France)—and with the Ministry of Culture then trying to forbid it for persons aged 18 and under (which, in France, is exceedingly rare). The film, which finally opened in two theaters in Paris, consists of actual footage, by Mauritanian co-director Ould Salem, of Timbuktu under the rule of AQIM; interviews with radical salafi theologians in Mali, Mauritania, and Tunisia; and then raw footage of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq carrying out horrendous acts, one of the more shocking being IS fanatics in their pick-ups racing down a desert highway in Iraq, machine-gunning every car they pass, just for the hell of it. In your face. My attitude during the film was who needs this? I am sufficiently well-informed on the subject, the film wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, and watching psychotic people commit acts of gratuitous sadism and mayhem—not to mention salafi theologians (or “theologians”) blather about their crackpot Weltanschauung—is just not something I enjoy doing. But various persons thought the film worthwhile, e.g. former Le Monde editor-in-chief, Natalie Nougayrède, who wrote in The Guardian that “Salafistes is gruelling viewing – but it can help us understand terror.” And Claude Lanzmann, writing in Le Monde, called the documentary a “véritable chef d’œuvre…d’une grande beauté formelle, rapide, efficace, très intelligent,” and slammed the government for trying to block or restrict its release. And The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer also recommended it. Voilà, comme vous voulez. Trailer is here.

Voyage sans retour, by François Gérard. No one saw this film, or practically. It was slated for release in September 2013 but, in the month prior, was subjected to a campaign of denigration on social media, accusing it of being “Islamophobic,” with a lawsuit filed against it by a dodgy (subsequently disbarred) lawyer named Karim Achoui and actor Samy Naceri, who had a secondary role in the pic, entering into a conflict with the director and also trying to thwart its release. Director Gérard—who is ethnically Algerian (malgré his name)—denied that his film was in any way Islamophobic but the damage was done. It opened in only a couple of independent salles in the Paris area and was gone within two weeks. Vanished into the ether. I saw it via the internet a couple of years later (and needed help from a movie streaming-savvy colleague in finding the pic). In a nutshell, it’s about a Toulousian voyou named Kad (played by Gérard), who runs afoul of a gang of dealers, is obliged to hightail it out of France to England, where he is dragooned into an international terrorist organization, ends up in India and then Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he undergoes terrorist training, and with the idea that he will return to France to commit attentats. But then in Bombay, he runs into a former teacher of his, Nadine (Marie Vincent), who happens to be living there, the two develop sentiments for one another, and with her convincing him of the error of his ways. But he is not out of the woods yet.

The film was said to be loosely inspired by the story of Khaled Kelkal, though I didn’t perceive this at all. The review in Le Monde (one of the few) maintained that while “[f]ragile certes, imparfait assurément, Voyage sans retour est un document choc sur le recrutement des djihadistes dans les banlieues françaises, ce qui le pare d’une dimension testimoniale et pédagogique estimable.” This is too nice. All in all, it is not a good film. The sequence in south Asia is not credible—and particularly the relationship with the former teacher—the acting is mediocre, and one doesn’t give the film a moment’s thought after it’s over. If one wants to see the trailer, voilà. If one wants to actually see the film, good luck.

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Protest at the French embassy, London, August 25th (photo credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Protest at the French embassy, London, August 25th
(photo credit: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]

It is now mid September and the burkini brouhaha, which had France in a state of hysteria the entire month of August, has yet to abate. The story doesn’t end, in large part because it’s about much more than the burkini. The brouhaha over this banal article of clothing is merely the latest installment in the never-ending obsession in France over the visibility of Islam and public display of religious identity by a minority of French Muslims—and with the very real threat of terrorism by Muslims fueling public fear and anxiety, and offering irresistible temptations for demagogic politicians to capitalize on this.

The reaction outside of France as to what’s happening here is also attracting attention, notably the New York Times article of September 2nd that gave voice to hijab-wearing Muslim women in France and Belgium, and that the Times had the excellent idea to translate into French, guaranteeing that it would be widely read in France. And it was, getting under a lot of peoples’ skins in the process, including that of PM Manuel Valls—a warrior for laïcité de combat who wants the burkini banned—who felt compelled to respond to the NYT, penning a piece in Le Huffington Post (September 5th)—translated into English under the title “In France, women are free“—which, in turn, provoked a rejoinder from the NYT but also from Le Monde, which referred to Valls’s “charge bancale” (shaky accusation) against the Times.

Then, last Tuesday, Libération’s Brussels correspondant Jean Quatremer unleashed a diatribe on his Libé blog against the reaction of the “Anglo-Saxons” to the burkini affair, “Burkini, voile: les racines religieuses des leçons de ‘tolérance’ anglo-saxonne,” which was followed on Wednesday morning by France Inter’s political analyst Thomas Legrand, whose daily political editorial was consecrated to the apparent “Anglo-Saxon” incomprehension of French-style laïcité: “Laïcité, la France et les Etats-Unis ne se comprennent pas.” (Oh, how nice it would be if the French could cease talking about “les Anglo-Saxons,” of reflexively throwing the United States and Great Britain—two countries that differ on a myriad of domains—into the same sack, and then seeing them as a repoussoir…).

Now Messrs. Quatremer and Legrand so happen to be among my favorite French journalists and for many years now: Quatremer for his excellent reporting on the European Union, plus other things (e.g. he was one of the first journalists to call out DSK for his unacceptable behavior toward women and denounce the omertà of his colleagues in the media on the matter); Legrand for his brilliant analyses of French politics, with which I am in full agreement 98.5% of the time. I listen to his three-minute “édito politique” every weekday morning at 7:45, and if I’m still in my beauty sleep at that moment, I catch up with it on the France Inter web site. When it comes to analyzing French politics, Legrand is the best. Point barre. These two gentlemen are my heros in French journalism. So understand my dismay in reading/listening to their above mentioned back-to-back commentaries, which were quite simply awful. Legrand’s was the worst I’ve ever heard by him and Quatremer’s was ten times worse than that. It was a disaster. As we are Facebook friends, I informed him on his comments thread last Wednesday that he was “à côté de la plaque,” “[qu’il s’est trompé] de A à Z,” and that I would take apart his piece point by point. We had a good exchange—he didn’t seem ruffled by my bad humor (though some of his FB friends were)—with me promising to respond to him at length on my blog, and him saying he looked forward to that (je lui ai dit que j’allais le faire en français, même si ça me prendrais plus de temps, mais il m’a dit qu’il n’y avait pas de problème si j’écrivais en anglais, donc j’ai mélangé les deux).

So here it is, followed by my critique of Legrand’s editorial. N.B. I write here in a fraternal spirit, as my admiration for these two gentlemen and their journalism is in no way diminished by their commentaries on this one question.

M. Quatremer writes: 

Ne nous y trompons pas : le débat va bien au-delà de la place de la religion musulmane (dans sa version islamiste) en France, les critiques étant tout aussi virulentes à l’égard de la politique française à l’égard des sectes, aucun Anglo-saxon ne comprenant pourquoi l’Église de scientologie, pour ne citer qu’elle, n’est pas reconnue comme une Église comme une autre.

M. Quatremer, you are laboring under some misconceptions here. En effet, ce que vous dites est sans fondement. First, on the Church of Scientology, with which I have been personally familiar since precisely 1973 (as Scientologists used to proselytize in public in my Chicago suburb and, in my adolescent naïveté, I would engage them in conversation): I have never—not once, ever, not a single time in my now long life—heard about an American—let alone met one—who considered the Scientologists to be anything other than a bizarre cult (en français, une secte bizarre). I guarantee you that no American who is not him or herself a Scientologist—or maybe a friend of Tom Cruise or John Travolta—considers this “church” to be a legitimate religion comme les autres. Everyone views it as a cult (une secte). When I tell my American students in Paris—niveau bac+2, en France pour un semestre d’études—about the French campaign against the Scientologists—which I have occasion to do when teaching the subject of laïcité à la française—not one expresses disapproval of the French attitude. And they all think the Scientologists are a weird cult.

So why are the Scientologists considered a religion in the US and with the US government scolding the French and Germans for their anti-Scientology campaigns? There’s a story to this. First, the one organ of the American state that may formally accord the status of a religion to a group claiming this what it is is the Internal Revenue Service (le fisc fédéral). Organized religions (les cultes) in the US have tax-exempt status, which only the IRS can accord. From the founding of the Church of Scientology until 1993, the IRS rejected the Scientologists’ repeated requests for tax-exempt status, insisting—correctly—that this so-called church was in reality a profit-making enterprise. So what the Scientologists—who are not nice people—did was to initiate an underhanded campaign of intimidation against the agents of the IRS who were handling the Scientology dossier. Ils ont lancé une guerre d’usure contre le fisc. And as the Scientologists had a lot of money—with all the Hollywood stars and other rich people they had succeeded in indoctrinating—they could and did intimidate the press and anyone else who stood in their way, via lawsuits and outright personal harassment (and engaging highly-paid lawyers when hit with lawsuits themselves). Pour avoir la paix, the IRS, in 1993, threw in the towel—il a jeté l’éponge—and gave the Scientologists the tax-exemption they had sought (it is also possible—and this is pure speculation on my part—that there may have been some quiet lobbying of the Clinton administration by personalities in the motion picture industry toward this end, with Hollywood having had close ties to both Clinton’s entourage and the Scientologists; for more on all this, see the lengthy 1997 enquête in The New York Times).

The second part of the story is the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which was cooked up by the Republican-controlled Congress of the time, enacted with a veto-proof majority, and signed into law by President Clinton. The Act made the promotion of religious freedom an objective of US foreign policy and, entre autres, obligated the State Department to submit an annual report to Congress on the state of religious freedom in every country in the world. So in conformity with the law, the US embassy in Paris has reported annually to its hierarchical superiors in Washington on the state of religious freedom in France—and noting the status in France of the Church of Scientology, recognized as a religion in the US—which the State Department has dutifully noted in turn in its obligatory report, and with the US government—conforming to the law—expressing its pro forma concerns on the matter to the French government. And with the French government taking the American letter of concern and throwing it in the poubelle—and with no one saying anything more about it.

I guarantee you, M. Quatremer, that no one in Washington or at the embassy in Paris could have cared less about the anti-Scientology lawsuits in France or the French state considering the Scientologists to be a profit-making enterprise and not a religion.

As for “virulent” critiques of France’s policy toward sectes (i.e. cults), from whom? Who has been “virulent” about this? Do you have any examples?

Again, M. Quatremer, I guarantee you that no one in Washington, London, or anywhere else in the “Anglo-Saxon” world, who is not him or herself a member of a secte, cares what happens in France on this score.

En France, les défenseurs du droit des femmes musulmanes intégristes à couvrir leur corps à la plage ou ailleurs

M. Quatremer, serait-il possible d’éviter le mot “intégriste” quand vous parlez de l’islam? Ce terme est polémique et péjoratif, et qui ne veut rien dire en ce qui concerne l’islam. Aucun spécialiste—universitaire ou journalistique—de l’islam ou des musulmans ne le utilise. Et il ne se traduit même pas en anglais (par ex., “intégrisme catholique”—which is the only legitimate use of the term—is called “Catholic traditionalism” in English).

As for Muslim (and other) women having the right to cover their bodies on the beach and elsewhere, well, that is their right, is it not? I mean, France is not only a free country but also a civilized one, which is not going to tell women what clothes they may or may or not wear when they venture out of their homes. Et on ne va certainement pas les obliger à exposer des parties de leur corps sur la plage qu’elles n’ont pas envie d’exposer. N’est-ce pas? One certainly hopes not.

Seriously, this burkini hysteria in France is completely ridiculous. It is an only-in-France affair.

C’est moins le débat sur le burkini ou le voile qui m’intéresse ici que les raisons sous-jacentes aux critiques de la presse anglo-américaine… elle a manifesté là une gigantesque incompréhension de ce qu’est le modèle français

Question: what precisely is this famous “modèle français”? The law of 1905? If this is the model you have in mind, there no “incompréhension” whatever. The 1905 has its specificities but is entirely comprehensible to any “Anglo-Saxon.”

Let us continue:

et les Français qui se sont réjouis de ces critiques n’ont pas mesuré à quel point le modèle britannique et américain est différent du nôtre, un système dont ils ne voudraient par ailleurs à aucun prix : place de la religion, liberté d’expression, relativisme culturel, autant d’éléments qu’il faut prendre en compte si l’on veut comprendre la nature profondément différente du débat en France, en Grande-Bretagne ou aux Etats-Unis.

In point of fact, the American and British “models” of church-state relations differ more from one another than the American does from the French. The United Kingdom has an official church—the Church of England—whereas in the United States of America church and state are separated. As France also separates church and state, the USA and France are on the same side and against the Brits. Les Amérloques sont plus proches aux Frenchies qu’ils ne sont aux Rosbifs… Sérieux!

D’abord, la place qu’occupe la religion dans le monde anglo-saxon est particulière : la laïcité à la française n’y existe tout simplement pas.

Ça c’est vrai. La laïcité à la française ne peut pas exister aux USA ou ailleurs, pour la simple raison qu’elle est française. La laïcité à la française ne peut exister qu’en France, de même que, par ex., la laïcité à la turque (laiklik) ne peut exister qu’en Turquie, et la laïcité à l’américaine (secularism) ne peut exister qu’aux États Unis d’Amérique. Et ainsi de suite. Les relations entre l’État et les cultes sont spécifiques à chaque pays. They are a product of each country’s history and culture.

Certes, l’État est séparé de l’Église, mais en ce sens qu’il est neutre à l’égard des religions, qu’il n’en favorise aucune en particulier. Mais, la religion est partout. Toutes les religions sont autorisées en vertu du premier amendement de 1791 : «le Congrès ne fera aucune loi qui touche l’établissement ou interdise le libre exercice d’une religion».

Religion is indeed more present in the USA, as is the overall level of religiosity in American society. But this is cultural. It has nothing to do with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the constitution—which you cite—which defines the relationship between religion and the state. Just as Article 1 of the 1905 law—”La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes sous les seules restrictions édictées ci-après dans l’intérêt de l’ordre public.”—defines the relationship between the French state and religion, though does not speak to society. That French society may be non-practicing or atheist in its majority or, rather, deeply religious—as was the case for a sizable portion of Frenchmen in 1905—is immaterial in regard to the 1905 law. The 1905 law, as with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US constitution, speaks to law, not to culture. And the Establishment Clause and Article 1 of the 1905 law—the bit about “ordre public” aside—are really very similar.

Depuis 1956, la devise officielle est «in god we trust» et elle figure même sur la monnaie américaine.

This has been deemed constitutional, as it refers to god, who is common to all and not to a specific religion. Those who don’t believe in god may, for good reason, object to this. Quant à moi, en tant qu’athée—et depuis ma petite enfance, n’ayant eu aucune instruction religieuse de mes parents (athée et agnostique)—je m’en fous. La devise “In God we trust” est purement symbolique, sans conséquence aucune. Son inscription sur la monnaie me laisse totalement indifférent, comme pour le plus grand nombre d’athées outre-Atlantique. C’est du folklore américain.

Mieux, le président américain prête dans la quasi-totalité des cas serment sur la Bible (mais c’est une pratique non obligatoire).

This is a French classic, à soulever le fait que les présidents américains prêtent serment sur le Bible (quoique cette pratique, comme vous dites, n’est pas obligatoire). À propos, in 2005 I attended a colloquium in Paris, at the Palais de la Justice, on French and American conceptions of laïcité/secularism, with prominent specialists of church-state relations in the USA present, among them the well-known constitutional law professors Sanford Levinson and Marci Hamilton. During the intermission I had the opportunity to ask these two august scholars about the constitutionality of the president swearing the oath of office on the Bible. They both told me that, in their well-considered view, this did indeed violate the letter of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and certainly did its spirit. Voilà. But so long as a citizen did not file a formal lawsuit against a newly elected president doing this, there would be no jurisprudence on the question.

Résultat, même les sectes les plus extrémistes y ont droit de cité (des Mormons de l’Utah aux Amishs, en passant par les Témoins de Jéhovah, les Scientologues, etc).

What precisely is a “secte” (in English, a cult)? Juridically speaking, the term is not defined, either in France or the US. So here’s how I define it: a group calling itself a religion (a) that is small in number, (b) that is led by a guru figure with an all-powerful hold over his faithful, (c) that espouses beliefs that are far removed from the mainstream and are considered bizarre or weird by just about everyone outside the group, (d) in which members disconnect from, or outright sever relations with, persons outside the group, including their families, and (e) where there are severe costs, including threats, against members who wish to leave the group. If one accepts this definition of a cult, the Mormon church—a religion with some 15 million mostly prosperous adherents worldwide—is decidedly not one (as for the Amish, this is an Anabaptist community dating from the 16th century, so please don’t call it a secte; and likewise for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who’ve been around since the 19th century). And none of these three can be qualified as “extremist,” whatever one means by this.

Vous avez certainement entendu la vieille boutade, qu’une religion est une secte qui a réussi…

On compte aux États-Unis plus de 450.000 églises et ce n’est pas demain la veille qu’un président officiellement athée pourra se faire élire.

450,000 churches in the US, a country of 320 million inhabitants? Is that a lot? In France—whose population is one-fifth of the US’s—the number of religious edifices is around 100,000. On an atheist being elected president of the United States, who knows? Ten years ago who could have imagined that a métis—seen in the USA as black—and with a middle name of Hussein could have possibly been elected president? Pas moi. Things don’t happen until they happen.

De toute façon, je parierai qu’il y aura un président athée ou areligieux aux USA avant que la France laïque n’élise un président de la République d’identité musulmane…

À cela s’ajoute le respect absolu de la liberté d’expression, pendant de la liberté religieuse totale : on peut proférer toutes les opinions même les plus extrémistes, qu’elles soient racistes, antisémites, négationnistes, etc. L’existence officielle du KKK et d’autres groupes suprématistes blancs sont là pour le montrer.

On frise la basse polémique ici. Je ne vois pas le rapport entre le KKK, groupes antisémites etc, et la question de la laïcité. M. Quatremer, vous savez pertinemment que la liberté d’expression aux USA est dans le premier amendment de la constitution et que ses paramètres sont définis par les arrêts de la Cour suprême, pas par le législateur. C’est une particularité du système américain. Ça on le sait.

En outre, la société britannique reste une société de classe strictement hiérarchisée où chacun fait ce qui lui plait dans sa classe sociale tant que l’ordre social n’est pas perturbé.

Voilà une caricature d’une autre époque de la société britannique. Ce cliché était exagéré même il y a deux générations—en fait, il a toujours été exagéré—mais en 2016?… Allons.

By the way, do you believe that class consciousness has been less important in France than in Great Britain? Or that the hierarchies in British society are steeper? Academic studies of the question (e.g. this) have, in fact, shown the opposite, that France is a more hierarchically ordered society than Great Britain. Just saying.

Enfin, outre-Manche, tout comme outre-Atlantique, la liberté d’expression y est quasi absolue, héritage de la rupture avec Rome et ses dogmes. Cette liberté a néanmoins ses limites, des limites marquées au coin de la religion : pendant longtemps, l’homosexualité a été durement réprimée (alors que la polygamie des sectes était admise)

Until very recently homosexuality was repressed everywhere, not just outre-Manche et Atlantique. As for polygamy, this has always been illegal in the United States. In this respect, the state of Utah, which was founded by the Mormons, could not be admitted into the union (which it was in 1896) until the Mormon church formally abolished polygamy.

et, comme dans une banale théocratie, les États américains n’hésitent pas à s’inviter dans le lit de leurs citoyens. Ainsi l’Alabama a interdit, jusqu’en 2014, la fellation et la sodomie, même au sein des couples hétérosexuels, la Virginie interdit de faire l’amour en pleine lumière ou encore le Dakota du Sud impose que les hôtels aient des chambres à lits jumeaux séparés de 60 centimètres si le couple réserve pour une seule nuit. Il est même précisé qu’il est formellement interdit de faire l’amour au sol, entre les deux lits… Les lois et pratiques de la plupart des États américains sur les atteintes à la pudeur n’ont rien à envier aux pays musulmans.

M. Quatremer, the United States of America is a big country—the size of a continent—with a large population and a federal system of government. And there are countless jurisdictions, each of which enacts local ordinances (arrêtés municipaux) on all sorts of things. America is a country and society where one finds everything and its opposite. Aux USA, on a tout et son contraire. In America, if you look for it, you will find it. The laws and ordinances you mention were enacted a long time ago—many in the 19th century—and most have been long forgotten. In any case, none of these silly laws in any way affects the lives of the near totality of the American population.

rappelons le scandale du Nipplegate

Ouf. I’d forgotten about that one. So what’s the point?

Allons un peu plus loin et rappelons à nos amis américains que la ségrégation à l’égard des Noirs, peuple fondateur des États-Unis d’Amérique, n’est pas si lointaine – en considérant même qu’elle ait vraiment cessé — et que les États-Unis n’ont pas hésité, il y a 70 ans à enfermer dans des camps tous les Américano-japonais parce que soupçonnés d’être génétiquement des ennemis…

Vous frisez encore la basse polémique. Je ne vois absolument pas le rapport entre la ségrégation raciale du passé, ou le traitement des Japonais-américains pendant la seconde guerre mondiale, et le sujet de départ de votre article. Où voulez-vous en venir?

Par ailleurs, si on veut parler des méfaits des USA du passé, parlons de ceux de la France aussi, par ex., de son histoire coloniale et les massacres qu’elle a commises—particulièrement en Algérie, le pays d’origine de la majorité des musulmans en France—et, tant qu’on y est, l’implication de l’État français dans la déportation des juifs pendant la guerre… Si on veut parler de l’Histoire, parlons de l’Histoire.

Better yet, let’s just stick to the subject at hand.

Si une femme musulmane française voilée affirme sans rire qu’elle est moins bien traitée qu’un chien alors qu’une autre se demande si on ne va l’obliger à «porter une lune pour être reconnue» (heu, ça n’est justement pas le but du voile ?), que pourraient dire les Afro-américains, eux, qui peuplent les geôles américaines et qui n’ont pas intérêt à avoir affaire à la police blanche s’ils ne veulent pas être abattus…

Encore la basse polémique. What do imprisoned Afro-Americans have to do with the personal opinion of one Muslim woman on the way she feels treated in France? Personally speaking, I do not see the connection.

Enfin, rappelons que ce sont les Anglo-américains qui se sont jetés à corps perdu dans des guerres contre des pays musulmans avec les résultats que l’on voit, ce qui accroît le sentiment d’une guerre entre le monde occidental et le monde musulman. Les leçons de tolérance des Américains sont assez étonnantes à l’heure où le candidat républicain, Donald Trump, veut interdire l’accès du territoire aux Musulmans, ce qui est autrement plus grave que quelques interdictions municipales du burkini. Faut-il aussi rappeler que la ville de New York s’est opposée à la construction d’une mosquée à proximité du mémorial du 11 septembre ? Et on n’a guère entendu les Anglo-saxons lorsque tous les pays d’Europe de l’Est ont refusé d’accueillir des réfugiés parce que musulmans. Mais le burkini, voilà une atteinte intolérable aux droits des femmes musulmanes…

M. Quatremer, l’article du New York Times vous a manifestement mis de mauvaise humeur, as you’re throwing everything at it but the kitchen sink (expression américaine): the Iraq war, the Ground Zero mosque, Donald Trump… Ouf!

Allez, none of these have anything to do with the subject of the NYT article.

And by the way, you are mistaken that the ville de New York opposed the Ground Zero mosque. The mayor of the time, Michael Bloomberg, strongly supported the project, as did the Manhattan borough president and many other local elected officials, plus the current mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Il ne s’agit pas de dire que le modèle français est parfait, ce qui n’est manifestement pas le cas, mais qu’il est différent : la liberté d’expression n’est pas totale (diffamation, lois mémorielles, répression du racisme et de l’antisémitisme)

Freedom of expression—a value that I think we are all deeply attached to—is not total anywhere. E.g. the Official Secrets Act in the United Kingdom is far more severe than its equivalent in the US, as are British libel laws. And commercial speech in the US is not protected by the First Amendment. As for lois mémorielles in France, I think these are terrible, as I have written on more than one occasion (if one is interested, see here, here, here, and here).

l’espace public est étroitement réglementé

Qu’est-ce que vous voulez dire par “l’espace public”? La rue? Si oui, vous avez tort, car celle-ci n’est pas étroitement réglementé en France. La France est un pays libre—et heureusement—où les gens peuvent s’habiller en public comme bon leur semble (pourvu qu’ils ne dissimulent pas le visage, bien entendu).

la séparation de l’Église et de l’État est absolue (sauf en Alsace-Moselle)

The Alsace-Moselle exception. Guyane aussi. Ce n’est pas rien. In America, there are no exceptions to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. And in France, there are several domains where the church-state separation is not total, e.g. the state subsidizing confessional schools (Loi Debré)—which is impossible in the United States—and paying for the upkeep of places of worship built before 1905 (provided for in the 1905 law). Some ten years ago, when my daughter was in collège (public) we received a letter informing us of the school’s service d’aumônerie (chaplain services). I was astonished to learn this existed in public schools in laïque France, as such is impossible in public schools in the US, laïcité à l’américaine oblige (and with, par ailleurs, public schools in the US educating a higher percentage of school children [90%] than the public system in France).

And then there’s the Bureau Central des Cultes in the Ministry of Interior. There is no such official interlocutor with organized religion at any level of the American state.

Conclusion: les États-Unis d’Amérique sont, à maints égards, plus laïque que la France. Je ne rigole pas.

l’Église catholique ayant été renvoyée dans ses églises avec une violence dont on n’a pas idée aujourd’hui

Vous exagérez. Le conflit entre les deux France autour de la loi de 1905 était âpre mais le sang n’a pas coulé dans les rues. Je ne crois pas qu’il y ait eu mort d’homme.

Même la langue française a un statut incompréhensible pour le reste du monde (c’est la seule langue admise par la Constitution et une Académie veille à sa pureté)

Many countries in the world have an official language and which is inscribed in its constitution. This is incomprehensible to no one.

Bref, invoquer l’exemple de «tolérance» anglo-américain est donc un non-sens puisqu’il ne se découpe pas en tranche et qu’elle est religieuse. Est-ce de ce modèle dont nous voulons ?

I have no idea what you’re talking about here. And believe me, no one is proposing that France exchange its precious “model” for another.

N.B.: Il y a 7,5 % de musulmans en France, le pays occidental qui en compte le plus, 4,6 % en Grande-Bretagne et 0,8 % aux Etats-Unis. Même s’ils sont à prendre avec d’infinies précautions, ces chiffres de 2011 restent intéressants, car ils montrent aussi la spécificité de la France qui accueille forte communauté non chrétienne.

France has the largest Muslim population in the Western world—in both percentage and absolute number—on account of its colonial past. Some 85-90% of Muslims in France have roots in former French colonies. And France’s complex history with its largest Muslim colony—Algeria—explains at least in part its neurotic relationship with Islam and its present Muslim population. But that’s for another discussion.

Moving on to Thomas Legrand’s editorial (if one is still with me…). It begins with a question by Patrick Cohen, followed by M. Legrand’s response:

Vous revenez sur la polémique entre le New York Times et Manuel Valls à propos de la condition réservée en France aux femmes voilées..

Oui, le quotidien new yorkais a donné la parole à des musulmanes, françaises ou vivant en France. Précisons que ce n’est pas une enquête journalistique mais un appel à témoignage. Ces femmes ont des mots très durs, parlent de ségrégation et dépeignent une société française largement hostile. Manuel Valls a réagi à cet énième portrait d’une France raciste. Il estime que ne pas avoir donné la parole à des Françaises musulmanes qui ne portent pas le voile (l’immense majorité) produit une image déformée de notre pays. Il l’a écrit au journal, qui lui a d’ailleurs répondu. Cet échange entre le 1er Ministre et le NYT montre, encore une fois, le mal que nous avons à faire comprendre à l’étranger notre rapport collectif à la religion. L’idée que l’Etat, ou même la société politique, puisse contester à la religion le droit de vouloir édicter des règles de vie sociale est une idée totalement incomprise, singulièrement dans le monde anglo-saxon.

A couple of remarks. First, if Manuel Valls and other Frenchmen who adhere to his conception of laïcité have a hard time being understood by non-French people, maybe it’s because their arguments are not good. Maybe Valls & Co are trying to defend something—the right of the state to interfere in the decisions of women as to what clothes they may or may not wear—that is, in fact, almost impossible to defend before non-Frenchmen.

What M. Legrand says here reminds me of something I read two or three years ago by the conservative American intellectual Walter Russell Mead, who, writing on his visit to Europe (including France), sighed about the difficulty he had in trying to explain to uncomprehending Europeans the attachment of Americans to the Second Amendment of the US constitution (sur les armes à feu) and, as he put it, the preference of the American people for “small government.” My reaction in reading Mead on this was that if his European interlocutors couldn’t comprehend him, maybe it was because what he was arguing was, objectively speaking, incomprehensible to European sensibilities—and, one may add, to those of a very large number of Americans too. No European who is not slightly batty can comprend the unrestricted, over-the-counter sale of semi-automatic rifles and other weapons of war such as exists in large parts of the United States, and of the legal right of people to parade around in public with these, including in schools and stores. Yes, the world-view of the National Rifle Association is indeed a difficult one to explain in Europe (and including in Anglo-Saxon Great Britain, where the consensus view is that Americans are crazy when it comes to firearms).

As for “small government,” if Mead means by this that Americans prefer that the government not organize social insurance schemes such as health insurance and old-age pensions—that this be left up to the private sector and not be obligatory—then, yes, Europeans will not understand this, and rightly so (what Mead suggested about the preferences of Americans also happens not to be true, but that’s another matter).

So back to Manuel Valls and those who support his laïcité de combat, yes, they will indeed have a difficult time explaining to non-Frenchmen that the state should have the right to tell women what clothes they may or may not wear. If you’re trying to sell an objectively shitty product—here, a conception of laïcité that is liberticide and that, in effect, discriminates against believers of one religion in particular—people are not going to buy it.

Second remark. No religion in France is “dictating the rules of social life” to anyone. M. Legrand implicitly essentializes Islam and then implies that it is telling women what to do and wear. But no one has any evidence that Muslim women in France who wear a headscarf or burkini are being ordered to do this, that anyone is telling them to do anything.

The editorial continues:

Manuel Valls est-il le mieux placé pour mener ce débat ?

En France, pourquoi pas, même si l’on peut considérer qu’il est parfois un peu raide sur le sujet, le 1er Ministre, chef de la majorité, est tout indiqué es-qualité pour donner sa définition de la laïcité, en débattre et, le cas échéant, proposer au parlement de préciser, adapter la loi dans l’esprit, du moins, du consensus patiemment établi depuis 1905. Mais ça, les Américains ne le comprennent pas. Ils sont organisés en communautés agrégées (ont la même prétention universaliste que nous) et n’admettent pas que l’Etat se mêle des préceptes d’une religion. Et pour eux, quand le chef du gouvernement se préoccupe des droits (et devoirs) des femmes musulmanes, il empiète forcément sur les libertés d’une communauté et donc sur les droits de l’Homme.

Americans organized in “communautés agrégées”… Voilà, le fameux communautarisme anglo-saxon… This is one of the most hackneyed clichés (clichés éculés) in the French ideological repertoire. It is a French fantasy. A figment of the French imagination. And a tremendous French conceit, as Frenchmen who speak about “communautarisme anglo-saxon”—which is never defined or explained—are implicitly asserting the superiority of the supposedly universal French model over that of the imagined “Anglo-Saxon.”

In fairness to the French, it should be pointed out that French academic specialists of the United States never employ the term “communautarisme”—a neologism devoid of social scientific value—in their work on the US.

Non, M. Legrand, les Américains ne sont pas organisés en “communautés agrégées.” Ils sont tous des citoyens avec les mêmes droits et devoirs. Comme en France.

Continuing

Il est très difficile d’expliquer aux Américains l’individualisme positif des Lumières, le fait que la République française ne reconnaisse qu’une seule communauté, la communauté nationale composée d’individus émancipés. C’est d’autant plus difficile qu’objectivement, tous les Français ne sont pas égaux et que la consonance des noms des citoyens discriminés n’y est pas pour rien. Qu’une religion impose, par une forme d’aliénation qui écrase le libre arbitre, un accoutrement qui cache et soumette la femme, nous choque autant que les Américains sont choqués de voir un 1er Ministre s’occuper de ces questions. Vu d’une grande partie du reste du monde, Manuel Valls est un blanc, chrétien qui veut soumettre des minorités. Je me souviens d’une discussion avec des confrères américains quand Lionel Jospin était 1er ministre. Aucun de mes interlocuteurs ne me croyait quand je leur disais que personne en France n’accordait aucune importance au fait que Lionel Jospin soit protestant et que d’ailleurs quasiment personne ne le savait. En réalité, nous n’en avons pas conscience, mais notre modèle laïc, auquel nous tenons, est une spécificité dans le monde. Il faudra trouver les moyens de le préserver, sans qu’il puisse être perçu, à l’étranger, pour ce qu’il n’est pas : un repli identitaire…

I have much to say about this passage, which has a number of problems, but will limit myself to two comments: First, if, as suggested above, a Frenchman is having difficulty in making an argument about France to educated foreigners—and particularly to those from the Western world—then maybe his argument is flawed. Maybe he needs to rethink his argument. Second, Americans are as open-minded as anyone else, and certainly as much so as Frenchmen. And intellectually speaking, they are also products of l’Âge des Lumières. Educated Americans are not so different from educated Frenchmen or other Europeans. If you explain something to them and do it well—including the story about Lionel Jospin (which I have also done many times to Americans)—they will understand you. Believe me.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire (pour le moment au moins).

UPDATE: In case one missed it, the best analysis that has appeared on the bigger picture of what the burkini hysteria is all about is the tribune by Farhad Khosrokhavar in Le Monde, dated September 9th, “‘Le fondamentalisme laïc fragilise la France des droits de l’homme et de la femme’.”

2nd UPDATE: Financial Times Paris bureau chief Anne-Sylvaine Chassany has a good article, dated September 15th, “France: Islam and the secular state.” The lede: “The burkini bans have exposed historic tensions that are dividing Muslims and threatening French unity.”

3rd UPDATE: France Culture’s Sylvain Bourmeau had an absolutely excellent, must-listen half-hour discussion, September 24th, with sociologist Fabrice Dhume-Sonzogni, entitled “Le communautarisme, cette chimère toxique,” on France Culture’s ‘La suite dans les idées’ program he produces. The lede: “Au terme d’une longue enquête, le sociologue Fabrice Dhume montre comment le mot épouvantail ‘communautarisme’ n’est précisément que cela: un épouvantail planté au milieu de notre espace public.” This is the first time I have ever heard such an argument in France on the bogus notion of “communautarisme” and with Dhume-Sonzogni saying almost exactly what I have since the neologism took off in French public discourse in the 1990s. Listen to it here.

The occasion of the France Culture interview was the publication of Dhume-Sonzogni’s latest book, Communautarisme: Enquête sur une chimère du nationalisme français, prefaced by Eric Fassin. It is certainly a must-read.

See also Dhume-Sonzogni’s article, “L’émergence d’une figure obsessionnelle: comment le «communautarisme» a envahi les discours médiatico-politiques français,” on the academic TERRA-HN website (July 2013) and blogger Ossman Zamime’s post, “Vous avez dit ‘communautarisme’?,” in Mediapart (March 6, 2016).

An update to this update (October 31st): Philippe Blanchet, who teaches sociolinguistics at Université Rennes 2 and is a member of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, has an excellent review, on his Mediapart blog, of Dhume-Sonzogni’s book, “‘Communautarisme’: attention aux retours de manivelle!”

4th UPDATE: Journalist Aude Lorriaux has a first-rate enquête (September 30th) in Slate.fr, entitled “Les femmes musulmanes sont-elles forcées à porter le voile, comme on l’entend dire?” The lede: “De nombreux hommes politiques affirment ou suggèrent que la plupart des femmes voilées subissent des pressions et sont contraintes de porter le foulard, comme Manuel Valls, dans un tribune intitulée «En France, les femmes sont libres». Notre enquête démontre que ces faits sont très minoritaires.” The article is long but well worth the read.

5th UPDATE: Another enquête, this one in L’Obs (October 6th), by David Le Bailly et Caroline Michel, “Burkini, histoire d’une manipulation.” The lede: “Au cœur du mois d’août, l’interdiction sur certaines plages du maillot de bain intégral islamique a provoqué une controverse qui a frôlé l’hystérie. Qui a sciemment alimenté la polémique? Quel rôle a joué l’entourage de Nicolas Sarkozy? Révélations.”

6th UPDATE: Emile Chabal—a smart historian at the University of Edinburgh—has an excellent, salutary, necessary, and long overdue essay (September 18, 2017), published on the highbrow intello website Aeon, simply entitled “Les Anglo-Saxons.” The lede: “Not just American or British, the Anglo-Saxon is a mirror to Frenchness: the country’s alter-ego and most feared enemy.” Hopefully Chabal’s essay will be translated into French—I’ve suggested it to him—and be made required reading for everyone in France who refers to Americans and Brits as “les Anglo-Saxons”…

7th UPDATE: L’article d’Emile Chabal cité ci-dessus a été traduit en français et publié dans Courrier International, le 2 janvier 2018, sous le titre “Le terme ‘Anglo-Saxons’, miroir des peurs françaises.”

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Nice, August 23rd (photo: Vantagenews.com)

Nice, August 23rd (photo: Vantagenews.com)

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Alhamdullilah for the Conseil d’État. It is not par hasard that the judges of France’s supreme administrative law court are nicknamed les sages (the wise men)—though the Conseil’s ruling yesterday striking down the anti-burkini municipal ordinance in seaside Villeneuve-Loubet—which will serve as jurisprudence for abrogating like ordinances in other municipalities—was an obvious no-brainer. It would have been truly stunning had the Conseil ruled otherwise, as, in point of fact, there is no serious argument for legally banning the burkini. None whatever. If a person—woman or man—on a beach in a free society wishes to wear a garment that covers the entire body minus face and maybe feet—or, alternatively, an itsy-bitsy cache-sexe concealing only that most intimate part, or anything in between—s/he has the right to do so. Point barre.

The psychodrama France has descended into over this fabricated issue has to be the most preposterous and irrational in the 25-odd years I have lived in this country—not to mention one of the more pernicious, in view of the overt Muslimophobia that has been unleashed by politicians and media alike. The spectacle of the Muslim women in Nice and Cannes—who were minding their own business and troubling no public order—being harassed and humiliated by the police was a disgrace, accomplishing nothing but the degradation of France’s image abroad and making the country look ridiculous in the process—and, one may also add, intolerant, racist, and sexist (yes, sexist France, as the latest hysteria over French Muslims concerns, as usual, only woman, with men, including the most bearded Salafist, naturally being free to wear any damned outfit they please in public space). And all over a piece of clothing that practically no one in France had heard of—and even fewer had actually seen—before this month of August 2016.

Numerous commentaries over the past two weeks on the absurd burkini affair have gotten it exactly right, e.g. the New York Times’s August 19th editorial—penned by sharp, Paris-based editorial writer Mira Kamdar—”France’s burkini bigotry.” Other spot on critiques of the anti-burkini crusade include public law professor Thomas Hochmann’s Le Monde op-ed (August 19th), “L’interdiction du ‘burkini’ est une faute juridique et politique;” Edwy Plenel in Mediapart (August 14th), “‘Un vêtement comme les autres’…;” political scientist Jean-François Bayart, also in Mediapart (August 18th), “La laïcité, nouvelle religion nationale;” and law professor Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, writing in Libération’s “Do you law?” blog (August 23rd), “Le burkini de l’état d’urgence.”

One may also profitably reread the invariably excellent Patrick Weil’s 2013 interview in L’Opinion, “‘Qu’on laisse en paix les femmes voilées’.”

French public opinion is, as one may expect, not favorable toward the burkini, with 64%, according to an IFOP-Le Figaro poll released on Thursday, opposed to it being worn on the beach. Majorities can be wrong, of course. Even if 94% were opposed, that wouldn’t suddenly make the masses right. Politicians, as one may also expect, have been indulging and stoking the fears of the public—naturally traumatized over the recent terrorist atrocities—with, not surprisingly, the unspeakable Nicolas Sarkozy, now on the campaign trail, leading the demagogic charge, demanding, entre autres, a legislative ban of the burkini—though Sarko knows full well, in principle at least, that any such law is impossible, that it would be nullified illico by the sages of the Conseil Constitutionnel.

Not to be out-Sarkozy-d, the insufferable Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has likewise been gesticulating over the burkini, labeling it “a political project, a counter-society, based in particular on the subjugation of women” and, on his Facebook page yesterday, the expression of “a deadly, backward-looking Islamism” (un islamisme mortifère, rétrograde). Ouf! Even academic savants have been echoing these themes, e.g. emerita philosophy professor Catherine Kintzler, who, in an interview in Le Figaro (August 26th), called the burkini a symbol of “communautarisme” (mais bien évidemment; what else could it possibly be for any self-respecting defender of le modèle républicain français?) and “an ultra-reactionary, totalitarian political Islam,” that represents “an effort to stigmatize all Muslim women who refuse to wear it, who refuse to veil themselves, who refuse the uniformization of their lives.” No less.

And then there’s the well-known social scientist Philippe d’Iribarne, who wrote in Le Monde (August 19th) that the burkini is “unacceptable,” as, entre autres, it violates an apparent French “social norm that asks for a certain discretion in the public expression of that that distinguishes one’s social status or political or religious convictions.” Women who wear the burkini are imposing an alternative social norm, indeed a “projet de société,” so d’Iribarne has it: A “societal project,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Monsieur d’Iribarne suggests that women who wear the burkini and other Islamic articles of clothing do not really do so of their own free will, that they may “simply be seeking not to be bothered in the neighborhoods where they live, or wish to please their entourage, or are constrained to do so by their fathers or husbands, or fear burning in hell, or are perhaps militants of an islam de combat.”

This is one of the stupidest pieces I’ve read by an otherwise smart person in I don’t know how long. Fortunately Le Monde published an op-ed (August 24th), by Patrice Obert—president of the center-left association Le Courant des Poissons Roses—that critiqued d’Iribarne, explaining why it is “unacceptable not to ‘accept’ the burkini.”

Islamism, projet de société, counter-society, Islamic “cultural imperialism,” women being ordered by men, subjugation of women, fundamentalism, burkini-wearing women willfully seeking to provoke and shock…

Let me make an assertion: the legions of pundits, politicians, and other commentators and academic savants who have made these allegations and/or imputed hidden motives to the Muslims in question have not a shred of evidence to support their contentions. They have not a shred of evidence to refute the manifest fact—and, until proof to the contrary, I am asserting it as fact—that 99+% of the women who wear the burkini do so on their own volition—that no one has forced them into it—and that their motives have nothing to do with politics or trying to make a statement. The burkini-detractors could not credibly support their assertions if their lives depended on it.

And the threat to public order that the burkini supposedly constitutes, which was one of the stated reasons for the municipal ordinances? Read this interview with Radio France Internationale’s David Thomson, who has written a book on French jihadists, and tell me if the threat comes from the burkini-wearers or, rather, the actions of the burkini-banners themselves.

As for those who consider the burkini to be Islamist or reflecting of a rigorist interpretation of Islam, they have no idea what they’re talking about, as Salafi women would never go to a mixed beach or don such a piece of clothing that reveals the shape of their body—as the burkini does—in the first place.

But what if, for the sake of argument, some of the above allegations were at least partly true? As social scientist and friend Nadia Marzouki wrote on social media the other day

What if there *is* something political in wearing a burkini, in criticizing the French religion of laïcité, in not eating the French republican “soupe au cochon”, in performing alternative ways of life etc.? What’s wrong with being political?

Yes, if some Muslim women do, in fact, seek to make a statement in wearing a burkini, if they are indeed signaling that their religious faith is primordial in their lives, what of it?

And what about the burkini itself? Even pundits critical of the anti-burkini campaign have felt the need to assure readers that they do not approve of the offending swimsuit. Libération’s Laurent Joffrin thus editorialized (August 17th) that

one would have to have a particularly twisted mind to maintain that the wearing of a piece of clothing that covers all parts of the female body, including swimsuits, is merely a harmless fashion, or a vector of the emancipation of women. In the great majority of cases, it is a religiously ostentatious signifier reflecting a rigorous interpretation of sacred texts that relegates women to a secondary role.

I beg to differ, though this is admittedly a complex question. The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, in an aptly titled column (August 25th), “France has a strange concept of feminism—and secularism,” opposed the burkini bans but did specify that

I actually agree with the critique of veiling. Whatever else it may be, it’s inextricably bound up, like the Orthodox Jewish dress code, with notions of female-only “modesty”—i.e., the acceptance of the female body as the site of sexuality, which must be concealed as a danger and provocation to men. If covering is just about faith, why don’t men do it too?

Yes, of course. These are old questions. We know it. Veiling, objectively speaking, does reflect patriarchy. What else is new? But at the risk of being provocative, I will argue that the creation of the burkini is, in fact, an advance for pious Muslim women, that it represents progress—and particularly for women in the Arab world itself and other Muslim majority countries. For these women, the choice is not between the burkini and a more conventional swimsuit, but rather between the burkini and either going to the beach fully clothed (hijab and all)—and, at most, wading into the water—or not going at all—and not because they are forbidden by men but simply because they won’t go, period. In a country like Algeria, there are a number of “family” beaches where women sunbathe in one or two piece swimsuits, but in long stretches of coastline one sees only young men. Women simply won’t go to these beaches. Gender relations in that society and cultural attitudes toward the body are what they are. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more women to these beaches and learning how to swim while they’re at it, well, tant mieux, n’est-ce pas?

As Saul Alinsky used to say, in order to change the world we first need to see the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. If patriarchy and conservative notions of gender among Muslims are going to change, it’s going to be brought about by Muslims themselves—gradually, one step at a time—and not by laïcard Frenchmen ideologically browbeating them.

And then there’s the inventor of the burkini herself, Aheda Zanetti—who has no ties to Islamist organizations or personal convictions of this nature (if she did, we would know about it)—who explained in a Guardian op-ed (August 24th), “I created the burkini to give women freedom, not to take it away.” The piece—qu’on peut lire en français—carries this lede: “The burkini does not symbolise Islam, it symbolises leisure and happiness and fitness and health.”

As for the burkini not symbolizing Islam, good point. One may bet that it will find a growing market among women of all faiths—or of no faith at all—and particularly in a country like India, where women traditionally do not wear swimsuits on the beach (those who actually go to one). À propos, the NYT has an op-ed (August 26th) by writer Jennifer Weiner on “The women who won’t wear swimsuits,” in which the burkini is not mentioned once. There are a lot of women out there—including a member of the older generation in my own family—who have never felt comfortable in a bathing suit. Just as there are certainly many men in France—perhaps myself included—who don’t like the rule in public swimming pools that men have to wear swim briefs, a.k.a. moule-bites. They feel self-conscious wearing the stupid thing. The burkini is probably not a solution for them but can be for women.

Back to the case of France, today’s Washington Post has an article on “France’s burkini debate: About a bathing suit and a country’s peculiar secularism,” in which the well-known specialist of French laïcité, Joan Wallach Scott, is quoted

For Scott, the greatest irony in the entire affair is that the burkini in fact embodies the achievement of a secular, integrated society.

The women who wear burkinis, she said, cannot be called oppressed. They are not the women subservient to a conservative Islam; they are the women who sit on beaches unsupervised by men, enjoying their leisure time in mixed social company.

But because of the same type of secularism ostensibly designed to foster equality among citizens, those same women could in fact be driven further from the social mainstream.

“It just convinces Muslims who are already feeling discrimination and alienation that indeed they’re right,” Scott said. “And that the French government is interested in getting rid of them, not in integrating them.”

In conclusion, check out the images of the burkini here and here. C’est chic, non? How can anyone object?

UPDATE: Jean Baubérot—the well-known sociologist and specialist of religion in France—was interviewed in Libération (August 17th) on the burkini affair. This passage is particularly interesting:

Cette polémique a été précédée d’une autre, en mars, autour de la «mode pudique», qui ne pose pas de problème dans d’autres pays occidentaux, par exemple en Angleterre. Pourquoi tant de stress ?

Les pays anglo-saxons ont une culture de la diversité, cultuelle et culturelle, plus forte. C’est Voltaire qui a écrit: «Un Anglais, comme homme libre, va au ciel par le chemin qui lui plaît.» En France, une mentalité «catholique et français toujours» perdure, une mentalité de l’unité. On parle encore de «la France une et indivisible» alors que, depuis la Constitution de 1946, «une» a été enlevé au profit de «indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale», et ça n’est pas pour rien! Or, culturellement, on a l’impression que ça n’a jamais été intégré, et «démocratique et sociale», on l’entend peu. C’est une conception de l’unité assez uniforme qui prédomine, peu inclusive de la diversité. Résultat, on ne sait plus séparer ce qui peut être dangereux de ce qui peut choquer mais peut être accepté par la démocratie. On ne met pas la frontière au bon endroit.

2nd UPDATE: Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy—who specializes in sexuality, gender, and religion—has two pieces in Al Huffington Post that are worth reading: “Le burkini, un compromis anti-islamiste” (August 21st) and “Le burkini, entre féminisme blanc et féminisme islamique” (August 23rd). N.B. Dialmy is equally opposed to the burkini and attempts to ban it.

3rd UPDATE: The Forward’s The Sisterhood blog has a post (August 24th) asserting: “Seriously, what Orthodox [Jewish] women wear to the beach is no different from a burkini.”

4th UPDATE: Le Canard Enchaîné has a short piece in the latest issue explaining—in its trademark ironic style—why the burkini would not pass muster with those who adhere to a rigorist interpretation of Islam.

5th UPDATE: Robin Wright has a piece in The New Yorker (August 26th), “A court overturns a burkini ban, but not its mindset.” Money quote

The irony of the swimsuit crisis is that the laws—and their enforcement—shamed the Muslim women who want to participate in French society. “Tying the burkini to extremism is absurd. Actual Salafis are against the burkini because they don’t think women should be swimming in public in the first place,” Shadi Hamid, the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World,” told me on Friday.

Also see the article by Alissa J. Rubin in the NYT (August 27th), “From bikinis to burkinis, regulating what women wear,” in which interesting people are quoted.

6th UPDATE: Philippe Marlière, who teaches political science at University College London, has a must-read post on his Mediapart blog (August 26th), “La gauche de l’entre-soi et le burkini.” The lede: “Cet article revient sur les récentes controverses sur le port du burkini en France, montre la ligne de fracture qu’elles ont créée au sein de la gauche française, et réfute les arguments qui sont déployés pour justifier des attaques racistes et sexistes contre les femmes musulmanes.”

Marlière notes, entre autres, that the French left—which is almost entirely atheist and with an anti-clerical tropisme from another era (which is specific to France’s history; we’re not talking about universal values here), and that has been transposed to any public manifestation of religiosity—is an outlier among its progressive European counterparts when it comes to conventional Muslim veiling. On the European left—not to mention the left in the Americas, north and south—only in France does the sight of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf provoke a negative reaction—and automatically excludes her from participation in a left-wing political party.

7th UPDATE: Here’s the official English translation of the Conseil d’État’s ruling on the burkini affair.

8th UPDATE: Benjamin Haddad, a French research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, has an essay (August 30th) in The American Interest entitled “Behind the burkini.” The lede: “The overturned ban is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.” Now Haddad is normally incisive in the analyses I have read by him but is in error on a number points in his piece here. E.g. he opines that

The fact is that many in France consider the aggressive display of this brand of Islamic fundamentalism in a public space to be a provocation, an intentional rejection of the French Republic’s long tradition of secularism, and an attempt at self-exclusion from the rest of the population.

As I have written above, the burkini has nothing whatever to do with “Islamic fundamentalism.” This is a phantasm. And no one who thinks this has a shred of evidence to defend the contention that even one single woman—une seule—who wears the burkini does so to provoke, to signal a rejection of secularism, is attempting to exclude herself from the rest of the population, or is an “Islamic fundamentalist.” This is a figment of the addled French imagination. (But then, even if a burkini-wearing woman did have these things in mind, eh alors? La belle affaire! Dans un pays libre comme la France, c’est son droit. Qu’est-ce que ça peut vous faire?).

And while the vast majority of French Muslims keep their faith privately and are peaceful citizens, this model of integration makes the country an inviting target for those who don’t.

What is this supposed to mean? How does one “model of integration” make a country a target for—what precisely?—more than another “model”?

To be clear, wearing a burkini is manifestly not considered a mandatory religious requirement by France’s overwhelmingly moderate Muslim population, who don’t wear it.

But no one has even hinted that the burkini is religiously required. Pour mémoire, the burkini is the trademarked product of an Australian fashion designer named Aheda Zanetti (see above), who created the garment for pious Muslim women—but also for non-Muslim women (why not?)—who wish to go to the beach but, for their own reasons, will not wear a conventional swimsuit. The burkini is, above all, a business proposition that aims to satisfy a heretofore underserved market.

À propos, how much would one like to bet that the burkini® under another name sells like hotcakes in Israel among Jewish women?

That the burkini may be worn free of pressure does not change the underlying message.

But what underlying message?! And sent by whom precisely? (and please give names). The notion that there is a message in the burkini is a collective French phantasm.

Please, there is no message here. No burkini-wearing woman is sending a message, even subliminal. This I promise you.

Moreover, the burkini, which was seemingly absent from beaches before this year, is seen as a mere episode in a broader pattern of every-day incidents in which republican principles are challenged by a radical minority constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. It is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle.

What “radical minority”? Who are you talking about? Please name names. And while you’re at it, please provide references of what this “radical minority” has written about the burkini.

The censure (and worse) of moderate Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan, the requests of community leaders for gender-segregated hours in public swimming pools, the pressure on women not to accept the care of male physicians even in cases of emergency, the refusal of children to listen in biology class or to learn about the Holocaust: These incidents don’t make international headlines but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Such incidents have indeed happened but how do you know that they “are becoming increasingly ubiquitous”? In point of fact, you don’t know at all. There have been numerous anecdotes over the years of disturbing and unacceptable things happening—as there inevitably will be in a society of 65 million inhabitants—but the extent of this has not been established. Seriously, we really don’t know.

In June, a young Muslim waitress was attacked in the name of Islam in downtown Nice for serving alcohol during Ramadan.

A fait divers. It was outrageous and with the perpetrators meriting prosecution, but it was still just one incident.

But not reacting to the burkini also has its consequences and runs the risk of normalizing such practices.

But so what if the burkini is “normalized”?? In point of fact, it should be normalized. If the burkini succeeds in bringing more Muslim and other women to the beach, that’s a good thing, is it not? À propos, see the quotes above of Joan Wallach Scott and Shadi Hamid.

In the coming years, Europeans will continue to grapple with the tension between their liberal principles and the necessity of rolling back the hold of a radical minority.

But what “radical minority”?? Please give names of such radicals in France.

These attempts, however clumsy, deserve a more understanding reception than scorn and conceit.

Oy vey, the attempts by demagogic French politicians to “roll back” the hold of this imagined “radical minority” deserve not only scorn and conceit but disdain as well.

9th UPDATE: Christine Delphy—a sociologist and leading personality in France’s feminist movement of the 1970s—has an excellent tribune in The Guardian (August 29th) on “How a legal misunderstanding is fueling France’s witch-hunt of Muslim women.” The lede: “Of course, banning women from wearing what they want is illegal in France. The establishment claim they want Muslim women to achieve independence yet are depriving them the means to do so.”

Also see Delphy’s 20 July 2015 Guardian tribune, “Feminists are failing Muslim women by supporting racist French laws.” The lede: “If women’s groups see Muslims wearing headscarves as an oppressed minority, it should be a reason to embrace them and understand why, not collude in widening one of the worst rifts within French society.”

10th UPDATE: Nathalie Heinich—a sociologist and ideological warrior for the cause of laïcité de combat—has a virulent op-ed in Le Monde (August 30th), “Burkini: Il faut combattre le prosélytisme extrémiste et le sexisme,” in which she responds to the well-known sociologist Michel Wieviorka’s thoughtful tribune (August 26th) in The Conversation, “Panique morale autour du ‘burkini’.” Heinich’s broadside has the merit of arguing that opposing the burkini concerns neither laïcité nor public order but is all about fighting against “an extremist, totalitarian conception of Islam.” Tout court. The piece is a doozy. E.g.

Dans le contexte de la France d’aujourd’hui (qui n’est ni celui des Etats-Unis, ni celui de la France d’il y a une génération), l’interdiction des signes religieux les plus extrêmes – la burqa dans les rues, le burkini sur les plages – ne doit plus être une question de laïcité: ce doit être un combat politique contre une manipulation de la religion à des fins d’ordre sexuel, moral, juridique, civique, voire guerrier.

En faire une question religieuse, c’est entrer dans le jeu de nos adversaires, qui utilisent cet argument pour imposer leur conception rétrograde de la citoyenneté – la soumission à l’ordre religieux – et de la différence des sexes – la soumission des femmes.

C’est pourquoi, dans le contexte actuel, l’affichage de comportements manifestant l’adhésion à une conception fondamentaliste de l’islam, tel que le port du burkini, ne relève pas de l’exercice d’une religion (va-t-on à la plage pour prier?): il relève de l’expression d’une opinion, et d’une opinion délictueuse, puisqu’il s’agit d’une incitation à la discrimination sexiste, qui en outre banalise et normalise l’idéologie au nom de laquelle on nous fait la guerre. C’est pourquoi le Conseil d’Etat aurait pu, aurait dû valider les arrêtés antiburkini, en vertu de la légitime limitation du droit à la liberté d’expression.

The wearing of the burkini is an “opinion délictueuse“… Translation: the expression of a “criminal opinion.”

Wow. That’s intense. Mme Heinich is lusting for blood.

Another morsel:

Il faut donc choisir son camp: non pas le camp des sectaires contre les «tolérants», mais le camp des partisans d’un islam respectueux des lois et des valeurs de notre pays – au premier rang desquelles l’égalité entre hommes et femmes et le droit pour celles-ci d’occuper librement l’espace public – contre un islam dévoyé, sexiste, intolérant, violemment prosélyte, et ­ ennemi des libertés car exerçant de puissantes pressions communautaires contre ceux et ­ surtout contre celles qui ne se plieraient pas à ses règles archaïques.

«Pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la liberté»: c’était bien un slogan politique, n’est-ce pas? Est-ce parce qu’il est ici question de femmes qu’on dénie la dimension politique du problème, au profit d’une dimension religieuse et morale?

Again, as concerns the burkini, all this is a figment of the French imagination. Mme Heinich & Co are seeing heavy symbolism in an article of female clothing that, until proof to the contrary, is not seen by the women wearing it. One thing that strikes me in reading viewpoints such as this is that women who wear the burkini or hijab are accorded no agency. They are seen as either passive victims living under the yoke of misogynistic men or as fanaticized zombies in the service of a totalitarian ideology. And they have no voice. I will wager that Mme Heinich and others who share her views have never engaged veiled Muslim women in dialogue or had the slightest interest in hearing them out. Veiled Muslim women are the ultimate Other. At minimum, there’s a lack of empathy here, not to mention absence of intellectual curiosity. I don’t relate to this way of thinking.

11th UPDATE: Gershom Gorenberg—The American Prospect’s Jerusalem-based senior correspondent—nails it in a commentary (August 31st) entitled “The beach movie of the absurd.” The lede: “The Burkini fuss isn’t just an embarrassment for France. Diversity is under attack across the West.”

12th UPDATE: Daniel Pipes, like that proverbial stopped clock, gets it exactly right on the burkini. And he links to a site selling “original kosher swimwear.” I rest my case.

13th UPDATE: The NYT (September 2nd) seeks out the views of Muslim women in France and Belgium—gives them voice—in an article (and that may be read in French translation), “‘The way people look at us has changed’: Muslim women on life in Europe.”

14th UPDATE: Libération (September 1st) has a meditation by Université Paris 1 philosophy professor Sandra Laugier, “SOS fantasmes.” Observing the negative reaction on social media to the all-female cast of the latest “Ghostbusters” movie, Laugier offers this

Ce déferlement de misogynie a trouvé un équivalent plus tragique en France avec le débat politique, virtuel et public, sur le droit des femmes musulmanes à choisir leur tenue de plage. Quelle que soit l’opinion ou l’affect qu’elles suscitent, le plus extraordinaire est que tant de gens se soient sentis autorisés à l’exprimer.

Comme l’indique déjà la façon de nommer ce débat («le burkini»), les femmes concernées sont les dernières qu’on va consulter sur la question, et il a été fort pénible ces dernières semaines de lire et d’entendre les uns et les autres, hommes en majorité, des femmes de pouvoir aussi, énoncer doctement ce que ces femmes musulmanes doivent faire, voire traduire ce qu’elles pensent et expriment par leur comportement.

It occurs to none of the burkini critics to solicit the viewpoints of the women who wear it…

In this vein, Laugier links to an important analysis by Université Paris 13 linguistics professor Marie-Anne Paveau, “Parler du burkini sans les concernées: De l’énonciation ventriloque,” posted August 17th on the website “La pensée du discours: La théorie du discours ouverte à de nouvelles épistémologies.”

15th UPDATE: Dominique Rousseau, the well-known professor of public law at the Université Paris 1, settles the legal/constitutional side of the question (September 1st) in Le Huffington Post, “Sous le burkini, l’Etat de Droit.”

Also see Etienne Balibar’s tribune (August 29th) in Libération, “Laïcité ou identité?” The lede: “Alors que le Conseil d’Etat vient d’invalider l’interdiction du burkini, il faut mettre fin au développement de la «laïcité identitaire». Cette conception, obsédée par le communautarisme en vient à construire un «communautarisme d’Etat».”

16th UPDATE: The Times of Israel has an AP dispatch (September 4th) on how the “French uproar [has created an] opportunity for Israeli burkinis.” One learns that Israel

home to large populations of conservative Jewish and Muslim women, has cultivated a local industry of modest swimsuits, and the full-body outfits that have caused uproar in France have been a common sight on Israeli beaches for several years.

On the uproar in France, the founder of one of the first Israeli modest swimwear companies rhetorically asked

“What does a woman do in France who wants to cover up for sun protection or who wants to cover up some scarring, or if she is a little overweight and she doesn’t want to wear a bikini?…It doesn’t make any sense that they are banning a specific type of modest swimwear. It’s very racist to me.”

As for Palestinian Muslims

Sahab Nasser sells SunWay burkinis at her lingerie shop in Tira, a mostly Muslim town in central Israel. She said she sold burkinis for four years before she finally bought one so she could accompany her three-year-old daughter in the pool. It has been life-changing for her and other Muslim women, she said, because previously they would stay out of the water while the men and children in their families would go swimming.

“The burkini has let (Arab women) go to the beach, spend quality time with the family, to go to mixed gender pools, to swim with their families and feel comfortable, without criticism,” she said. “Who said the bikini is the right look for the beach?”

Personally speaking, I prefer seeing women in bikinis, particularly if they have the body for one. And if they want to go topless, tant mieux (en tant qu’homme hétéro je ne vais pas être hypocrite là-dessus). But if women want to wear burkinis, no prob’. Laissez les gens vivre, bon sang !

17th UPDATE: Michel Wieviorka has a tribune in Le Monde (September 4th) responding to Nathalie Heinich’s unhinged diatribe (above), “La sociologie à l’épreuve du burkini.” The lede: “Afin de pouvoir légitimement intervenir dans le débat public, les intellectuels doivent s’appuyer sur des recherches et des faits établis. Non pas sur des opinions et des préjugés.” Money quote:

Le sociologue qui s’exprime sur le «burkini», puisque c’est le dossier qui nous occupe ici, devrait s’appuyer sur des recherches portant directement sur ce phénomène, ou sur des phénomènes proches – burqa, par exemple (je dirige des travaux de doctorantes sur ce thème): que signifie le port de ce vêtement islamique pour les femmes concernées? Quelles sont ces femmes, qu’ont-elles à dire? Quel est le sens du refus énergique du burkini: républicain? féministe? nationaliste? islamophobe? Quel est celui de la tolérance à son égard: républicain, féministe, naïf…? Chez qui? Etc.

Faute de s’appuyer sur des travaux solides, le sociologue perd une bonne partie de sa légitimité à intervenir, pour devenir au mieux un essayiste et plus vraisemblablement un acteur, ou l’intellectuel organique d’une cause, et non plus un analyste.

See also the tribune in Le Monde (September 6th) by IEP–Aix-en-Provence sociology professor Raphaël Liogier, “Contre les idées reçues sur l’islam, créons un ‘Observatoire des identités plurielles’.”

18th UPDATE: The well-known political science specialist of Islamism, Shadi Hamid, who is presently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, has a piece (July 20th 2017) in The Atlantic on “The Dilemma of the Burqini: Is there any right way to react to the swimwear?”

19th UPDATE: Writing on the Islamic headscarf—though he could be on the burkini—Matthew Kaemingk—who teaches theology, ethics, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA—has an outside-the-box commentary in the Summer 2017 issue of the magazine Comment: Public Theology for the Common Good that will no doubt ruffle French feathers, “The headscarf: Islam’s gift to Western democracy.” The lede: “Learning to welcome Islam is a way to relearn what democracy is about.” I don’t necessary adhere to Kaemingk’s views across the board but what he says is worth the debate.

 

Sydney, Australia (photo: Aheda Zanetti)

Sydney, Australia (photo: Aheda Zanetti)

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Mexico/Central America-USA edition. Continuing from the previous post, this Mexican film, ‘La juala de oro’ (English title: The Golden Dream; French: Rêves d’or), directed by Diego Quemada-Díez, is one of the more powerful I’ve seen on Mexican/Central American migration to the US—and I’ve seen several over the decades, beginning with the 1983 ‘El Norte’ (perhaps there was one or more before that one but which does not immediately come to mind). It begins in Guatemala, with three mid teenagers—Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Noemí Martínez Pineda), and Samuel (Carlos Chajon)—who set out for the US (the reasons look to be economic, not flight from gang or political violence). Once across the Mexican border, they meet Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), a teen from Chiapas who doesn’t know Spanish—speaking only the Maya language Tzotzil—but attaches himself to them, and particularly to Sara, to whom he takes a liking. Samuel dropping out and returning home, the three head north on the dangerous trek, where they are prey to both police and criminal gangs, the latter who demand their addresses in the US—and they necessarily have them written down—to extort ransom from their families there (gangs these days being transnational). And for girls like Sara—who tries to disguise herself as a boy—the probability of being sexually violated is in the high 90% range. If the reasons for migrating may be economically motivated—at least for the characters in the film—the youthful migrants would have clearly had a strong case for receiving asylum in the US.

The film—which came out in France in late ’13 and the US last year—is certainly topical, in view of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied, mostly Central American minors who sought admission into the US in 2014. Most were fleeing violence—indeed terror—in their countries, and should have consequently been considered refugees. And it’s not just Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, but also Mexico, where the violence and cruelty of the drug gangs puts the Islamic State to shame, and with the Mexican state often being in league with the narcos. One bit in the film that I was initially dubious about was the Chauk character not speaking Spanish. I am aware that such is the case for a certain number of indigenous persons in Mexico but couldn’t imagine that they would be able to navigate the journey to the US. Shows how much I know, as it turns out that there are indeed quite a few Mexican migrants in the US who do not speak Spanish (see here and here). One can imagine the challenges of living in the US and speaking only Tzotzil or Nahuatl. Sort of like being an Algerian in France and only speaking Taqbaylit. Bonne chance.

The film received top reviews in France and good ones in the US. Mexican reviews must have been stellar, as it is apparently the most awarded Mexican film in that country’s cinematographic history. See the interviews with director Quemada-Díez in the gauchiste webzine Counterpunch, the progressive Democracy Now!, and in IndieWire. Trailer is here.

Another Mexican film on the migration theme that received a slew of awards is ‘Aquí y Allá’ (English title: Here and There; French: Ici et là-bas), directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza. This one is rather different from the above, focusing on migrant return after many years away. Here, the middle-aged Pedro (Pedro De los Santos) returns home to his family—wife and two now teenage daughters—in his mountain village in Guerrero, after years of living and working in New York. His family is happy that he’s home but things have changed, particularly as he now hardly knows his daughters. As Variety’s Jonathan Holland’s review begins

A migrant worker returns to his native Mexico from the U.S. in “Here and There,” a quietly devastating exploration of the cruel paradox that, in order to feed their loved ones, emigrants have to leave them behind. Combining moments of lyricism with a documentary-like feel for truth, Antonio Mendez Esparza’s debut feature is far from hard-hitting, aestheticizing its tale with artful ellipses and juxtapositions. But its delicate portrayal of the emotional effects of immigration nonetheless amounts to a punchy social critique. Pic’s canny blend of artistry and politics should win it fest admirers.

I certainly admired the film, which is touching and, dare I say, poignant. IndieWire’s Ryan Lattanzio called it

the best film yet to screen at [the 2012] Cannes’ Critics’ Week, confidently made without a single wasted scene. The quotidian reality of Guerrero village life is realized with lyricism and lack of sentimentality. (…) Peaceful, almost biblical and completely absorbing, this film is a masterpiece.

French reviews were good to very good. Trailer is here.

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Last week I had a couple of posts on immigration, migration, and refugees. Continuing in this vein, I want to mention a few films I’ve seen over the past couple of years on the general theme. One of the more noteworthy was ‘Mediterranea’, by American-Italian director Jonas Carpignano, which opened to good reviews in France last September and in the US two months later. Its timing was uncanny, in view of the refugee crisis of last summer and fall (and ongoing, of course). The film follows the journey of two young men from Burkina Faso, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy), who head across the Sahara to the Libyan coast, to be smuggled across the Mediterranean to Italy. This part of the film—much of it, in fact—is documentary-like, particularly the scene, in Algeria or Libya (shot in Morocco), where the African migrants are robbed—and with a few killed—by criminals/terrorists (AQIM or one of those groups). The pic doesn’t linger on the maritime crossing—a whole film, La Pirogue, has been devoted to this aspect of African migration to Europe—the story mainly focusing on what happens to Ayiva and Abas once they make it to Italy, where they work as agricultural laborers, obviously exploited, with some of the locals being kind and welcoming but more not. Europe is not the promised land they imagined, that’s for sure. One naturally sympathizes with the two Burkinabé protags, though they’re not always angels (not that there’s any reason they should be). And, as tends to be the case with migrants, they are not les damnés de la terre in their home country, communicating regularly with their folks there via Skype—conversations in which they accentuate the positive and downplay the negative—home computers in a country like Burkina Faso signifying what may be considered middle class status there.

Director Carpignano’s inspiration for making the film was the events in Rosarno—a town of some 15,000 on the southern tip of Reggio Calabria province—in January 2010, which witnessed a riot by Africans after repeated harassment, beatings, and shootings of migrants by local residents (and with implication of the mafia), and which the pic reenacts. And, as it happens, actor Seihon was an actual Burkinabé/Ghanaian migrant in Rosarno, who had made the clandestine passage to Italy and participated in migrant protests there, which is where Carpignano met him (and with the two becoming close friends). In order to make the film, Carpignano did anthropological-like field research in African migrant communities in southern Italy, as he discussed in this interview. Carapignano also explained the reason for casting the film’s protags as Burkinabé, as he didn’t want to focus on refugees fleeing war but rather on people migrating to better their lives, as did the Sicilians and Calabrians who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th-early 20th century—and with southern Italy having been as “Third World” compared to the US—and as culturally alien to American society of the time—as sub-Saharan Africa is to Italy today. Trailer is here.

Another film on African migration seen last year was ‘Hope’, by French director Boris Lojkine. This one follows the journey of a Nigerian named Hope (Endurance Newton), as she crosses the Sahara to Morocco (where the entire film was shot), with Spain the destination. A single woman in a pitiless world of men, where it’s chacun pour soi. No need to say what happens to her along the way or what she has to do to survive financially. The social organization of African migrants is depicted in detail, particularly in the sequence in the migrant shantytown in Tamanrasset, Algeria, which is segregated by nationality, the migrants sticking with their own—Ivorians with Ivorians, Malians with Malians, etc—imposing strict rules of conduct and with hierarchies replicating those back home. Like Carpignano, Lojkine—who normally makes documentaries—did field research among African migrants, here in Morocco and particularly in Rabat’s African quartier, Takkadoum, where he recruited the cast, including the remarkable Newton, who was a migrant herself (she recounts her personal story here). In the words of one critic, some of the actors are basically playing versions of themselves on screen. After an act of sexual aggression committed against her, Hope hooks up with a Cameroonian named Leonard (Justin Wang)—she wants nothing to do with her fellow Nigerians—the sole man in the migrant column who showed concern for her. Their relationship is purely self-interested at first but they develop mutual affection in the course of their journey. The film does not, however, descend into sentimentality or pathos, nor is it misérabiliste in its portrayal of the migrants’ plight. It’s a good film and that I recommend, particularly to those who have a prioris on the subject. Reviews in France were good and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. See, in particular, the reviews in Africultures and Variety. Trailer is here and here.

Though the two films portray “economic” migrants, many Africans who reach the shores of Europe are indeed bona fide refugees. For the anecdote, last August I went to a corner of the 18th arrondissement—near La Chapelle, on a quiet side street, seen only by riverains—where recently arrived migrants from the Horn of Africa congregate, just to try to talk with them. They were all from Sudan and Eritrea, with a few Ethiopians, so I was told. A couple of dozen men were lingering about, most riveted to their cell phones. None spoke French and only one English with any level of proficiency, the oldest man present—around 40 years of age—who said he was from western Sudan (i.e. Darfur). He was a truck driver by profession and said that he had decided to leave Sudan due to the security situation, i.e. civil war and absence of state protection. Sudan was a country one fled from if one could. He made his way to Europe via Libya, which he described as in a state of anarchy, with armed gangs running the show. I thought better than to ask nosy questions about the Mediterranean crossing or how they all made it to Paris. Or to delve too deeply into their actual circumstances back home and decision to migrate (which one cannot know or verify). One young Eritrean, who was listening to our conversation—which went on for half an hour—and spoke rudimentary English, said that he left his country because of its military service requirements, which last many years—ten years or even longer; it’s totally arbitrary—and that such was the case for all the Eritreans in the group. All had England as their final destination—naturally via Calais—though not necessarily because they knew anyone there (migrants invariably heading to a place where they have family or friends) or saw it as some kind of El Dorado. As asylum seekers—but in a legally precarious situation—they would, in principle, have been wiling to stay in France, except that the French state administration, such as they had dealt with it, was impenetrable. Not knowing French, they couldn’t communicate with it, and no translators were provided. And they were bereft of resources and with no local organism to help them (a middle-aged woman—in a hijab, no doubt Algerian—came to speak with some of them while I was there; my Sudanese interlocutor, who identified her as “French,” called her their guardian angel, a wonderful person who brought them cooked meals daily; no one else in Paris had shown them such kindness). As there was “nothing in France for us,” so I was told, the men wanted to move on to England, where they knew asylum seekers received temporary accommodations and assistance.

After a point I began to feel embarrassed with my inquiry, me the well-to-do, bleeding heart local who would go back to his comfortable home and life, and with nothing to propose or say to these desperate persons in a desperate situation. Apart from my questions, what could I say to these men or do for them? The one thing I did feel was revulsion at the demagoguery and general insensitivity of politicians and other public personalities who were piping off on the migration/refugee issue, presenting it uniquely as a threat to France and Europe. The men I met clearly cannot be sent back to their countries and it would be unconscionable, indeed downright immoral, to demand otherwise. Any ideas of what to do for them?

Hope

Briefly, two other films. One, ‘Macondo’, by Iranian-Austrian director Sudabeh Mortezai, came out in France a year ago—and to good reviews—under the title ‘Le Petit homme’. Borrowing from Variety’s positive review

This sensitive Austrian social drama from docu helmer Sudabeh Mortezai focuses on a [Chechen] refugee settlement outside Vienna.

Visit Vienna as a tourist and you aren’t likely to see kids like Ramasan, the 11-year-old [Chechen] subject of docu director Sudabeh Mortezai’s empathetically observed fiction debut, “Macondo.” To find such foreigners, one must venture to the outskirts, where the eponymous immigrant settlement offers housing to nearly 2,000 refugees taking shelter from their home countries. As an Iranian who split her childhood between Tehran and Vienna, Mortezai can clearly identify with the confused emotional state of her young protagonist, treating his unique situation as one example of Austria’s complex immigrant experience — a deeply humanist perspective…

It’s a coming-of-age story about a Chechen refugee boy caught between two cultures, whose combattant father was killed by the Russians, and who thus has to assume the role as head of the family, composed of his mother and two sisters. An impressive performance by the youthful actor Ramasan Minkailov. Hollywood Reporter and Indie Wire critics who saw the pic at the Berlinale also gave it the thumbs up. I thought it was pretty good too. Trailer is here.

The other film is a documentary seen in late 2013, ‘Stop-Over’ (in France: ‘L’Escale’), by Iranian-Swiss director Kaveh Bakhtiari, which offers an up-close portrait of the daily tribulations of seven undocumented migrants—six Iranians and an Armenian—in Athens, who had been smuggled into Greece from Turkey but found themselves blocked in the country, that they initially considered to be a mere stop-over in their projected journeys north (to Germany or Scandinavia). And given the situation in Greece, it clearly could not be their final destination. The film is worth seeing for those with a particular interest in the subject. Variety’s great critic Jay Weissberg reviewed it here, The Hollywood Reporter’s review is here. French critics were particularly enthusiastic. Trailer is here.

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lescale

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Off the coast of Libya, May 14 2015 (photo credit: Reuters/MOAS/Jason Florio)

Off the coast of Libya, May 14 2015 (photo credit: Reuters/MOAS/Jason Florio)

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French polymath social scientist and physician Didier Fassin—who is based at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton—has an essay in The Nation dated April 5th, in case one missed it, “From Right to Favor,” on the refugee crisis in Europe—or the “so-called refugee crisis,” as he calls it—which he asserts is “a moral issue before it is a demographic one.” This is one of the best intellectual reflections I’ve come across on the subject, so I wholeheartedly recommend it. Didier Fassin is one of those incredibly smart and talented scholars, who is worth reading on any of the wide range of subjects he writes on.

On the (so-called) refugee crisis, Think Progress has a dispatch (May 2nd) by reporter Justin Salhani, “Refugees are rejuvenating dying Italian towns.” It concludes

Economic projections aside, the affect of repopulating dying villages has also had a profound affect on the people of these villages.

“Thank God they brought us these people,” Luigi Marotti, a 68-year-old who takes care of the Roman Catholic Church in Calabria’s town of Satriano, told Bloomberg in February. “Satriano was dead. Thanks to them it’s alive again. The village can start growing. If they leave, I don’t know where we can go.”

If any of the refugees don’t want to stay in Italy, they should come to small-town France, which could also use the shot in the arm—and Béziers in particular, which really does need it. If the mayor there is uncomfortable with the idea, he’ll come around…

UPDATE: Jean-Marie Guéhenno, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, has a post (May 13th) on the Carnegie Europe web site, “Conflict is key to understanding migration.”

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North of the Mexico-Arizona border, 2007 (Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

North of the Mexico-Arizona border, 2007 (Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

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In case one missed it, Vox had a must-read piece by Dara Lind dated April 28th on America’s “disastrous, forgotten 1996 law that created today’s immigration problem.” The law in question, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), was forced on the Clinton administration by the Republican Congress of the time, though was not bereft of Democratic support and with President Clinton not exactly signing the bill under duress. Au contraire.

IIRIRA has indeed been a disastrous law, as it has dramatically increased the number of undocumented migrants in the US who could be—and have been—deported and without judicial recourse, curtailed the possibilities for undocumented migrants to regularize their status, and placed even legal resident aliens in more precarious situations. And Vox is correct to say that the law has been “forgotten,” as the only persons who know anything about it are professionals in the immigration field plus, obviously, undocumented migrants or legal immigrants who are directly concerned by its provisions.

This is one of those lois scélérates enacted in the 1990s—along with the crime and welfare bills—that will need to be repealed—that must be repealed—if the US is to reform its calamitous immigration system—and which is certainly worse than France’s. For that, there will, at minimum, need to be a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress. Inshallah.

On Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey—who is one of the top academic specialists on the subjects of immigration and international migration, notably between Mexico and the US—has a tribune dated April 21st on the Market Watch website saying that it “would be a waste of money.” The reason: undocumented immigration from Mexico essentially ended in 2008, with more Mexicans returning home in the intervening years than heading north to the US. And the reason for this: there are fewer jobs for them in the US and more in Mexico. It has nothing to do with more restrictionist laws or border fences.

I somehow doubt Trump will read Massey on this—or change his mind if he does.

UPDATE: Vox’s Dara Lind explains (October 17, 2017) that “Democrats are taking a hard line on immigration—from the left: How they stopped chasing the center and started embracing the activists.” Alhamdulillah. Hopefully whenever the Dems regain control of the White House and Congress, they’ll abrogate IIRAIRA. Inshallah.

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My dear friend Adam Shatz has a post up on the LRB blog (here) on the latest political hysteria in France over Islam and the penchant of a relatively small number of French Muslim women to overtly display their religious identity in public space. The tempest was launched last week by Laurence Rossignol—the Minister for Families, Children, and Women’s rights—in a particularly dimwitted succession of public statements, and with feminist intellectual Elisabeth Badinter—the Joan of Arc of laïcité—upping the ante with her call for a boycott of brands that have invested the lucrative market for Islamic fashion in women’s clothing (e.g. here and here). This is one of those only-in-France polemics, but one on which a large number of Frenchmen and women—indeed a majority—feel strongly about. E.g. the other day a well-known academic warrior for the cause of laïcité de combat unfriended me from Facebook in a fit of pique—and then blocked me for good measure—following a snide comment I made on his timeline about Madame Badinter. People here are so sensitive when it comes to this issue. In any case, Adam nails it in his post. I could have signed it myself. And, as it happens, he mentions me by name. Merci, Adam.

UPDATE: There are several pertinent tribunes on the subject, all dated April 5th: Esther Benbassa, “Le voile, pas plus aliénant que la minijupe,” in Libération; Thomas Guénolé, “Islam, voile et ‘mode islamique’: les 6 erreurs (graves) d’Elisabeth Badinter,” in L’Obs; Anaïs Flores et al, “Islam, voile: Elisabeth Badinter sème la division; elle complique notre rôle d’enseignant,” also in L’Obs; and Saïd Benmouffok and Bérenger Boureille, “‘La crispation sur le voile ne saurait se substituer à une politique d’émancipation universaliste’,” in Le Monde.

2nd UPDATE: Robert Zaretsky, a French history specialist at the University of Houston, has an essay in Foreign Policy (April 7th) on how “French secularism became fundamentalist.” The lede: “A militant form of laïcité has taken hold in France, backed by everyone from intellectuals to government officials. Is this what the republic’s founders envisioned?” With the exception of a couple of small errors regarding the action of the Conseil d’État in the Islamic headscarf affair, I could have, as with Adam’s post, signed the piece myself.

3rd UPDATE: Historian Joan Wallach Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton has an essay in Orient XXI (April 27th) on “The veil and the political unconscious of French republicanism.” The lede: “The French obsession with the veil exceeds that of most other countries in the West. Why?” Interesting analysis, though I’m not sure about the way she links attitudes toward veiling with larger contradictions in French republicanism regarding gender equality.

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Cologne, December 31 2015 (Photo: Deutsche Presse-Agentur)

Cologne, December 31 2015 (Photo: Deutsche Presse-Agentur)

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

This is the first post I’ve had on what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, though I’ve been riveted to the story and its aftermath since it broke in the days following that calamitous evening. My immediate reaction—apart from indignation over the actions of the hordes of men—was that the perpetrators were most certainly not recently arrived Syrian refugees. This made no sense to me and for a variety of reasons (that need not be elaborated upon here). And my supposition was correct, as police and journalistic accounts have revealed that the men were mostly from the Maghreb and undocumented migrants, not refugees.

As for why the men behaved toward the women in the way they did, the link with religion, i.e. Islam, was prima facie nonsensical, as if a mob of several hundred drunken non-Muslim men would have behaved differently. Not that there are not specific issues with gender and women in public space in a number of Muslim (mainly Arab) societies. On this, one naturally thinks of the numerous incidents reported in Egypt over the past several years and of feature films on the general subject. As I wrote in a post on one of these some 3½ years back

The attack on [CBS reporter] Lara Logan [in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011] no doubt gave many Americans the unfortunate impression that Egyptian/Arab men are misogynistic a**holes and that there is something sick about those societies. Well, there are indeed such men in Egypt—as there are everywhere—and on the matter of gender relations there are some issues that are specific to that part of the world. But it has to be said that Egypt was not always this way. When I lived in Cairo in the mid 1980s it was absolutely one of the safest cities in the world, on a level with Tokyo, and that likely had less crime than even Oslo or Stockholm. One could leave one’s apartment door unlocked and walk about anywhere at any time of the day or night without the slightest worry. And this was also the case for women too (maybe not late at night, but then hardly anyone went out late in Cairo back then; the city was asleep by 11 PM). The situation has changed considerably over the years, with the worsening economic conditions for so much of the population, overwhelming population density, etc, etc. Egypt is incontestably a coarser, more violent place nowadays than it was in past decades.

In reading the polemics over Cologne, of the European and North American commentators who have tried to establish a link between the men and the fact they were from Muslim cultures, I was reminded of my visit with relatives in India some twenty-five years ago, where a 16-year-old cousin told me that she avoided walking around the center of the city (Allahabad) even during midday, as she was constantly harassed by groups of men (whom she specified were mainly migrants from the countryside recently arrived in the city). And, as one knows, there have been numerous incidents (reported in the international media) of gang rape in Indian cities, which, until proof to the contrary, were not committed by Muslim men. Indian cities are not necessarily safe spaces for unaccompanied young women.

Whatever cultural variables one may isolate regarding the men in Cologne, the determinate ones were, I will venture, the mob and inebriation. On this, one recalls New York City’s Puerto Rican Day parade in June 2000, during which dozens of women were sexually assaulted by packs of men (e.g. here, here, here, and here). And none of the men arrested or otherwise identified were refugees and/or from Muslim cultures.

One thing Cologne and New York City in June 2000 had in common: the police were not present. The packs of alcohol-imbibed young men had free reign of public space.

What is prompting me to write about Cologne at this particular moment is a debate/polemic on the subject that has been raging this month, including this weekend, which was initiated by the now well-known Algerian writer and commentator Kamel Daoud, who published a full-page tribune in Le Monde dated February 5th (online on January 31st), “Cologne, lieu de fantasmes,” in which he sought to establish a link between what happened on New Year’s Eve and Islamism, and which he followed up with an op-ed in The New York Times (February 14th) carrying the titre de chocThe sexual misery of the Arab world.”

Daoud’s linking of Cologne with Islamism and sexual pathologies in the Arab/Muslim world was too much for a certain number of readers. Nineteen MENA specialist academics of varying nationalities thus signed a tribune in Le Monde dated February 12th, “Nuit de Cologne: ‘Kamel Daoud recycle les clichés orientalistes les plus éculés’” (Kamel Daoud is recycling the most hackneyed Orientalist clichés), which was translated into English by the Jadaliyya webzine, under the title “The fantasies of Kamel Daoud.” A full-throttled polemical pushback, with no mincing of words. Disclosure: I know several of the 19 signatories personally and am personal friends with the tribune’s veritable authors.

My dear friend Adam Shatz, who published a profile of Kamel Daoud in the NYT Magazine last April—and with the two becoming good friends—had a few issues with the critique of Daoud, but was also disturbed by what he considered to be excesses by his friend. So he wrote him a letter/email several days ago and which prompted a response by Daoud, the two being published in Le Quotidien d’Oran this week (here and here) and then together in this weekend’s Le Monde, under the title “Kamel Daoud et les ‘fantasmes’ de Cologne, retour sur une polémique.” It’s a moving exchange between two friends, not to mention intellectuals.

On making sense of what happened in Cologne, the best analysis I’ve seen is a lengthy article that led Le Monde’s Culture & Idées supplement (February 6th), “Cologne: peut-on expliquer cette nuit de cauchemar?” by Frédéric Joignot. The lede: “Faut-il voir dans les agressions sexuelles massives de la Saint-Sylvester une conséquences des rapports compliqués qu’entretient le monde arabo-musulman avec les femmes et leurs corps? Plusieurs thèses s’affrontent.” Several major French MENA specialists weigh in. As the article is behind the wall, I’ve copied-and-pasted it in the comments thread below for non-subscribers.

While I’m at it, The New Yorker (February 8th-15th) has a must-read article by staff writer Elif Batuman, who’s Turkish-American, “Cover Story: The head scarf, modern Turkey, and me.” Don’t miss this one.

UPDATE: The Adam Shatz-Kamel Daoud email correspondence has been translated into English, by Elisabeth Zerofsky, and posted on the blog of the World Policy journal. (February 26th)

2nd UPDATE: The intellectual food fight debate over Kamel Daoud’s February 5th Le Monde tribune has continued into the second week of March, with all sorts of intellos, talking heads, and even politicians (qui ont perdu une bonne occasion de se taire) weighing in. As for contributions by the principal parties to the debate, Thomas Serres (one of the 19 signatories of the counter-tribune) launched a polemical salvo, “Autopsie d’une défaite et notes de combat pour la prochaine fois,” in the neo-anarchist Article 11 (March 2nd); Adam Shatz wrote a follow up, typically thoughtful essay on “The Daoud Affair” in the LRB Online (March 4th); Muriam Haleh Davis (one of the 19) has a post in the World Policy Blog (March 7th), “The ‘Daoud Affair’ sparks debate;” and Kamel Daoud penned a column entitled “Mes petites guerres de libération” in Le Quotidien d’Oran (March 7th).

3rd UPDATE: Olivier Roy is interviewed in the April 7-13 issue of L’Obs on a variety of topics, one of which is Cologne and the controversy over Kamel Daoud’s position. Here’s the question and Roy’s reponse

A la suite de votre tribune «Cologne ou “le tartuffe féministe”», parue dans «Libération», on vous a reproché d’apporter votre caution au «procès en sorcellerie» intenté au romancier algérien Kamel Daoud pour ses propos sur les violences sexuelles en Allemagne. Vous dénonciez en effet l’analyse culturaliste des agressions du Nouvel An. Quelle était votre intention ?

J’avais précisément refusé de signer la tribune contre Kamel Daoud. Car ses signataires, dont beaucoup me sont proches, me l’ont évidemment proposé, et j’ai décliné, parce que, si je partage leurs idées, je ne partageais par leur indignation. Pour ma part, je n’attaque pas Kamel Daoud, qui en tant qu’écrivain a le droit d’écrire ce qu’il écrit et d’être excessif, de même que chacun a le droit de critiquer ses opinions.

Ce que j’attaque, c’est l’idée qui traîne désormais partout qu’un musulman harcèle parce qu’il est musulman, et qu’un Européen harcèle parce qu’il a une pathologie particulière. Je ne comprends pas cet essentialisme. Qu’on nous dise qu’il y a une culture musulmane machiste, oui ; que la société algérienne soit une société où les femmes ont beaucoup de mal à aller dans l’espace public, oui. Mais qu’ensuite on nous décrive les musulmans, où qu’ils aillent, comme se trimballant avec un petit logiciel culturel de violeur potentiel dans la tête, non.

A contrario, on dit que les Occidentaux respectent la femme. Mais quand Cécile Duflot se fait siffler à cause de sa jupe à l’Assemblée nationale, ce n’est pas le petit beur de banlieue qui siffle ! Nous sommes dans des sociétés où le féminisme est un combat permanent. Le machisme est certes prégnant en Méditerranée, dans des sociétés qui n’ont pas fait Mai-68, mais il n’est pas spécialement religieux et, surtout, c’est la chose la mieux partagée au monde. Regardez Donald Trump.

I agree with Roy, needless to say.

4th UPDATE: Kamel Daoud’s January 31st Le Monde tribune has been translated by Elisabeth Zerofsky and published in the summer 2016 issue of World Policy Journal, under the title “Cologne, scene of fantasies.”

5th UPDATE: Adlène Meddi, an editor at the Algiers daily El Watan and one of Algeria’s sharper journalist-essayists of the younger generation, has an opinion piece (March 9th 2017) in the French edition of Middle East Eye, “Le cas Kamel Daoud, contre-ênquete.”

 

 

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Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia (Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia
(Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

[update below] [2nd update below]

The headline story in last Friday’s Le Monde, which I am looking at on my desk as I write, is entitled “Après les attentats, Europe se referme” (After the attacks, Europe is closing the door), and with a big photo of refugees, presumably Syrian, in a dingy off the coast of Lesbos. The accompanying article, on “the return of fortress Europe,” quotes PM Manuel Valls—a member of the Socialist party and formally a man of the left (albeit its most rightist flank)—saying that Europe must make it clear that it cannot welcome as many migrants as it has up to now. And on the France 2 news yesterday evening was a report from Slovenia, which is putting up a barbed wire fence on its border with Croatia to keep migrants out, taking after Hungary, Slovakia, and other EU member countries sure to follow.

On some level I can comprehend the reflex of Slovenia et al (though not Manuel Valls; I don’t care if he’s prime minister but it is simply not acceptable for a leading personality of the French PS to talk the way he does on this issue). European states are indeed not prepared to confront the torrent of refugees and migrants flowing into the continent—even though Europe has successfully dealt with refugee/migrant flows of equal, indeed greater, importance in the recent past (Yugoslavia in the 1990s), not to mention after WWII. Hopefully the EU-Turkey agreement that’s being hammered out, which will presumably allow for an orderly processing of asylum requests of the refugees in Turkey, will work.

As for the bottom line—and there is no getting around this—the majority of Syrian refugees will eventually have to be settled in third countries, mostly in the West. The war in Syria will not end anytime soon and when/if it does, there will be nothing for Syrians who have left the country to go back to. Syria has been destroyed and is not likely to be rebuilt, at least not in the foreseeable future (e.g. see this report from Kobane). The destruction of Syria is not only physical—of cities (Aleppo, Homs) and towns—but also societal. Wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that have generated large cross border refugee flows have mainly involved rural people, who await the war’s end so they can return to their villages and farms and try to resume their lives. The great majority of Syrian refugees are urban and educated. Their livelihoods and social networks—not to mention extended families—are gone. And they can’t sit around in refugee camps in Lebanon, or live on handouts in Turkey, for years on end. They need to be able to work, continue with their education if they’re of that age, and rebuild their lives. Now. A few will be able to do so in the MENA region but the only part of the world where this can happen for most is the West (including Russia).

The United States could easily absorb a large number of Syrians—say, one hundred thousand, even more (why not?)—but obviously won’t in view of the current political climate. The post-Paris hysteria in the Republican party—leaders and base—over taking in any refugees leaves one speechless. As WaPo’s Alexandra Petri put it a couple of weeks ago, the reaction of Republicans is “past the point of parody.” The fear of Americans—mostly on the right—that even a tiny number of potential terrorists could be embedded in a refugee population is particularly puzzling in a country where just about anyone can legally constitute an arsenal of assault weapons and then carry out a massacre—in a movie theater, elementary school, college campus, family planning clinic, social services center, you name it—and with no reaction whatever from the political system—and precisely because those Americans who fear potential refugee terrorists are also the kind who are all for the unlimited right to acquire assault weapons and will vote against any candidate to elective office who thinks otherwise. Fearing jihadi terrorism in a country with practically no jihadis but where mass shootings happen every day of the week—and to which politicians respond with prayers and thoughts and that’s it—is, objectively speaking, irrational.

Continuing to speak objectively, Syrian refugees are “not the problem,” as Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch asserted in a piece in Foreign Policy. Americans who do think that refugees are a problem tend, however, not to look at websites like Foreign Policy. Addressing Americans on that side of the political spectrum, my friend Claire Berlinski, who blogs at Ricochet—the tagline of which is “Conservative conversation and community”—has a good, well-argued post, dated November 24th, “What’s in it for us? Why we should accept Syrian refugees.” Glancing at the comments thread, it doesn’t look like she convinced too many of her numerous refugee-skeptical readers.

One group that has been excellent on the refugee question is the libertarians, with whom I otherwise disagree 100% on a whole range of issues (notably the economy and social policy). E.g. Dave Bier, the director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center in D.C.—a new libertarian think tank—has a fine piece (November 16th) on the “Six reasons to welcome Syrian refugees after Paris.” See as well the analysis (November 18th) by the Cato Institute’s immigration specialist Alex Nowrasteh, “Syrian refugees don’t pose a serious security threat.”

If one needs further convincing on the question, don’t miss historian Josh Zeitz’s explanation in Politico Magazine (November 22nd), “Yes, it’s fair to compare the plight of the Syrians to the plight of the Jews [and] here’s why.” Voilà.

UPDATE: Regarding my comment above on “mass shootings” in the US, Mother Jones’s Mark Follman has an important clarification in the NYT op-ed page, “How many mass shootings are there, really?”

2nd UPDATE: Comedian and TV host Samantha Bee had a humorous but informative two-part report on Syrian refugees and the American reaction on her show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Here’s part 1 and part 2. (February 24, 2016)

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America’s immigrants

Algerian man, Ellis Island, circa 1907 (photo: Augustus Sherman)

Algerian man, Ellis Island, circa 1907 (photo: Augustus Sherman)

WaPo’s Wonkblog has a great post, dated October 24th, on “What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island,” with amazing photos taken between 1892 and 1907 by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman, who worked as the chief registry clerk on Ellis Island. Check it out. I’d be curious to know what happened to the immigrants one sees in Sherman’s photos and their successive generations (and particularly the Algerian, who was possibly the first immigrant from that land to set foot in America). A great country America is, to have absorbed, and then integrated/assimilated, so many people from so many cultures—and which, pace Donald Trump and others in his party, continues apace today.

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Dheepan & La Vie en grand

Dheepan-affiche

These are two new French films set in the rough cités of the northern Paris banlieues and which I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. ‘Dheepan’, as one likely knows, was the surprise Palme d’or laureate at Cannes last May. The pic begins in a DP camp in far northern Sri Lanka, at what looks to be the moment of the army’s final victory over the LTTE insurgency (which would set it in 2009). LTTE fighter Sivadhasan—actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who was an LTTE guerrilla himself in his youth, so is familiar with the subject matter—is trying to hightail it out of the country—and for good reason, in view of the behavior of the Sri Lankan army after its victory (not to mention before)—for which he is aided by LTTE higher-ups, who furnish him with the passport of a dead fighter named Dheepan, that thus becomes Sivadhasan’s new identity. To improve his asylum chances abroad, he has to constitute a bogus family en catastrophe—his own has been killed—so does so with young widow Yalini (actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and nine-year-old orphan Illayaal (played by the impressive Claudine Vinasithamby, who was in primary school in the Paris area when she was cast for the role). They make the short hop by boat across the Palk Strait to India and then to Paris by plane (how that happened was not clear; did they get visas at the French consulate in Chennai? I’d be curious to know how this works, in view of the large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees France has received over the past 25-30 years).

Once in Paris, Dheepan requests political asylum for himself and his “family,” aided in crafting a halfway plausible story by his Tamil translator during the interview with the French case officer. The translator essentially makes up Dheepan’s story for him, with the fonctionnaire naturally not understanding a thing of what the two men are discussing and concocting. This bit I found interesting, as it points up a real problem in evaluating asylum requests, which is that asylum seekers can and do fabricate part or all of their stories—for which one can hardly blame them—and that are difficult, when not impossible, to verify by the host country authorities. And the veritable stories of many asylum seekers are indeed ambiguous. Dheepan, e.g., had well-founded reasons to fear that his civil rights, if not his physical integrity, would be violated were he to be taken into custody by the authorities of his country. On this level, his asylum application would be a no-brainer. But he had also been a fighter with an insurgent organization that carried out numerous atrocities, assassinations of elected officials—and in more than one country—and acts of terrorism—with it thus being designated as a terrorist organization by the EU, US, and others—which could result in the rejection of his asylum request. While watching ‘Dheepan’ I thought of the very good 2013 Sri Lankan film ‘Ini Avan’, which I wrote about at the time. The protag in that one, a former LTTE fighter, was not being sought by the authorities but, in view of his past, had become a social outcast and with his only option for making a living being criminality, of accepting offers he couldn’t refuse. And he was at permanent risk of retribution and from both sides. Had he been an asylum seeker in Europe, he would have had a strong case.

Returning to the film in question, after Dheepan’s asylum request is filed—and in France the process can take up to two years—he receives a job offer, to be gardien d’immeuble (superintendent) in a slummy building in a trashy cité, incongruously named Le Pré (the meadow), up in the Val d’Oise. This cité is as bad as they get: spatially isolated, populated entirely by immigrant families from the African continent—with nary a Français de souche in sight—and with rival drug-dealing gangs ruling the roost and engaging in periodic turf wars settled with semi-automatic weapons. If France allowed televised political advertising, the Front National would have a field day with images from the film. But a job is a job and an apartment that comes with it—even if it’s a dump—is an apartment, so Dheepan and his “family” take up residence there no complaints (this may be a movie—and thus fiction—but the image of immigrants willingly taking jobs that no one born and raised in France would do is real). Most of the film is set entirely in the cité and with three storylines, the first of the reality of their “family” situation, the couple of Dheepan and Yalini being purely instrumental, pour la forme, and devoid of sentiments—during most of the pic, at least—and with Yalini refusing to play mother to Illayaal, but with Dheepan nonetheless trying to build a normal life for them. And then there’s their adjustment to life in France, not speaking French—most of the film is in Tamil—and with the cité in which they live resembling nothing that the vast majority of French and non-Frenchmen alike would recognize as France. Dheepan, who has handyman skills, puts 100% into his job—he’s not a slacker (immigrants never are)—and forges a camaraderie with the older men in the building, who sit on the rooftop drinking and talking, while their gang-banger sons—over whom they have no authority—occupy the grounds of the cité below. Yalini finds relatively lucrative employment tending to the infirm father of the caïd, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), of one of the gangs, who’s nice to her but is not someone whose bad side one wants to get on. Illayaal has social adjustment problems in school. And then there’s the gang violence in the cité, that harks back to what Dheepan et al left in Sri Lanka and from which they cannot escape.

I found it an absorbing, well-acted film. The tension slowly builds, as you know something is going to happen. And—spoiler alert!—it does with Dheepan, who, fearing for the safety of Yalini and Illayaal, and fed up with the gangs and their crap, employs the skills he mastered as an LTTE fighter to bring the voyous to heel and clean up the cité. But the paroxysm of violence at the end sent the film into genre territory, as more than one reviewer observed. We’ve seen it countless time (I thought of the final scene in ‘Straw Dogs’). This was too bad. As one critic incisively tweeted: “It was 80% a great film…and then it wasn’t. Va savoir.” And the rose-tinted final scene, of Dheepan and the family—now a real one—settled in middle-class English suburbia, was problematic and on three levels: 1. The nightmare of France and its cités are starkly contrasted with the idyll of England (if current refugee/migrants in Calais were to see the scene, they would redouble their efforts to get across the Channel), suggesting a curious—and debatable—parti pris on director Jacques Audiard’s part. 2. How do Sri Lankan asylum seekers in France receive authorization and then visas to move to the UK anyway? and 3. How does a man who has just killed several persons in a bloodbath—even if they were lowlifes just asking to be whacked—get off the legal hook so quickly? I know that one sometimes has to suspend credulity for movies but still. So while I will give it the thumbs up, what could have been a great film turned out to be merely a good film and with a couple of issues. It is not on the same level as Audiard’s chef d’œuvre ‘Un prophète’, though ranks above ‘Rust and Bone’, which I didn’t like too much. As mentioned above, its Palme d’or was greeted with surprise by critics at Cannes. As I have seen only one of the other nineteen pics that were in competition, I can’t say for myself if it was deserved or not. French reviews are good on the whole—critics and Allociné spectateurs alike—though the Africultures website critiqued what it saw as the film’s clichéd, stereotyped portrayal of the banlieues. Hollywood press reviews are also good grosso modo, notably the ones in Indiewire and THR. Trailer is here.

The second film is ‘La Vie en grand’ (English title: Learn By Heart), the directorial debut of Mathieu Vadepied and which also premiered at Cannes (though not in competition for the Palme). This one is set in a cité in the neuf-trois, also gang-ridden, where 14-year-old Adama (first-time actor Balamine Guirassy) lives with his Senegalese immigrant mother, Fatou (actress Leontina Fall), who has been constrained by a judge to live apart from her polygamous husband—as living in a polygamous household will get one’s carte de séjour cancelled—and is having difficulty making ends meet. Adama is an indifferent student at school and on the verge of expulsion for failing grades, which are not due to lack of ability but rather his preoccupation with his mother’s precarious financial situation, having to work the marchés at dawn to earn a little money, and his separation from his (half) siblings, who live in another banlieue and whom he misses. One day his buddy, the 11-year-old Mamadou (Ali Bidanessy), finds a quantity of hashish, comme ça, and then Adama finds even an even greater quantity (this one dumped by dealers during a police raid), which the two decide to sell to the upscale kids at the local private lycée. So they go into business together, though with Adama only wanting to make money to help his mother. But as drug dealing is a dangerous business, not only because it’s illegal but as new entrants inevitably encroach on the turf of other dealers—and who are never nice people—Adama gets into trouble with some badass motherfuckers, who decide to make him and Mamadou work for them. One thinks of the runners in season 4 of the The Wire. But Adama tries to outwit the caïds all while striving to keep up with his schoolwork and avoid expulsion. And aided by three of his teachers plus the school principal—who are firm with him but go all out to help him succeed—he does so.

The school, with its teachers and principal, are Adama’s salvation. The film is a paean to l’école de la République. If I were a fonctionnaire with l’Éducation nationale, I would love the pic. And as for me, I did like it. Despite the subject matter it ends up being a feel good movie, mainly as Adama and Mamadou are absolutely, totally adorable. They’re boys you care about and want to help, indeed give a big hug to. And then there’s the happy ending (no spoilers). Going into the theater I was under the impression that the pic would be a comedy. It’s more of a dramedy, though, with the comedy part being one particularly hilarious scene, when Adama, who is ordered by the principal to bring his father to school the next day for an urgent meeting—but which Adama cannot and will not do—pays a clochard to accompany him and impersonate his father. This is one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen on the screen this year. Reviews of the film—by critics and spectateursare mostly good, though Africultures, in the link above, sniffed that the film’s feel good side served to downplay the complexity of the problems of the banlieues (and which the functioning of the educational system is a part of). Bof. Trailer is here.

la-vie-en-grand_2015

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