I learned about it in the past hour. I had no idea he had terminal cancer, and apparently few outside his family did either. Everyone was taken by surprise, as France Inter has been saying since the news broke. He was one of my favorite singers—in the top five—from the moment I was turned on to ‘Ziggy Stardust’—one of the greatest rock albums of all time—at age 16, in precisely the fall of 1972. I never got to see him in concert, though did watch an entire one of his on ARTE in the past decade—I think it was Dublin and may or may not have been live—during which I kept telling myself ‘he is so cool’ and so excellent. Last May I went to the touring exhibition David Bowie Is at the Philharmonie de Paris. A great expo. Voilà, c’est tout c’que j’ai à dire. R.I.P.
Today is the first anniversary of the massacre. I had not intended to mark the occasion but have just come across an excellent commentary by the fine British writer Kenan Malik, “Charlie Hebdo, one year on,” that he posted on his blog today and that I am reposting, as I share his view across the board. Among other things, Malik aims his fire at persons—mainly non-Francophones who had never picked up a copy of Charlie Hebdo in their lives and simply didn’t know what they were talking about—who asserted that CH was “racist” and “Islamophobic,” and, in its cartoons lampooning Islam and Islamism—though never Muslims qua Muslims—was, in the words of the cartoonist Gary Trudeau, “attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority.” Malik rubbishes all this, as did I in several posts last year (which, if one is interested, may be consulted via the Charlie Hebdo category on the sidebar).
For the record, I do differ with Malik on one point, which does not specifically concern CH. He writes
Like many on the left in France, Charlie Hebdo has often expressed strong support for the policy of laïcité. ‘Laïcité’ is usually translated as ‘secularism’. It is as a secularist, however, that I oppose it. Secularism demands a separation of state and faith. Laïcité, on the other hand, refers to a form of state-enforced hostility to religion. It requires the state to intervene in matters of faith.
This view of laïcité is widespread—including in France—but is inaccurate. There is a culture and spirit of laïcité but it is, above all, a law: the law of 1905 on the separation of churches and the state—which contains 44 articles—and its follow-up decrees—and which, it must be emphasized, enjoys a 100% consensus in France. No organization or public person in France opposes the 1905 law. Not one. The 1905 law mandates neutrality of the state vis-à-vis religion. That’s basically it. The 1905 law does not speak to the comportment or vestimentary practices of citizens—agents of the state in the execution of their duties excepted—in public space. So in order to proscribe the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols by students in public schools or of face veils on the street, new laws had to be enacted, as such was not prohibited by the 1905 law. The conception of what laïcité means has indeed evolved in France over the past three decades with the rising visibility of Islam, with laïcité now seen—by politicians left and right, intellectuals, and the public at large—as involving the behavior of individuals and not merely the state. But this is a perversion of laïcité as spelled out by the 1905 law. It is a distortion of this hallowed principle.
There has been a significant political evolution in France since last January’s attacks and, above all, since the ones of November 13th. France is going a bad and dangerous direction, and with François Hollande in the lead role. I’ll have more to say about this in the coming week or two.
My first movie of the year. And so far the worst. It is identified in the opening credits as Quentin Tarantino’s “8th film.” Two I have yet to see—the ‘Kill Bill’ series and ‘Death Proof’—but the others I have. The verdict: I loved ‘Jackie Brown’, thought ‘Inglourious Basterds’ was a hoot, ranked Django Unchained one of the Top 10 best pics of the year it came out, and did anyone not give the thumbs up to ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’? All this has ergo made me a more or less unconditional fan of Tarantino. After this latest one, I will need to make that conditional. Now I did not downright hate the movie—it merely disgusted me—or get bored or impatient at any point, despite its unreasonable running length of 2 hours 48 minutes (already 20 minutes shorter than the original version), which is without justification. If a movie is going to take up more than two hours of a moviegoer’s time, it should have a good reason to do so. There was none whatever for this.
The problems with the pic: First, it is unoriginal as far as Tarantino films go; stylistically and dialogue-wise, it’s a continuation of Django. Now some of the numerous critics who liked it did find the dialogue and storyline fresh and original. GMAB! We’ve heard and seen it all before from Tarantino. And stripped of the goofy characters, incessant trash talking, and copious use of the N-word, it’s just another Western. Secondly, a certain tedium does set in toward the middle, during which the characters—all unpleasant—drone on with their trash talk (N.B. most of the film is set indoors, in the single room of the lodge-saloon). I successfully staved off falling asleep over some twenty minutes, though felt I wouldn’t have missed much if I had. Thirdly, there’s the violence. One expects violence in a Tarantino film, which tends to be campy, indeed absurd, and not to be taken in the first degree. But it’s on another level in this one and from the outset, and exploding into a pornographic orgy of gore toward the end. And it’s gratuitous, not offbeat, tongue-in-cheek, or at all funny, and gets old fast. Tarantino may be trying to épater la bourgeoisie with graphic scenes of people—including nice, innocent ones, who are introduced in the latter scenes—getting their heads blown to pieces and sex organs riddled with bullets but he’s more likely to turn them off, if not repulse them (as he did me). Fourthly, Tarantino clearly wishes to convey a message about America’s history of race relations but it is not at all clear, not to me at least, what that message may be. And I don’t care about it. Ça n’a pas d’importance. And didn’t he already do this in Django?
In short, ‘The Hateful Eight’ is a nihilistic, pointless film to be avoided by all but the most unconditional Tarantino fans. For pertinent reviews, see A.O. Scott’s in the NY Times (mixed) and Lou Lumenick’s in the NY Post (thumbs down). The film opens in France on Wednesday (I’m presently in the US), where the critical praise is sure to be effusive.
UPDATE: Wow, Le Monde, in its issue dated Jan. 6th, has reviewed the film over an entire page, totally trashing it! Zero stars out of four: On peut éviter (one may avoid it).
Voilà my annual list of the best and worst movies of the year (for last year’s list, see here). The movies here opened commercially this year or in late Dec. ’14 in France or the US. All have posts on this blog or eventually will. N.B. Several well-reviewed US movies released in the past three months—and that figure on the “best of” lists of US critics—are opening in France after the new year, so I have yet to see them (and I have not seen ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ or ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’).
Marshland (La Isla Mínima)
Our Little Sister (海街dairy)
Son of Saul (Saul fia)
Testament of Youth
The Lesson (Урок)
The Measure of a Man (La loi du marché)
The Rooftops (Les Terrasses السطوح)
The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?)
Bridge of Spies
Fly Away Solo (मसान Masaan)
BEST MOVIE FROM ESTONIA:
In the Crosswind (Risttuules)
BEST MOVIE FROM ICELAND:
BEST MOVIE FROM GUATEMALA:
BEST MOVIE FROM MOROCCO:
Much Loved (الزين اللي فيك)
BEST SHORT MOVIE FROM ALGERIA:
The Days Before (Les jours d’avant قبل الآيام)
BEST SCHLOCKY BUT FUN ACTION MOVIE FROM ALGERIA WITH MIKE TYSON IN A CAMEO ROLE:
Les portes de soleil: Algérie pour toujours
BEST POETIC MEDITATIVE MOVIE FROM ALGERIA ABOUT AN ALGERIAN JOURNALIST NAMED IBN BATTUTA WHO TRAVELS THE ARAB WORLD SEEKING TO UNDERSTAND ARAB REVOLUTIONS:
Zanj Revolution (Révolution Zendj ثورة زنج)
BEST MOCKUMENTARY FROM TUNISIA:
Challat of Tunis (Le challat de Tunis شلاط تونس)
BEST WILD-AND-CRAZY MOVIE FROM ARGENTINA:
Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)
BEST RUSSIAN MOVIE FROM KAZAKHSTAN WITH NOT A WORD OF DIALOGUE:
BEST FRENCH MOVIE FROM TURKEY ABOUT ADOLESCENT GIRLS WHO SAY NO TO PATRIARCHY:
BEST MOVIE FROM IRAN THAT HAD TO BE SHOT IN GREECE BECAUSE IT COULD ABSOLUTELY NOT BE SHOT IN IRAN:
Red Rose (گل سرخ)
BEST MOVIE FROM THE CZECH REPUBLIC ON SPORTS DOPING IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA DURING THE COMMUNIST ERA:
BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY ON AN UNFORTUNATELY FAILED PLOT TO ASSASSINATE ADOLF HITLER:
13 Minutes (Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert)
BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY ON GERMANY’S POSTWAR RECKONING WITH THE CRIMES OF ADOLF HITLER:
Labyrinth of Lies (Im Labyrinth des Schweigens)
BEST MOVIE FROM ITALY ON THE TRAGEDY OF AFRICAN MIGRANTS WHO SUCCEED IN MAKING IT ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN TO EUROPE:
BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ON THE TRAGEDY OF AFRICAN MIGRANTS WHO DO NOT SUCCEED IN MAKING IT ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN TO EUROPE:
BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ON THE TRAGEDY OF HOMOPHOBIA:
The Imitation Game
BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE OFFERING AN IRONCLAD ARGUMENT FOR WHY A STEEP ESTATE TAX IS NEEDED ON FILTHY RICH PEOPLE:
BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE WITH JULIANNE MOORE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH CATHERINE DENEUVE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Standing Tall (La tête haute)
BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH CATHERINE FROT IN THE LEAD ROLE:
BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH ARIANE LABED IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey (Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice)
BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH OLIVIER GOURMET IN THE LEAD ROLE:
The Night Watchman (Jamais de la vie)
BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH FABRICE LUCHINI IN THE LEAD ROLE:
BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH ALBERT DUPONTEL AND CÉCILE DE FRANCE IN THE LEAD ROLES:
BEST MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE GENOCIDAL MASSACRES COMMITTED BY THE KHMER ROUGE REGIME IN CAMBODIA:
The Missing Image (L’Image manquante)
BEST MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE GENOCIDAL MASSACRES COMMITTED BY THE MILITARY REGIME IN INDONESIA:
The Look of Silence
BEST TOTALLY EXCELLENT DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE SAGA OF THE GREATEST ICE HOCKEY TEAM IN HISTORY:
BEST ENGAGÉ DOCUMENTARY ABOUT A NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY EMPLOYEE WHO BECAME A WHISTLEBLOWER:
BEST OVERLY LONG DOCUDRAMA FROM ISRAEL ABOUT THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZHAK RABIN:
Rabin, the Last Day (רבין, היום האחרון)
MOST FORGETTABLE FRENCH MOVIE FROM ISRAEL THAT ENDS WITH THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZHAK RABIN:
Atlit (Rendez-vous à Atlit)
MOST CURIOUS INDIE MOVIE FROM PALESTINE THAT PRACTICALLY NOBODY HAS SEEN:
Love, Theft and Other Entanglements (الحب والسرقة ومشاكل أخرى)
MOST OVERRATED HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ABOUT RACE RELATIONS ON AN AMERICAN UNIVERSITY CAMPUS:
Dear White People
MOST UNFORTUNATELY FLAWED HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ON THE ETHICS OF DRONE WARFARE:
MOST HEARTWARMING COMEDY FROM FRANCE ABOUT A ZANY DEAF FAMILY OF DAIRY FARMERS IN RURAL ANJOU:
The Bélier Family (La Famille Bélier)
BEST MOVIE BY RIDLEY SCOTT:
BEST MOVIE BY AVA DUVERNAY:
BEST MOVIE BY J.C. CHANDOR:
A Most Violent Year
BEST MOVIE BY BILL POHLAD:
Love & Mercy
BEST MOVIE BY JAFAR PANAHI:
BEST IMPERFECT MOVIE BY JACQUES AUDIARD:
BEST OKAY MOVIE BY ARNAUD DESPLECHIN:
My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)
MOST UNDERRATED MOVIE BY RUSSELL CROWE:
The Water Diviner
MOST ABSORBING FLAWED MOVIE BY JOACHIM TRIER:
Louder Than Bombs
MOST DISAPPOINTING MOVIE BY FATIH AKIN:
MOST INCOMPREHENSIBLE MOVIE BY MIGUEL GOMES:
Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One (As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Inquieto)
MOST REPREHENSIBLE MOVIE BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
MOST MENDACIOUS MOVIE BY ROBERT GUÉDIGUIAN:
Don’t Tell Me the Boy Was Mad (Une histoire de fou)
WORST MOVIE BY PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON:
WORST MOVIE BY PHILIPPE GARREL:
In the Shadow of Women (L’ombre des femmes)
WORST MOVIE BY LOUIS GARREL:
Two Friends (Les deux amis)
WORST MOVIE BY MAÏWENN:
WORST MOVIE EVER BY WOODY ALLEN:
Those who know Algeria need no introduction. For those who don’t know that country too well—its modern history and politics at least—Hocine Aït Ahmed was a major figure in the Algerian national movement of the 1940s and ’50s, one of the nine founding members of the Front de Libération Nationale in 1954, and an actor in the country’s politics in the decades that followed independence in 1962. He was, until his death last Wednesday, the last surviving member of those 1954 chefs historiques and the sole one of the six who survived the war who never held a position of institutional power, even for a day. Aït Ahmed was an opponent of the post-1962 authoritarian regime from the outset, inside Algeria—partly from prison—to 1966, then from exile—in Switzerland and France—until his return in 1989. He was a genuine democrat, advocating and agitating for political and cultural pluralism—and with not a hint of religion in his discourse—well before anyone else issuing from the wartime FLN. And democracy was not a mere slogan for Aït Ahmed; every non-Islamist political or civil society actor wrapped him or herself in the mantle of democracy from 1989 onward, which did not prevent many among them from supporting various dictatorial regimes (e.g. Saddam Hussein)—or the Algerian regime itself when it decided to crack down on legal political parties from 1992 on. Never Aït Ahmed. His Front des Forces Socialistes—the party he founded in 1963 (illegal until the advent of multipartyism in 1989)—has long been Algeria’s constituent member of the Socialist International, thereby aligning it with European social democracy, for which liberal democracy is the core value.
I felt a particular affinity for the FFS during my Algeria years (1989-90 and beyond). I interviewed Aït Ahmed in June 1990, spending an hour with him at his office (in El Biar). I was deeply impressed being in his presence—more so than with any other dignitary I’ve ever met, in Algeria or elsewhere—in view of his historical stature. The FFS’ boycott of the June ’90 municipal elections—Algeria’s first-ever free and fair, multiparty contest—didn’t make a lot of sense—Aït Ahmed’s frequent politique de la chaise vide was his principal political shortcoming—but the party did participate in the 1991 legislative elections, winning 7.4% of the national vote and arriving in third place, behind the Islamist FIS (47%) and ruling FLN (23%), confirming its stature as the country’s leading democratic party and preeminent voice of Algeria’s Kabyle Berber population (the FFS’ frère ennemi Berberist party, the RCD, received but 2% of the vote).
Aït Ahmed’s political base was almost exclusively Kabyle (who constitute perhaps 12% of the Algerian population) but Berberism was not central to his public discourse—he rarely made reference to specifically Berber issues—and he was widely respected beyond his Kabyle base. And, to his great credit, he condemned the January 12th 1992 military-dictated cancellation of the 2nd round of the legislative elections, which ended Algeria’s brief period of political liberalization and set in motion the Islamist insurgency—and army counterinsurgency—and wave of terrorism that ravaged the country for the rest of the decade. The FIS was headed for a landslide victory in January ’92, causing the RCD and other self-proclaimed “democrats” to take fright and support the military intervention. But Aït Ahmed, sure of his legitimacy and unwavering base among Kabyles, was ready to live with a FIS-led government—which he didn’t think would be permanent (for my detailed view on this, go here)—with him leading the opposition in the national assembly. The watchword of the big January 2nd ’92 demo in the center of Algiers that he organized, “Neither a police state nor fundamentalist state” (ni Etat policier, ni Etat intégriste), summed up his position. In view of the nightmare Algeria lived through after the fateful cancellation, Aït Ahmed’s stance was vindicated IMHO.
Algiers-based journalist Mélanie Matarese has an obituary of Aït Ahmed in Middle East Eye, “Algeria: the difficult legacy of Hocine Ait Ahmed,” which is a translation of the original French article (link at the end), and journalist Saïd Djaafer has a tribute in Al Huffington Post, “Hocine Aït Ahmed: l’homme qui aimait les militants et les Algériens.” And here’s a seven-minute video interview by Mohammed Harbi, Aït Ahmed’s contemporary in the independence movement and who knew him well.
UPDATE: Le Monde’s issue dated December 26-28 consecrated its entire page 3 to Aït Ahmed, with an obituary, “Hocine Aït Ahmed, l’âme du résistant,” co-written by Paul Balta, the paper’s Algiers correspondent in the 1970s and well-known MENA commentator about town in Paris since then. See also LM’s back page editorial, “Les illusions perdues de la démocratie algérienne.” N.B. President Bouteflika decreed eight days of official mourning for Aït Ahmed, despite the latter’s permanent opposition to Algeria’s post-1962 political order.
2nd UPDATE: Here’s a photo of Aït Ahmed looking over the Jan. 2nd ’92 demo.
3rd UPDATE: Two moments from the December 29th memorial service for Aït Ahmed in Lausanne: The hommage of Kabyle singer Idir and the traditional Kabyle acewiq (chant, by women, at a wake) by Nna Aldjia, the mother of Lounès Matoub.
4th UPDATE: Libération has a tribute, “Aït-Ahmed, ‘un long rêve de liberté et de démocratie n’est plus’,” by José Garçon, the paper’s longtime Algeria reporter and who was personally close to Aït Ahmed.
It is with sadness that I learned of the death, on December 23rd, of Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, professor emerita of political science at the University of Chicago, one of my main professors there as a graduate student, and a member of my dissertation committee. Susanne and her husband Lloyd—who survives her—were a pillar of the U. of Chicago’s political science department, where they taught for almost forty years before retiring early in the last decade. They were major political scientists—Susanne was a past president of APSA and the Association for Asian Studies—and among the world’s leading academic specialists of India (politics, history, civilization, everything). Their 1967 The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India is one of the most important books in political science published on that country. They knew India better than anyone one will meet in the academy, spending every fourth year there—Jaipur was their base—throughout their careers.
I speak of Susanne and Lloyd together and in the plural by reflex, as they were lifelong partners in scholarship, as in just about everything else (and they looked, at least by others, to be the perfect married couple); to know one was to know the other and equally. Almost all of their numerous books and countless articles were authored together (one that was widely read outside the academic world was their March 22nd 1993 essay in The New Republic, “Modern Hate: How Ancient Animosities Get Invented,” written at the height of the civil war in the ex-Yugoslavia). Their personalities were different, as were their professorial styles—they did not co-teach courses—but were complementary (and obviously perfectly compatible). And they were such nice people, and so appreciated by their students, colleagues, and everyone else who knew them. And so cultivated; intellectuals of their, breadth, depth, and caliber are rare in my generation, not to mention the younger ones.
The last book the Rudolphs published, in 2014, Destination India: From London Overland to India, is one that will interest those who are not specialists of India or inclined to read a book about it. They tell the story of their 1956 overland trip to India in a Land Rover (she was 26, he 29), starting in Germany and driving through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Paved roads ended soon after crossing the Bosphorus and did not resume until the Grand Trunk Road east of Kabul. Now I have not yet read the book but heard the story in detail from them one evening at their second home in Bernard, Vermont, where I visited them with my wife in 1993. It sounded like an amazing trip indeed.
Jenny Rudolph has a tribute to her mother on the website of the Indian weekly magazine Outlook and Ananya Vajpeyi, of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, has authored the obituary of Susanne in The Hindu.
UPDATE: On January 16th—twenty-four days after Susanne’s death—Lloyd Rudolph passed away. Here’s his obituary in UChicago News.
[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
It’s been a week since the 2nd round of the regional elections, the results of which are known to all with a passing interest in French politics: the alliance of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party and UDI/MoDem centrists won seven of the thirteen regions, François Hollande’s Socialists—allied with or supported by the rest of the left—took five, Corsican nationalists scored an upset in one—Corsica obviously—and Marine Le Pen’s Front National was shut out. The FN won nothing, due in part to the 8.5% spike in the participation rate: from 49.9% of registered voters in the 1st round to 58.4% in the 2nd. The increased participation was, personally speaking, readily apparent in my polling station, where I was an assesseur titulaire, with almost a hundred more voters (of 940 registered) showing up for the 2nd round, including an unusually high number—for this kind of election—in their 20s and even late teens (and in view of the result, they didn’t come to vote FN). There have been a few good analyses in English of last Sunday’s outcome, e.g. Pierre Briançon in Politico.eu, Arthur Goldhammer in The American Prospect and the Boston Review, and Hudson Institute research fellow Benjamin Haddad in The American Interest. So as not to repeat what these august commentators have to say—or my own analysis of the political field after last March’s departmental elections—I will make just a few points about France’s three political poles coming out of Sunday’s vote (in their order of finish).
“Les Républicains“: This was not a victory for the ex-UMP, loin s’en faut, despite its victory in seven of the new regions—corresponding to 12 of the 22 old ones, compared to a single one in the 2010 elections and a mere two in 2004—as Sarkozy and his acolytes had visions of winning 10 or 11 until the final phase of the campaign. The weekly L’Express—whose editorial line does not lean left—indeed called Sarkozy “the real loser” in its cover story on the election, as LR, entre autres, failed to break 50% in any triangulaire and with its most decisive victories being in the three regions—NPDCP, PACA, and the Grand Est—where the Socialists withdrew or disowned their lists after the 1st round—and thus sacrificing any representation in the regional councils there for the next six years—in the higher interests of the “front républicain“—a stance expressly rejected by Sarkozy for his own party—to bar the route of the FN. It was striking to see Sarkozy’s droitisation strategy—of mimicking the Front National on the immigration and national identity issues to lure back defecting right-wing voters—and rejection of an anti-FN front républicain with the PS openly disparaged in his own party in the aftermath of the vote, and not only by the usual suspects—e.g. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Jean-Pierre Raffarin—but also the hard right-wing sarkozyste historique Christian Estrosi in PACA and the conservative ex-villepiniste Hervé Mariton. Estrosi’s public critique of his now erstwhile mentor’s neo-frontiste rhetoric—the principal consequence of which has been to inflate the FN’s ranks and votes—was quite something.
Of equal note was Xavier Bertrand’s address in Lille on Sunday night, in which he explicitly thanked voters of the left—and with manifest sincere humility—for his victory over Marine LP in the NPDCP region. I will bet a small sum of money that Bertrand’s poll numbers will spike sharply in the next IPSOS baromètre with those on the left, who greatly appreciated his generous words. Estrosi did not initially go as far as Bertrand but has made it clear since that he will not forget about the left voters who enabled his victory over Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Had the PS not committed hara-kiri in those two regions, Marine and Marion would likely be presiding the regional councils in Lille and Marseille, point barre. In view of the FN’s large anchor in these regions, Bertrand and Estrosi will be beholden to left voters indefinitely, future elections included. And then there was Sarko’s unceremonious eviction of NKM from the nº2 post in LR’s leadership at Monday’s political bureau meeting—which Alain Juppé and Bruno Le Maire didn’t even bother showing up for—a move criticized by Juppé, Raffarin, and other Sarko detractors in the party.
Sarkozy is not at all convinced, however, that the election result was in any way a repudiation of his hard-right strategy. Au contraire, he sees it as confirmation of this, particularly in view of LR’s victories in France’s two largest and richest regions, the Île-de-France (Paris and its banlieues) and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (capital: Lyon). Valérie Pécresse, who headed the LR-UDI-MoDem list in the ÎDF, did not win by a large margin but her victory was nonetheless sans appel. And it was a particularly gratifying one for her, as Claude Bartolone’s 2nd round Socialist-led list represented the broadest-possible left and ecologist coalition—there were no less than 15 party logos on its campaign flyers—and with the outcome uncertain to the very end. The PS knew the race would be close but was confident it would win it. Pécresse—whom I’ve written about positively in the past, BTW— is moderately conservative and very much her own person—she is not a Sarkozy sycophant—but tacked right in the campaign, emphasizing the insécurité issue (fear of crime and terrorism), excoriating “communautarisme” (a code word for public displays of Muslim identity), and embracing personalities from the anti-gay marriage movement (La manif pour tous) that swept the conservative, practicing Catholic portion of French society in 2013 (and included religious Muslims and Jews), taking by surprise all the parties of the right, including the FN, none of which supported it. And then there was her campaign spokesman—and now chief-of-staff at the Conseil Régional—Geoffroy Didier, co-founder of the ex-UMP’s fanatically sarkozyste, Patrick Buisson-inspired La Droite Forte caucus and who is as far right as one can get in that party without becoming an outright frontiste. So it is entirely normal that Sarkozy would take particular comfort in Pécresse’s victory, as with that of Laurent Wauquiez in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. This one was decisive and somewhat unexpectedly so, as the PS, whose list was led by the incumbent Jean-Jacques Queyranne—a longtime politician in the greater Lyon area—had reason to hope it could win the region via an addition of left voters. Wauquiez is an unabashed hard rightist, whose rhetoric accents economic libéralisme—which plays well with right-wing voters in the southeast (Wauquiez’s base is the Haute-Loire)—denunciation of “l’assistanat“—read: welfare cases and other slackers who would rather receive taxpayer-funded free stuff from government than get a job—and defense of farmers and small-town folk, who provided his margin of victory on Sunday. Sarkozy’s replacement of NKM with Wauquiez as party nº2 was the logical thing to do from his standpoint.
Further reinforcing Sarkozy’s attitude was the poor performance of Virginie Calmels, the LR-UDI-MoDem’s list leader in the Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes, a member of no party until this year who not only lost the region by 12 points to the PS’s Alain Rousset but was bested in Bordeaux itself, where she is a vice-mayor and protégé of Juppé, who’s been the mayor of that city for two decades now. Sarkozyistes exulted over Juppé’s embarrassment (which one could observe on Twitter after the result was announced on Sunday night). And then there was the defeat in Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Centre-Val-de-Loire, and the narrowest of victories in Normandy, the lists in all three regions headed by UDI centrists (specifically from Le Nouveau Centre, one of the UDI’s principal constituents; for the record, the NC is, despite its centrist label, moderately to the right). For LR’s right-wing, this was proof that, electorally speaking, the centrists bring little to the table—and may even be a liability—and that tilting in a centrist direction is not the way to go for LR. Sarkozy defended the alliance with the UDI and MoDem and his offering the centrists the head-of-list slots in the three aforementioned regions, but could only be comforted in his droitisation strategy by the UDI’s counter-performance.
So there is not a chance that Sarkozy will modify his neo-frontiste discourse between now and LR’s primary next November—or after, in the appalling eventuality that he should win it. In this, he will be ardently supported by LR’s hardcore base and the online réacosphère of websites, blogs, and social media, and which has become ever more influential on the right. The incarnation of this is Valeurs Actuelles—US equivalents: National Review, Human Events—which was long a low circulation weekly magazine read by bourgeois reactionaries and ignored by everyone else but whose website is now the most high-profile in that segment of the political spectrum. If one wants to know what French hard-rightists are reading and thinking, that’s where to look.
The bottom line: the cleavage in LR is deep—which I discussed in my pre-2nd round post a week ago—and can only deepen further as the primary campaign dominates the life of the party in the coming year—and during which LR will be transformed into the sole instrument of Sarko and his clan, and all but abandoned by Juppé and the other candidates for the presidential nomination. It’s hard to see how the party can possibly unite around the candidate who wins the primary. In the horrific event that it’s Sarkozy, a centrist or center-right candidacy is certain—most certainly François Bayrou—and who will siphon many moderate LR voters. And if it’s Juppé—or even Le Maire or François Fillon—the LR’s Tea Party base will defect in sizable numbers to the best hard-right candidate on offer, e.g. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or even Marine LP.
The nominee will, however, not be Sarkozy, as I’ve been insisting for over a year now. His political comeback has been a flop, too many people in his own party can’t stand him, and his poll numbers are execrable. Now he did rise seven points in the last IPSOS baromètre—to 38% positive/57% negative—but this was taken in the week following the November 13th terrorist attacks and with almost every politician’s numbers improving; it was as if, in the post-attack national trauma, people felt the need to believe in their elected representatives. But Sarko’s positive rating is destined to tumble back to where it’s been since his return to the partisan arena—20s/low 30s—while Juppé will remain in the 50s, thereby maintaining his status as the most popular political personality in France. And there is no reason why this should change in the coming year barring an unforeseen affaire, as Juppé does not hold national office and therefore has no active bilan over which opinions of him can evolve. He incarnates a center-right sensibility conforming to that of the French median voter and with a steely but calm, steady temperament that reassures rather than disquiets. On this level, the contrast between Juppé and Sarkozy—with his feverish, frenetic, trash-talking persona, constantly blowing his stack in front of his associates (which has been reported countless times over the past decade)—could not be starker.
À propos of all this, France Inter’s political editorialist Thomas Legrand—who is the sharpest, most incisive analyst of French politics in the media—asserted on Friday—correctly, in my view—that France’s next president will be on the center-right. He did not specify who that man or woman would be, though did advance a few names, including Sarkozy and Hollande (most unlikely, IMO). Juppé pretty clearly fits the bill. As for the relative strengths of these three men in the general election, an IFOP/Atlantico poll released December 18th has some interesting numbers: if LR’s candidate is Sarkozy and with Bayrou running, Hollande will overtake Sarko to face off against the first place finisher Marine LP in the 2nd round (it’s likewise if Fillon wins the primary). But if LR’s candidate is Juppé—and with or without Bayrou in the race—he finishes in first place and well ahead of Marine (and whom he will annihilate in the 2nd round). If these IFOP numbers remain steady over the coming year, Sarkozy is toast. Point barre. 100% cooked. There is no chance whatever that right and center primary voters will give the majority to a candidate who looks even iffy for the 2nd round.
The Socialists: The PS is satisfied with last Sunday’s outcome, which is hardly surprising in view of its debacles in the 2014 municipal and European elections and last March’s departmental. But it should not be, as its victories in two of the five regions it won—BFC and CVDL—were narrow and due only to the high scores of the FN. And its loss in the ÎDF was a real setback, as the PS and its allies have governed this region since 1998 and with the city of Paris now safely voting left. And adding to these is the left’s disappearance altogether from the councils in NPDCP—a historic PS/left stronghold—and PACA.
Back to the ÎDF, the loss here laid bare much of what is wrong with the Socialists these days and the precarious situation they find themselves in. First, with Claude Bartolone heading the list. The manner in which he had Jean-Paul Huchon ejected—with the manifest assent of François Hollande, even though Huchon had loyally, if uncharismatically, presided the ÎDF Conseil Regional for the previous 17+ years—was unseemly. Moreover, it’s not as if Bartolone, who happens to be President of the National Assembly—the fourth ranking post in the French state—was seeking a mandate commensurate with his political stature—unless, of course, he was looking to assure his own political future, knowing that his party will be wiped out in the legislative elections in 18 months time. Now “Barto,” as he is known, is said to be greatly appreciated by PS deputies but for those outside the party he is the epitome of a Rue de Solférino apparatchik. There is, objectively speaking, nothing compelling about him as a politician. And then there was his demagoguery in the 2nd round campaign, calling Valérie Pécresse the defender of “Versailles [i.e. reactionaries], Neuilly [i.e. filthy rich people], and the white race…” Personally speaking, I considered voting blanc on account of this low road attack, though finally cast my ballot for Barto, solely to (unsuccessfully) deprive Sarkozy the satisfaction of winning the region.
Secondly in regard to the ÎDF was the PS’s failure to win the region despite the broad left coalition it put together in the 2nd round. As mentioned above, absolutely every constituent on the left save neo-Trotskyist groupuscules (NPA, LO etc) supported the PS-led list. These even included Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche, Mélenchon normally loathing the PS with a passion. Now most of these formations are admittedly not too significant—when not entirely unknown to the general public—but the symbolism was important nonetheless. The fact that a broad left coalition could still not win the ÎDF—and despite LR’s rightist campaign rhetoric and the FN not being a factor—will have implications for the PS’s future calculations—and to which may be added the PS’s victory in Brittany—the list led by Jean-Yves Le Drian breaking 50%—without any support from the rest of the left (Le Drian, finding the écolos’ 2nd round demands for slots on the list to be unreasonable, told them to go f— off). In view of the poor 1st round performance of the Europe Écologie-Les Verts and the Front de Gauche, and the total stock of left votes barely reaching 36%, it is now clearer than ever that the gauche de la gauche is all but useless to the PS in winning elections, at least when it comes to formal accords between partisan formations.
This is not to say that the overall identification with the left is on the decline or that the French left is finished (even though I’ve said as much myself in moments of despair or disgust). The French left is certainly in crisis—unsure of what it believes or wants and, insofar as it knows this, with no idea how to get there—and with its partisan structures in various stages of deliquescence or discredit, but the left identity remains strong. An IFOP poll for L’Humanité back in September revealed some interesting figures on this—and which seem right to me—with 53% of the sample situating itself on the right and 47% on the left (self-identified centrists were likely asked to tilt in one direction or another). Breaking these down, 28% identified as left, 15% center-left, and 4% extreme-left. On the other side, 25% identified as right, 17% center-right, and 11% extreme-right. These numbers show at least four things. First, they confirm what has been known for most of the past century—and particularly during the Fifth Republic—which is that France leans to the right. There been have moments when the left surged ahead—1936, 1944-46, 1981—but these have been exceptional and short-lived. Second, there has not been a droitisation of French society and whatever Nicolas Sarkozy and other rightists may think: it’s the right that has lurched right—to the hard and extreme—not French voters as a whole. Third, the relatively low stock of left votes in current elections is not due to the defection of left voters to the right but rather their retreat into abstention (and disappointed but politically engaged voters who stop going to the polls can be lured back). Fourth, if one considers the new reality of French politics to be tripartite—PS, LR, FN—one can order the IFOP numbers to reflect three political poles of almost equal voter strength: left/extreme-left, center-left/center-right, and right/extreme-right.
François Hollande, Manuel Valls, and other social-liberals in the PS look to have drawn the inevitable conclusion from both the 2nd round results—in regard to the écolos and rest of the left—and the IFOP numbers, which is that there is no electoral salvation for the PS exclusively on the left. The cleavage within the party—between the social-liberals and those who are not this, who do not, e.g., appreciate Emmanuel Macron—is widening, and that with the FdG being an unbridgeable chasm. If the PS is ever to win another election, it has no choice but to look right for coalition partners with whom it can govern: UDI/MoDem and the center-right formation that issues from the eventual breakup of LR. Valls and others in his corner have been talking since last Sunday about a major “recomposition,” indeed upheaval, in the French political field and this is what they have in mind—and their thoughts have been echoed by moderate LR politicos, notably Raffarin and Bertrand.
Such a recomposition will necessitate the PS changing its name—i.e. shedding the “socialist” label—which Valls and Julien Dray mentioned during the week. The PS’s hack First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis tried to quash the idea and others called it irrelevant but the party will need to do this, as “socialism” simply doesn’t mean anything anymore; or, rather, it refers to a doctrine from another era that no one in the PS—or even PCF—advocates or believes is possible. People are not completely disconnected from reality. Moreover, it was precisely when socialism became the dominant creed on the French left that the latter ceased to cover over half the political spectrum—which it had in the early decades of the Third Republic—through the First World War—when adherence to republicanism and laïcité was what situated one on the left. Rid of the “socialist” label—to which older PS members and left voters are viscerally attached but means nothing to the younger generation—a reconstituted social-liberal party—likely including the PRG and non-EELV écolo groups—would have a wide boulevard to constitute coalitions with the center and a new center-right formation, based on republicanism and economic policies such as those associated with Macron. The consequence of this will no doubt be a split in the PS, with its frondeurs and other gauchistes (Benoît Hamon et al) forming a new party that will ally with a post-Mélenchon FdG, forming the left pole of French politics (and which still represents many people).
This is all post-2017, though—a project for the future—after the PS has been relegated to the opposition and Hollande sent into retirement. And it will necessitate a change in the electoral system, of a dose of proportional representation in legislative elections—of up to half the deputies in the National Assembly being elected on national PR lists—as three poles with roughly equal electorates and coalitions of several small parties cannot happen with the current mode de scrutin. But there is no chance whatever that a post-2017 government of the right will introduce even a modest dose of PR. And though this was one of Hollande’s 2012 campaign pledges, he has now abandoned it.
Yet one more Hollande disappointment… Despite his post-November 13th leap in the polls—which, like that in January, will not last—Hollande has disappointed just about everyone. His presidency has been that: one huge disappointment. If he had pushed through just one big reform and that everyone could feel—and most in an immediately positive way—e.g. reforming France’s impossibly complex, incomprehensible, and unfair tax code—making it less complex, more comprehensible, and fair, such as proposed, e.g., by Thomas Piketty et al—he could have secured his presidency and legacy. As an énarque surrounded by énarques, he understands this dossier and could have taken it on. But his cautious, splitting-the-difference political style would not allow for such audacious action and that risked upsetting various constituencies and interest groups. And then there is his and the Valls government’s wild overreaction to November 13th, with the état d’urgence and talk of amending the constitution on this, so as to allow for, entre autres, the stripping of French nationality of native-born citizens. This latter bit—which is outrageous and unacceptable, not to mention shocking coming from a PS government—will, in view of the outcry on the left, no doubt be dropped but if it’s not, Hollande will definitely not make it to the 2nd round should he be a candidate. Large numbers of left voters will defect to another candidate or abstain. Like Sarkozy, he’ll be toast in ’17.
Front National: I have less to say about the FN than the above-mentioned political poles, as it is, objectively speaking, by far the least important. The FN is a party that has never governed any Frenchmen or women—apart from those in a tiny handful of unfortunate communes that the great majority of French citizens have never set foot in—and which is not about to change. The FN is not a party of alternance and, in its present form, will never be.
A few brief points about this objectively minor political party. First, all the post-1st round talk about the FN being le premier parti de France was, pardon my French, a load of bullshit. A political party that has existed for over forty years but sent a total a five deputies elected in single-member constituencies to the National Assembly, two senators to the Luxembourg palace, elected fewer than twenty mayors of communes of over 3,500 inhabitants in its history, has never controlled a single regional or departmental council, and is influential in not a single civil society association or organization of any significance cannot be considered important. Point barre. For those who differ with me on this—who do think the FN is a consequential party—here’s a question: have you ever been to a major FN event, e.g. a Jean-Marie or Marine Le Pen rally, May 1st Jeanne d’Arc march in Paris, Fête BBR before it was discontinued in 2007? Anyone who has—and I have at least a half-dozen times—will have observed that the FN is a relatively small party, whose hard-core base doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Cf. the PCF, whose national vote is now in the low-mid single digits but which can attract a hundred times more people to its events than the FN.
Second, the FN, as a festering boil on the French body politic, merits close attention, study, and analysis but, as happens with boils, it was lanced in last Sunday’s 2nd round. The result was proof for the umpteenth time that breaking 50% of the vote in any given constituency is something the FN cannot do. This was the case 20-30 years ago and remains so today. That the FN can’t even come close to winning the PACA region—the most right-wing in the country and where it is solidly implanted—makes the mere notion that it could win a presidential election—in 2017, 2022, or anytime in the foreseeable future—absurd and laughable. The FN won 6.8 million votes last Sunday, which was a historic achievement and nothing to sneeze at. But the sky is not the limit for Marine LP and her party is not likely to go much higher, particularly in high participation contests such as legislative and, above all, presidential elections. E.g. the average of the participation rates in the 2nd round in all the presidential elections since 1965—with the exception of 1969, which was an anomaly (as one of the major parties instructed its millions of faithful voters to stay home)—is 83%. If Marine LP makes it to the 2nd round in 2017, which looks likely, one may bet that the participation rate will reach, maybe even exceed, 85%, i.e. that over 40 million voters will go to the polls on that day. I’m sorry but there is no way—not a snowball’s chance in hell—that 20 million French citizens will vote to send Marine Le Pen to the Élysée palace. Jamais de la vie. Not in 2017, or 2027, or ever.
Third, the reason why the FN cannot break 50% is because it has not changed. Apart from Marine Le Pen striving the rid the party of her father’s hang up about Jews, it’s still the same FN. In this respect, all the talk about the FN having transformed itself from a parti de protestation to a parti d’adhésion is nonsense and rubbish. The FN remains a protest party for which populism is its DNA. And at the core of populism is an across-the-board denunciation of “the establishment”—of the governing elites, mainstream political parties, the media, intelligentsia, educational institutions, etc, etc—which is seen as the enemy and with which compromises are not to be made. Marine LP is said to want to be President of the Republic, that this is her ambition and her goal. It may well be. But she has not elaborated a credible strategy to get there, a centerpiece of which would be to cultivate at least part of “the establishment” and seek out allies within it. Unless she’s a megalomaniacal narcissist, which is possible, one may hypothesize that she doesn’t really want state power after all—as her father never did—as if she were to obtain it, this would immediately make her part of the establishment and impose all sorts of compromises that she would have no idea how to make. And the FN, as the party of the new establishment, would lose its raison d’être, as all populist parties do when they wield executive power.
Fourth, on the question of allies: Florian Philippot spoke between the two rounds of allying with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France, that this is something that the FN should maybe try to do. There seemed to be no takers in the FN leadership for this, even though NDA’s position on Europe is closer to the FN’s than anyone else’s outside the party. But while NDA may be a Europhobe he’s not a facho and would never ally with the frontistes, as he would gain nothing from it but would lose a lot, namely his credibility in “the establishment” (which he does have). Likewise with Philippe de Villiers—now retired from electoral politics—who is way out on the right—more so than NDA—but never showed the slightest interest in allying with the FN and despite movement of cadres between the latter and de Villiers’s now moribund Mouvement pour la France. So the FN’s absence of allies—which it manifestly does not want and that no one wants with it—will continue indefinitely. And without allies or some kind of entrée into “the establishment,” the doors to power will be forever closed to the Le Pens.
One other point about the FN and why it cannot be placed in the same league with LR, the PS, UDI, MoDem, the FdG or any of the other “establishment” parties or blocs. The FN is the private preserve of the Le Pen family. It is a Le Pen family enterprise. Without a Le Pen at the head of the FN, the FN does not exist. If Marine and Marion were to suddenly leave this earth—as Jean-Marie certainly will sooner rather than later—there would be no one to take their place. The FN would fragment into several pieces. The French extreme right would cease to speak with a single, dominant voice. And it would thereby disappear as a significant electoral force.
UPDATE: If one didn’t see it, Sarah Palin had a column in Breitbart.com, dated December 13th, praising Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and her aunt Marine. The Wassila Wacko thus begins: “I have a political crush, but one I couldn’t vote for today – because she ran for office in France.” The “she” is Marion M-LP. Read it and behold. As I’ve tirelessly insisted for years, the conservative wing of the GOP = Front National.
2nd UPDATE: A faithful reader—my mother—emailed me the following comment about the above: “I did…read the article supposedly authored by Sarah Palin. I use that qualifying phrase because I believe someone wrote it for her. It is too literate and well-written to be hers, and she has allies out there to support her as a public personality.” My mother is no doubt correct. I was struck that Palin—whom I rather doubt reads French—would know enough about Marion M-LP & Co. to write about them, let alone be interested in doing so.
3rd UPDATE: Two post-election polls are out, by ELABE and Odoxa, that show a reinforcement of Alain Juppé position and a collapse of Nicolas Sarkozy’s. The gap between the two men is wider than ever. As for François Hollande, he’s headed south.