CEVIPOF_Liegey Muller Pons

For those who don’t live in the Hexagon or keep up with politics here, the first round of the regional elections is happening tomorrow. There are 13 regions in France; until this year there were 22 but François Hollande and his Socialists decided, for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, that 22 was too many and that the apparently too-small regions needed to be larger. So Hollande had his Socialists push through a stupid, half-baked law earlier this year—that only graduates of ENA, of which Hollande is one, could cook up—to force through a merger of a few—but that absolutely no one in the affected regions understood or wanted—to bring the number down to 13. For those interested, the old map is here, the new one here.

The regional councils don’t have a lot of power—considerably less so than state legislatures in the US—though have some responsibilities—mostly technical—and the budget to go along with them. But most people don’t think about the councils too much, so the participation rate in regional elections is relatively low (46% in the last ones, in 2010). The mode de scrutin (electoral system) is proportional list in two rounds. It used to be in one round, through the 1998 elections, thereby allowing for the theoretical possibility of ad hoc coalitions. When the political system was bipolarized—with a left and right pole—coalitions didn’t need to happen, but with the Front National’s breakthrough that year, the then Socialist-led government decided to modify the electoral system, with a majority bonus awarded to the list arriving in first place in the second round, the idea being that this would prevent the FN from holding the balance of seats in a hung council.

Brilliant Socialists. Now that we have a tripolar system in France—with the FN being one of the poles—Marine Le Pen & Co. could well take control of three—or even more—of the regional councils after the second round next Sunday. This didn’t need to happen but, with the current mode de scrutin, most likely will. Electoral systems matter. The above map shows, based on the latest polling data, which list will finish in first place where and by what magnitude. The black/gray is FN, blue is LR (Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party), the red/pink the PS (as for the Front de Gauche and écolos, they’re non factors). Bleak, as my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer puts it in a post today (N.B. the important article he links to by Nonna Mayer).

I’ll be an assesseur titulaire (election judge) at my own polling station tomorrow (representing the PS, whom I will probably vote for, out of pity). It will be interesting to see how many of my neighbors vote FN (I fear the worst). Post-election commentary will follow on Monday or Tuesday.

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]

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?”

Son of Saul


I’ve seen many movies on the Holocaust but this one, by Hungarian director László Nemes, has to be the most horrific. One imagines with difficulty a more nightmarish commission than that of a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The film is a tour de force, as is the performance of Géza Röhrig, who plays the protagonist Saul (and is in almost every frame). French reviews (tops) are here, US-UK reviews (also tops) are here (and also here). If you have the opportunity to see the film on a wide screen, do so. And if you can on 35 mm, so much the better. Trailer is here.

UPDATE: Christopher Orr, principal film critic at The Atlantic, has a review, dated January 17th 2016, “Son of Saul and the intimate mechanisms of genocide.”


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Yesterday I had a brief post on the victims of the November 13th attacks. Today it’s on the perpetrators. If one hasn’t seen it, Olivier Roy has the best analysis so far of the terrorists, in a full-page tribune in Le Monde dated November 25th, “Le djihadisme est une révolte générationnelle et nihiliste” (also here). In reading Roy’s essay in hard copy, I underlined noteworthy passages to quote. But as almost the entire thing got underlined, I’ll just let you, the reader, read it in its entirety. If the essay is eventually published in English, I’ll link to it.

One key line by Roy: What we’re facing here is not a radicalization of Islam but rather an Islamization of radicalism.

Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, who has spent much of the past two decades living in Iraq and Syria, weighs in on the Paris terrorists in a must-read post, dated November 26th, in Orient XXI, “Tuer les autres, se tuer soi-même.” Again, if this one is published in English—which, in view of Harling’s bilingualism, is possible—I’ll link to it in an update.

The excellent Farhad Khosrokhavar, who knows more about jihadism in Europe than any other social scientist, is interviewed in L’Obs (November 26th) on the question post-Paris, “Moins ils connaissent l’islam, plus ils sont attirés par le djihad.” Translation: the less they know about Islam, the more they are attracted by jihad.

Also interviewed on the Paris attacks (November 26h) is the well-known Islamologist Gilles Kepel, in the Lausanne daily Le Temps, “Le 13 novembre? Le résultat d’une faillite des élites politiques françaises.” Kepel—who unhabitually lets loose in the interview—has some interesting observations on, entre autres, Saudi Arabia, as well as on the Al-Qaida/IS grand penseur Abu Musab al-Suri. (BTW, on al-Suri see Adam Shatz’s 2008 review essay in the LRB, “Laptop jihadi“).

EHESS doctoral candidate Adam Baczko has a tribune (November 26th) in Libération, “L’objectif de l’Etat islamique est de provoquer une politique de réaction identitaire.”

À suivre, évidemment.

UPDATE: Olivier Roy, at a conference in Germany on international terrorism ten days ago, gave a speech entitled “What is the driving force behind jihadist terrorism? – A scientific perspective on the causes/circumstances of joining the scene,” which is pretty much an English version of his Le Monde essay. It is linked to in PDF in the first comment below (thanks to Rich Kaplan—crack sociologist and personal friend—for finding it).

2nd UPDATE: If one didn’t see it, French journalist Nicolas Hénin has an op-ed in The Guardian (November 16th), “I was held hostage by Isis [for ten months in 2013-14]. They fear our unity more than our airstrikes.” The lede: “In Syria I learned that Islamic State longs to provoke retaliation. We should not fall into the trap.” Pour l’info, Hénin has a book out, Jihad Academy, published by Fayard this past February.

Omer Aziz, a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School who recently worked for the UN Special Envoy to Syria, has a piece in TNR (November 17th), “The soul of a jihadist: The radical evil behind the terrorist attacks on Paris.”

And ICYMI, the NYR Daily has two posts dated November 16th: “Paris: The war ISIS wants,” by Franco-American anthropologist Scott Atran—who has written extensively on radical Islamism—and UCL doctoral student Nafees Hamid; and “From Mumbai to Paris,” by the well-known Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.

3rd UPDATE: The Swiss RTS had a twenty-minute interview with Olivier Roy on November 27th (listen here), in which he said, entre autres, that trying to deradicalize jihadists is “absurd.”

The Paris attacks: the victims

Credit: Aufeminin

Credit: Aufeminin

The national hommage to the victims of the November 13th attacks, at Les Invalides, is underway as I write. Numerous portraits of the victims have been published in the press and online—here’s one in English—which I can’t look at without tears in my eyes. This is all very close to home. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

UPDATE: Watch the great rendition of La Marseillaise (here) at the Invalides ceremony.

2nd UPDATE: Le Monde is publishing, in each issue from November 27th on, biographical portraits of all the victims (here and here). As LM’s Aline Leclerc and Sylvie Kauffmann observe in the introduction to the memorial (my translation): “What these portraits reveal is the extent to which the terrorists, in their choice of targets that evening, were aiming at youth, intelligence, culture, education, and tolerance. The story of these 130 lives reads like that of the fine flower of a society confident in the success that knowledge, science, and an openness of mind can give. Frenchmen and women, and foreigners who had come to France precisely for that, they were, this November 13th, the symbol of a Paris of Enlightenment in the 21st century. This memorial has but one wish: that they remain.”

[update below]

It’s been a week since my reflections à chaud on the attacks. Like quite a few other people, I’ve been talking, reading, and thinking about little else since then. In the torrent of commentaries and analyses that have been posted online, some have been very good (I linked to a few in the previous post). But now my dear friend Adam Shatz has written the best so far, “Magical thinking about Isis,” in the London Review of Books. Adam and I had lengthy Skype discussions and email exchanges while he was writing the piece, during which he read me parts of it, so I knew what he was going to say. Having now read the published version I can report that it is even better than I expected (and I naturally knew it would be tops, as Adam’s writings invariably are). I have much to say on the subject myself, which I will do in due course. In the meantime, read Adam.

ADDENDUM: The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud—whom Adam profiled in the NYT Magazine last April—has an op-ed in the NYT (dated November 20th), “Saudi Arabia, an ISIS that has made it.” Pour l’info, Daoud is presently in the US and Canada on a book tour, speaking in New York City this past Monday to a packed house. The event, which Adam moderated, was a smashing success, so I heard.

UPDATE: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi—an Iraqi national, Oxford University graduate, Middle East Forum research fellow, and all-around smart person—has a must-read analysis (November 20th) in The Huffington Post, “The Paris attacks reflect intelligence failure — not a change in ISIS strategy.”

The Paris attacks

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I’ve been in a daze, along with everyone else here, over what has happened. And having slept fitfully for maybe three hours last night isn’t helping to clear my head. Nor is hearing the accounts of traumatized eyewitnesses on the radio and TV, or watching the mobile phone videos taken from the scenes of the attacks in their immediate aftermath. I can’t wrap my head around this. The terrorist attacks happened in corners of Paris I know well, where I often find myself, and where many people I know often find themselves (and where some live). And where my wife and I could have found ourselves last night, not to mention our daughter had she been in Paris (she’s in university this year down south; and we’re already learning that there are two degrees of separation between us and persons who were killed or wounded last night). In the early evening we went to an art expo at the Fondation Cartier, after which we had a drink at a fine café on nearby Rue Daguerre (14th arrondissement), a café much like the ones targeted last night (we were sitting in the enclosed terrace, looking out over the bustling pedestrian street). I had initially thought that we could have dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the 10th arr.—some 200 meters from where the first attack took place—but as I had already had a late lunch at a restaurant (Hunan) and thus wasn’t hungry—nor was my wife, who took a dish at the café—we decided to head back to our tranquil banlieue, getting home around 9:00, about twenty minutes before the first attack. I watched several minutes of the France-Germany friendly match but missed the explosions, learning about the attacks on the Internet during half time.

In lieu of a lengthy analysis—which would be premature at this early point—a few comments. First, where the attacks took place. The 10th and 11th arrondissements were not chosen at random. This part of Paris—and the eastern part of the city more generally—was historically populaire (working class) but has been transformed over the past two decades. It’s become a hip area, with an active nightlife and cool bars and restaurants frequented mainly by young people (20s/early 30s): hipsters, students, and young professionals, and of all ethnic origins. The evening ambiance in that part of the city is great. And it’s more lively that what I’ve seen in London. The Islamic State terrorists targeted that area precisely because of what it is and symbolizes. As my daughter (age 21) told me on the phone today, the young people who hang out there—and where she goes with friends on weekend evenings when in town—are the best of France’s generation of the future—politically liberal, open-minded, tolerant, and creative. One commentary in English I’ve come across, by Los Angeles-based Parisian Manu Saadia, indeed makes this point.

Second, though only one of the eight dead terrorists has been formally identified as I write, there can be no doubt that the operation was conceived and led by Frenchmen—by persons who grew up in the Paris area, have an intimate knowledge of the city, and are no doubt French citizens from birth. Non-French jihadists could have never hatched this plot. One may also safely assume that the terrorists were radicalized not in mosques or by jihadist imams but via the Internet, and that most, if not all of them, have been in Syria or some other MENA war zone. The sale and private possession of assault weapons are, as one knows, illegal in France, though they can be had via traffickers (mainly from the Balkans). But to learn to use them in the way the terrorists did last night involves training and practice that would be difficult to do in France without being detected, but that they would obviously get in Syria. So France and other European states, in protecting themselves from the Islamic State death cult, absolutely need to shut down, to the extent possible, the route to Syria via Turkey, by, entre autres, formally telling the Turks to stop admitting EU nationals with national ID cards only (and not passports), to issue visas at their borders, and to agree—in return for the substantial aid Turkey will be receiving from the EU to deal with the refugees there—to a discreet European police presence working with their Turkish counterparts on the Syrian border. This won’t entirely solve the problem but it will help a great deal.

Third—and something I was thinking last night—is the huge failure this represents on the part of the French intelligence services. For such a complex, coordinated sequence of terrorist attacks—and involving at least eight, and certainly more, persons—to happen in the heart of Paris, less than a year after Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher and without the police or intelligence apparatus getting wind of it, is a debacle for the French state. And particularly in view of the reinforced Vigipirate deployment since the attacks in January, with ever more soldiers in jungle fatigues with their machine guns—that may or may not be loaded (which would be incredibly stupid either way)—on the streets and transportation hubs. Vigipirate, like the TSA in the US, is useless security theater almost exclusively designed to reassure the public. And it’s a huge waste of money and of the soldiers’ time and training; and, as we have seen, it can’t thwart a mega terrorist attack. But Vigipirate will, of course, only be reinforced. No president of the republic or prime minister will dare rethink it, let alone scrap.

Fourth, the reaction of the public to this attack is likely to be different from the ones in January. In the latter, there was a big rally the evening of the 7th at the Place de la République and with the banner reading “Not Afraid.” People are now afraid. And then there was the “Je suis Charlie” and that was countered by the “Je ne suis pas Charlie,” by those who did not like Charlie Hebdo or identify with the January 11th marches—and this included a sizable portion of France’s 4+ million-strong Muslim population. There is no such cleavage now. Viewing the comments threads of two virulent, high-profile “Je ne suis pas Charlie”-type Facebook pages I follow, Oumma.com and the Parti des Indigènes de la République, since last night has revealed a markedly different tone from what one normally gets from the fans—French Muslims and/or Maghrebis in their near totality—of those two pages—conspiracy theories, vitriol, and hate: toward France, America, and, bien évidemment, “Zionists”—and particularly after the attacks last January. Even the more alienated, resentful members of that population are genuinely horrified by what happened last night and know that they are eventual targets of terrorism along with everyone else. On this, a friend posted on social media this tract from the Islamic State, telling Muslims in the West that, in effect, they must either adhere to the IS and its conception of Islam or “apostatize” and adopt the “kufri” (infidel) religion of the West. In other words, Muslims in France must get off the fence and choose their camp. It goes without saying that, if presented with that choice, the huge majority will side with the “kuffars.” As they say, it’s a no brainer.

As a reminder, on Thursday the Islamic State staged a terrorist attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs—the Dahiya—that killed over forty people. The Dahiya is entirely populated by Shi’ite Muslims and where state power is exercised by Hizbullah, not the Lebanese state. Ergo, the Islamic State death cult is as great a threat—when, concretely speaking, not more of one—to Muslims than it is to non-Muslims.

The fear level in France is going to increase, no doubt about it, as will the repressive capacity of the state (which results axiomatically when a country is “at war” (en guerre), as President Hollande and everyone else is now saying France is. And then I, personally, have to fear for—or at least worry about—how what has happened will affect my own life. I teach in programs for American university students in Paris, but if those students for next semester and beyond cancel their Paris plans en masse, then I will likely be out of a job come January (and along with many other colleagues). That would suck. But then, what are my little problems compared with all those who were seriously wounded last night or lost loved ones?

I have comments, or at least things to say, about the impact all this will have on French politics but as it’s premature—and maybe a little unseemly—to be speculating on that at the present moment, I’ll save it for another time.

UPDATE: The New Yorker has posted three excellent commentaries: Alexandra Schwartz, “Ghostly Paris” (the description of the quartiers where the attacks took place is particularly good); Adam Gopnik, “Terror strikes in Paris;” and Philip Gourevitch, “The Paris attacks: Aftermath and prelude.”

Ellen in the comments thread below made the rather obvious observation—but which didn’t occur to me—that the attacks happened along or near the route of the January 11th Charlie Hebdo march. This could hardly have been a coincidence.

2nd UPDATE: See the homage to Paris by the well-known comic artist Joann Sfar after the attacks, “Fluctuat nec mergitur” (“tossed by the waves but not sunk,” which is the motto of Paris).

3rd UPDATE: My friend Claire Berlinski has a post, “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur,” on the Ricochet blog, in which she discusses my post (and quibbles with a couple of my points).

4th UPDATE: Michales Moutselos, a sharp political scientist and specialist of France and immigration, posted this on my Facebook page

I just wanted to add a bit to the line of thought about the area [where the attacks happened]. I lived there for 5 months (at Chemin Vert) and went jogging very frequently on Bd Richard Lenoir which has frankly become a bit of a carnage strip. Very very familiar places. Anyways, three hypotheses: a) the place has the closest connections to Seine-Saint Denis and the highways to Belgium; b) there are several intersecting Boulevards that do not get traffic jams as much as the ones further west, while parking for a few minutes is actually easy c) what you suggested, that this has become THE place to live, work and have fun for the young and the creative. Assuming jihadists don’t care about government or business targets (or assuming it is too unsafe to target these things), but want to strike the bobos this is the area they would go for.

Good observations. The area was a soft target, easier to hit in addition to its symbolic value.

5th UPDATE: Sciences Po prof Jean-Pierre Filiu has an essay in Politico.eu, “ISIL’s French infiltration: Why France must avoid the Islamic State’s deadly labyrinth.”

6th UPDATE: Olivier Roy has an op-ed in the NYT, “The attacks in Paris reveal the strategic limits of ISIS.” And see Paul Krugman’s excellent column, “Fearing fear itself.” The lede: “Terrorists won’t bring down Western civilization, and the tradeoffs we make to counter it should not include giving in to the panic they hope to create.”

7th UPDATE: My blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer has a commentary up on The American Prospect website, “Paris, Friday the Thirteenth.” The lede: “Terrorists’ new target: places where regular people go for joie de vivre to eat, drink and unwind.”

8th UPDATE: Justin E.H. Smith, who teaches philosophy at the University of Paris-VII, has a piece in Slate, “Why did the killers target the Eagles of Death Metal concert?” The lede: “They attacked a young, multiethnic, bohemian vision of Paris that they cannot comprehend.”

Fluctuat nec mergitur (credit: boojumism)

Fluctuat nec mergitur (credit: boojumism)


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