Saturday, January 24, 2015

Post by FrédéricLN

FrédéricLN, a regular reader, has posted remarks he made at a meeting in Argenteuil to discuss what can be done about the social rift in France today. They're worth reading.

Syriza and the French Left

Greece votes this weekend, and all signs are that Alexis Tsipras's Syriza party will lead the pack and perhaps even win an absolute majority of deputies. The prospect has kindled a mild euphoria in the left of the Left in other European countries, including France. Je dis bien "a mild euphoria"--milder, indeed, than the euphoria that greeted the election of François Hollande so many eons just over two and a half years ago. That comparison alone should already give one pause.

It's hard to remember now, but back then it was Hollande who was going to lead the beleaguered states of the south in an anti-austerity coalition. Now it is Tsipras--admittedly a more charismatic fellow than Hollande, but the would-be leader of a tiny state with a gigantic debt, whose banks are at the mercy of the ECB's liquidity spigot and whose public profligacy and consequent debt were always misleading symptoms as to the true nature of the European crisis. France was better suited to this role but failed to play it. Greece, on the other hand, is not suited at all. Tsipras is un jeune ingénu, not un premier rôle.

I will not attempt to handicap Syriza's chances. While electoral success seems likely, success in governing and in negotiating with the Troika may prove more difficult. A compromise is possible, but will the heterogeneous coalition of partners who make up Syriza stand for it? After reading an 18,000-word interview with Sttatis Kouvelakis in Jacobin, I'm even more dubious than I was before. But I don't know Greek politics, so I'll refrain from further comment.

I do know a bit about French politics, though, so I read an article like this one with a quite skeptical eye. Yes, indeed, Cécile Duflot, who is supposed to represent the Greens, is looking for a dance partner, and so is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is supposed to represent the far left. But in fact both Duflot and Mélenchon represent not actual political parties but fractious and amorphous segments of public opinion. For them, Tsipras is an ink blot onto which they project fond fantasies of what a better tomorrow might look like. "Another policy" is possible, headlines Le Monde, but what that other policy would look like remains a will-o'-the-wisp.

Meanwhile, even Marine Le Pen is applauding the likely Syriza victory. Of course, for her, Tsipras in power is expected to lead to precisely what Tsipras says he does not want to happen, namely, a Greek exit from the euro and perhaps from the EU. This prospect is butter on Le Pen's spinach: she hopes it will prove that exit from the EU is not equivalent to economic disaster. But more likely it will end in disaster for Greece if Grexit does occur, and Le Pen's wish, when fulfilled, will only invalidate the instinct from which it derives.

I would be the last person to deny the role of dreams and fantasies in politics, but this infatuation with Greek radicalism strikes me as an infantile disorder in the French left, no matter how comprehensible Tsipras's emergence is as a response to Europe's incorrigibly obtuse treatment of the exceptional Greek case.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Le Pen Family Romance

The dissensions within the Le Pen family, which I touched on in the previous post, are fascinating to watch. Despite the title of this post, I will refrain from Freudian speculation. Political speculation is quite enough. The fundamental difference between Jean-Marie and Marine (née Marion but later manned up to "Marine") is that the latter actually seeks to wield power while the former was content to lambaste those who did. Slowly but surely, the seductions of power have turned Marine away from la politique de la provoc' that her father developed to a pitch of perfection. Instead, she has begun to make the compromises that people in power have to make: to consider sensibilities outside her immediate orbit, to muffle her speech, to resort to circumlocation and inuendo au lieu de dire les choses, to resort to double language, and to purge the party of members unable to adapt to these new and unfamiliar disciplines.

She cannot, however, purge her father, and she cannot purge her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. The father is in his dotage, and in any case he can be written off as a relic of precisely those old ways that Marine is trying to move beyond. But Marion is another matter. She represents the future. She's young and popular with party militants, precisely because she preserves some of the father's blunt-spoken ways as well as his affection for the touchstones of the old extreme right, all wrapped up in a package much more presentable than that of the scowling ex-para and elderly street-brawler. She may not refer to gays as "sidaïques" fit to be confined in a "sidatorium," but she feels no need to defend Florian Philippot's "life style" either. If he's with us, fine, but leave the multi-culti appreciation of the gay contribution to French society to Tante Marine.

The lesson that Marion seems to have learned from Jean-Marie is that power cannot be held with impunity. What has made the success of the FN is that its outsider status affords it the luxury of speaking as its followers would at the Café du Commerce. There's no need to châtier sa langue, and the bluff grande gueule with the off-color wit and fearless iconoclasm is more amusing to listen to than the usual langue de bois from the tonier neighborhoods. It's also good business and easy work, whereas governing is a hard and thankless task. Marine is prodding the party toward power, which requires fundamental changes in style, but Jean-Marie and perhaps his young protégée know that this new strategy on the part of the héritière could well ruin the family business, and they're not about to let that happen.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Some Post-Charlie Surprises

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks, the assumption was that the big winner would be Marine Le Pen. Few if any observers predicted that François Hollande would double his approval rating from 19 to 40%. Fewer still foresaw that 67% of those polled would say that Marine Le Pen had not "measured up" in her response to the attacks.

What is more, the ensuing weeks have revealed a deep split in the Front National. The head of the FN's EU delegation, Aymeric Chauprade, has been removed from his post for blurring the message that MLP wished to send to her countrymen. Chauprade announced that France "was at war with Muslims," that the Muslim minority constituted "a fifth column" inside France, and that Islam posed a "grave threat" to French values. This contradicted MLP's desire to soften her Islamophobic image by directing her fire against only those Muslims who opted for militant jihad. To complicate matters, her father, honorary president for life of the party, backed Chauprade (after adopting for himself the slogan "je suis Charlie Martel"), as did her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of the party's two deputies. So, contrary to all expectation, the attacks have been devastating for the FN.

As for the UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy appeared yesterday on France 2, carrying on as if he had never left the presidency and abetted in his comeback by anchor David Pujadas, who allowed the former president to speak for minutes on end without interruption--minutes in which he indulged his penchant for rhetorical excess and muscular hyperbole: France was engaged, he said, in a "war" to defend "civilization." But Sarkozy erroneously portrayed his own record (claiming that he had not reduced the size of the police force during his presidency, even though Pujadas's own program had presented figures the night before showing that he had). He also called for reinstating police overtime, which doesn't need reinstatement because it already exists. Rather than looking presidential, he seemed confused and hapless, an appearance compounded by his uncharacteristically hesitant delivery.

Meanwhile, Manuel Valls made headlines by declaring that France suffered from being an "apartheid" society. The term was immediately challenged, not least by Sarkozy, who called it an error--which, in a literal sense, it was, since there is certainly no legal regime of segregation in France. But Valls chose the term deliberately to provoke, and his use of it got the attention he desired. It also gave him an opportunity to hit back at Sarkozy, which he did by playing the statesman card: in this time of national danger, leaders ("those who govern and those who governed yesterday," he said, leaving no doubt about whom he had in mind) must rise to the occasion and not descend to petty polemic, etc. etc. Insincere, perhaps, but effective. And the issue of the abandoned banlieues and their role in alienating a generation of Muslim youth is now squarely on the table.

Finally, François Hollande continues to live in a state of grace, as though his presidency had been reborn. He has been dignified, but, more importantly, he has not succumbed to the temptation an "all guns blazing, with us or against us" response. He has allowed his ministers to emphasize the need for a social as well as a security response to the crisis. In short, he has at last been able to appear presidential and has something to do other than seem inadequate in the face of economic crisis. I hesitate to use the phrase "divine surprise," knowing its history, but it seems remarkably apt.

The Generational Divide

Suddenly, everyone is worried about the younger generation--younger Muslims in particular. François Hollande announced new measures for the schools today, includying "lay instruction about religion as social fact," a proposal that immediately drew negative commentary from teachers: "He wants us to teach the sociology of religion to ten-year-olds," one said. "Let him try it."

Politicians of course need to come up with quick fixes. But two sharp-eyed observers of the French scene, Judah Grunstein and Gilles Kepel, see a much deeper problem of social alienation affecting the 30-something generation in particular. Grunstein puts it this way:

There are many reasons why the 30-something generation represents a dividing line within France’s Arab and Muslim population, separating an older and more resigned population from a younger and more alienated one. Part of it is a socio-biological phenomenon: After all, 40-somethings have families, responsibilities, more maturity and less of a chip on their shoulder. They also have an accumulation of lived experience that makes them less prone to appeals rooted in quests for meaning and identity. But part of why the 30-something and younger generations seem so at odds with the country that surrounds them surely has to do with the very different social landscape in which these younger generations grew up.
Kepel, an authority on political Islam, also notes a generational shift of a somewhat different order:
La société musulmane en France a changé depuis la guerre civile algérienne des années 90. La génération des pères, des «darons», n’est plus aux manettes. Les manettes sont désormais, pour les plus religieux, entre les mains de quadras qui ont réussi, notamment ceux que j’appelle les entrepreneurs du halal, qui gèrent les sites de «vigilance islamique» en ligne. Pour eux, il est très important de se poser en défenseurs de la religion «intégrale», comme ils disent, et il en va de leur légitimité communautaire de combattre Charlie Hebdo. En revanche, il leur faut traiter au quotidien, ne serait-ce que pour faire du business, avec d’autres Français, juifs notamment. Qu’ils exècrent les «impies» et les «sionistes», c’est dans un autre registre. Cela différencie l’impact symbolique des deux attaques, dans ce qui apparaît sinon comme une tragédie unique.
The problems that Grunstein and Kepel highlight cannot be addressed by tweaks to the school curriculum. France will have to change the way it looks at its immigrant communities. The shock of the attacks may have started that change in motion. At least people are talking about the problem much more openly than before. More Muslims need to join the conversation, however. We need to hear from the inside what is going on.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Knitting Up the Ravel'd Lien Républicain

Manuel Valls regrets that France has become an apartheid society:

Les émeutes de 2005, qui aujourd'hui s'en rappelle ? Et pourtant... les stigmates sont toujours présents », a-t-il souligné avant d'insister sur « la relégation périurbaine, les ghettos ».
Well, I, for one, remember the riots of 2005, and I have frequently regretted, including on this blog, how little political response ensued. Valls is to be applauded for facing the facts squarely today, but it cannot be said that this problem was a priority for his or his predecessor's government prior to the events of January 7 and 8.

In the same issue of Le Monde, the historian Benjamin Stora notes one sign of this de facto apartheid in the absence of young people from the banlieues in the great republican mass held on the Sunday after the killings. By way of explanation, he too invokes the riots of 2005 along with many other things:

Cette faible présence nous dit plusieurs choses. D’abord, la crise du lien républicain, crise installée depuis plus de dix ans. Et dix ans très exactement après les émeutes de 2005, la fracture ne s’est pas résorbée. On en connaît l’origine : l’effondrement des idéologies collectives, le refuge dans le religieux comme idéologie de substitution aux engagements naguère menés par les gauches (politiques ou syndicales), les retards pris dans le regard porté sur le passé colonial, les crises des sociétés de culture musulmane prises entre des Etats autoritaires et des oppositions islamistes, la tragédie terrible des événements algériens des années 1990 juste après la chute du mur de Berlin, etc. Ajoutons la montée de l’antisémitisme et l’aggravation de la crise économique, avec près de 4 millions de chômeurs…
But what exactly is this "crisis of the republican bond"  and this de facto apartheid? Perhaps it's the "republican" ideology itself that needs to be re-examined. Can immigrants and children of immigrants and grandchildren of immigrants integrate themselves into the fabric of French life if they can't organize as a community to demand their rights? "Everything to the Maghrebis as individuals, nothing to the Maghrebis as a nation"--Clermont-Tonnerre's promise to the Jews, mutatis mutandis--won't work today. Arguably, it didn't work for the Jews either: it took World War II to get them fully integrated, in compensation, as it were. North African immigrants have a different hurdle to overcome: they were and in some respects still are seen as a colonial people, an internal colony. What they need, as Stora suggests, is a civil rights movement to counter the tendency to take "refuge in the religious as a substitute ideology for [political and trade-union] commitments formerly led by the left." But such a movement would be immediately denounced as "communitarian" by the more zealous defenders of "republican values." So be it, I say. The experiment must be attempted. France needs a Martin Luther King.

Monday, January 19, 2015

An Apology

Yesterday, this blog was inundated with obnoxious comments from an unknown source. I deleted them, but in doing so I inadvertently deleted one comment by Bert, a regular reader. I regret this. I do not as a rule censor comments on the blog, but these were both offensive and unsightly, so I got rid of them. Apologies to Bert. Unfortunately, there is no way to undo a deletion.

Marine Le Pen Begins Her Long March through the AMERICAN Institutions

With an op-ed in the Times, quoting Camus, no less, and an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Marine Le Pen has shrewdly set out to persuade American opinion that she is the rampart against European terrorism that Americans want and need.

Mme Le Pen's rhetoric is impeccable. She seizes the occasion of the terrorist attacks to claim that she was right all along--about everything: border controls, the euro, the nature of Islam, the fecklessness of French elites, the identity of UMP and PS, the loss of French identity, the tragedy of the EU, the ravages of globalization, etc. And suddenly she is respectable. The Times plays her game by giving her a forum; the WSJ blandly repeats her claim that she has "been ahead of others in sounding the alarm against anti-Semitism."

Useful idiots? Or useless idiocy? I suppose the great organs of our press have decided to make good their ringing endorsements of free speech by according a platform to a political leader whose ideas they deplore. Such an honorable intention--but you know what they say about honorable intentions.

A Great Leap Forward?

In the wake of the terror attacks, François Hollande's popularity has jumped from 13 to 40 percent in a matter of weeks--a historic record. Is this a Great Leap Forward, to borrow a phrase from the late Great Helmsman, or a confirmation of Michel Houellebecq's prediction that Hollande would win re-election in 2017 only to lead his country to its ultimate Berezina in 2022?

As we Americans saw on 9/11, a terror attack can do strange things to a nation's psyche. Democratic judgment, fallible in the best of times, falls prey to the demons of mass psychology. In a consensus of generalized fear and suspicion, few are willing to say, "That way madness lies." Thus far, at least, Hollande has committed no major faults. Many commentators are saying that the events gave him an opportunity to embody the presidential function in a way that has hitherto eluded him. Frankly, I think incarnation is in the eye of the beholder. Hollande has thus far taken no major decisions, unless it was the decision to kill the attackers, which his press service has let it be known was an order issued by him personally. This was not a challenging decision. Those that remain are.

What we still don't know is whether the events of the past two weeks will have affected the balance of power in Europe. Frau Merkel, now facing the dangerous anti-Islam Pegida movement at home, showed unusual emotion when she came to mourn in Paris. At last the two most important leaders in Europe have been forced to take off their accountants' eye-shades and stare at bodies rather than the bottom line. The experience may have reminded them that their economic decisions have implications for the health of the body politic that do not appear in the spreadsheets presented to them by their finance ministers. Since they are facing a new form of terrorism, perhaps they will recognize in time that what is required is not a war on terror but a rigorous exercise regime. They need to recondition their bodies politic. It won't be easy. No pain, no gain. But it's time to get off the starvation diet and start pumping iron. I'd best stop now, before the calisthenic metaphors run away with me. But you get the idea.