Monday, February 7, 2011

Politicians, Police, and Appearances

Judah Grunstein has an interesting post on the way in which the questioning of legitimacy of foreign governments can spill over into domestic politics. He isn't quite echoing Mélenchon's contention that foreign revolution will come home to roost, which I challenged the other day. Loin de là. But he is making the valid point that the expression of popular power--"the people out of doors," as Thomas Jefferson used to say--can be contagious in unpredictable ways (as anyone who lived through 1968 is aware).

To be sure, if you watch the video to which Judah links, which shows gendarmes using some sort of chemical spray (it's not tear gas, I don't think, since the police aren't masked. Perhaps Mace? something else?) on protesters attempting to block a railroad line (for what purpose we are not told), you see something rather different from the thuggish repression in Egypt. The police, who seem friendly enough with local officials, have evidently been ordered to clear the tracks, and they obey their orders despite not having enough manpower to do the job properly. There are a lot of older people in the crowd, which seems to have been committed to nonviolence, so the cops come off looking pretty bad. But they don't club anyone, don't break heads or bones, and as far as one can see from the video, the protesters escape with some bruises, burning eyes and skin, and flaring tempers. I remember being told by veterans of many French manifs  that it's better to face the CRS than the local police or gendarmes, because the former know what they're doing, whereas the latter aren't really trained for riot duty and tend to panic in the midst of an angry crowd. I don't know if that's true, and these police don't panic, but they do seem rather unprepared for what happens after they unleash their chemical spray.

In any event, Judah links this event to the concept of delegitimation and to the latest embarrassments of Mme Alliot-Marie. Indeed, MAM seems to be twisting slowly, slowly in the wind as she attempts to explain her close relationship to a billionaire friend of ex-Tunisian dictator Ben Ali. She is receiving no support from the Élysée, which has led some observers to conclude that she is on the way out (relations between her and Sarkozy have never been warm in any case). And she hasn't helped herself with her explanations, perhaps because she can't seem to grasp why it's so unseemly for the minister of foreign affairs to have such close personal ties to a man whose fortune derives from his close personal ties to the head of a repressive regime. MAM is so ungifted a politician that she is tone-deaf to the way her own alibis only tighten the noose around her neck. The second jet flight to the south of Tunisia was merely a "group excursion," she said on TV last night, in which her "group of friends" was accompanied by the owner of the jet himself, a dear pal of hers. What on earth could be wrong with that?

To be sure, Hillary Clinton not so long ago described Hosni Mubarak as a "close friend of my family." But as far as I know, she was never foolish enough to accept a vacation at the expense of a foreign leader (or close associate of one). But I wouldn't be surprised if I learned I was wrong about that, and the Clintons did accept vacations from prominent US businessmen during Bill's presidency. Sarkozy vacationed in the US thanks to the generosity of wealthy Americans with personal connections to various French officials. So how much worse is MAM than the lot of them? On this point, two French comments, here and here. Desjardins pinpoints the défaut de style:

Avec sa fausse assurance, sa morgue méprisante, son petit coté pincé, elle était souverainement antipathique et on comprenait soudain, grâce à elle, l’une des failles du régime. Nos dirigeants actuels ne sont pas souriants, pas chaleureux, ils n’ont rien d’« humain » et tous, en effet, plutôt « une sale gueule ».

But is that all it is? Or is there, as Desjardins, Girard, and Grunstein all suggest, a creeping deligitimation of governments in many countries owing to the widening gap not just between rich and poor but between those with voice and those without, those who have access to the levers of power and those who are condemned to watch from outside? Perhaps that is the lesson of the events in Egypt, where the Times sees just such a divorce between elites and people (and even between the power elite and what might be called the functional elite, members of which are prominent in the anti-government protests):

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt has long functioned as a state where wealth bought political power and political power bought great wealth. While hard facts are difficult to come by, Egyptians watching the rise of a moneyed class widely believe that self-dealing, crony capitalism and corruption are endemic, represented in the public eye by a group of rich businessmen aligned with Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, as well as key government ministers and governing party members.

Countless people in France believe that this description is true of their own government. How often does one hear that the country is ruled by la bande à Fouquet's? In the US, since the crisis, I can't count the number of books that have been written that argue, not without justification, that government has been captured by the financial elite. At what point does the accumulation of power through wealth, which can never be prevented altogether, veer into illegitimacy? Perhaps that is what we are going to find out, as we try to parse the shades of deligitimation that have developed throughout the world in response to financial collapse, governmental austerity, and rampant and growing inequality.