Monday, April 21, 2008

The World Turned Upside-Down

Deputies of the Left give a standing ovation to Chantal Brunel, a UMP deputy, as she attacks the government on its tax shelters for the rich. Will wonders never cease:


Only four French writers have been honored with obsèques nationales: Victor Hugo (hélas, said André Gide), Paul Valéry, Colette (!), and now Aimé Césaire. Not only the president but toute une ribambelle de Socialistes made the trek to Martinique to honor the poet of négritude. So it's interesting to discover that 3 days ago La Vie des idées published a terrific piece by Sylvie Laurent on Barack Obama and Africa, which begins as follows:

Barack Obama connaît les subtilités du débat sur la race et les limites du discours sur l’identité noire. Il sait, depuis qu’il a découvert l’Afrique, terre de son père, que la « négritude », conscience et culture qui uniraient les Noirs d’Amérique et d’Afrique, peut n’être qu’une posture dans les ghettos de Chicago.

And further:

[Kwame Anthony] Appiah [a leading American philosopher of mixed African and English descent] ne croit ni en la « race » ni en une « négritude » essentialiste rassemblant par delà les continents des gens n’ayant en commun que leur couleur de peau. L’afro-centrisme est donc pour lui une aporie mais elle n’interdit pas aux Noirs d’Amérique de penser leurs origines africaines.

The article is excellent and a true tour d'horizon of African-American thinking about Africa. I recommend it to you highly.

The New Socialist Party

No, not le Nouveau Parti Socialiste--that's dead, and Arnaud Montebourg has thrown in his lot with Pierre Moscovici, while Vincent Peillon is going with Ségolène Royal. I'm speaking, rather, of the new "consensus" position paper that the PS has adopted in advance of its upcoming "renovation congress." As one might expect of a consensus "declaration of principles" approved by "98 percent" of the party, the style is purest langue de bois, and the document is more notable for what it doesn't say than for what it does. Although "revolution" has been banished at last from the party canon, there is a fallback on the word "revolt": "To be a socialist is not to be content with the world as it is. The socialist idea partakes of both a revolt against injustice and hope for a better life." The "social market economy" has become the "social and ecological market economy," and the "goal of socialist action" is no longer merely "complete emancipation of the human person" but also "the preservation of the planet." Vaste programme, aurait dit de Gaulle. "Progress, synonymous with improvement of human life, is a fundamental value for socialists." Etc.

I could go on in this vein, but it is difficult to raise an ironic eyebrow via the Internet, so I'll stop. One thing is certain: if the PS sticks to this bland mush in its Congress, it will indeed have the "serene and useful" meeting that Ségolène Royal looks forward to on her Web site, but it will be the serenity of lobotomy. Is it really necessary to engage in embarrassing rituals of this sort?

Le Monde finds--or pretends to find--something in this document that eludes my grasp.

America Lands in Clichy-sous-Bois

It seems that the U.S. government is taking a serious interest in the French suburbs: the official reason is that "Americans are interested in diversity and want to share the experience of minorities." But according to Ali Laïdi, a researcher at IRIS, the real goal is "to understand what happened in 2001." In other words, the embassy appears to have been assigned the task of understanding the radicalization of Muslims in Europe, of building bridges to the Muslim community, and of keeping tabs on developments among European Muslims.

If Cold War experience is any guide, that is only the most visible aspect of the project. As has been abundantly documented, American intelligence tried to influence European opinion in many ways during the Cold War, including the financing of journals, art shows, conferences, etc. And of course information-gathering never stops. Between "hard power" and "soft power" there is "malleable power": the use of abundant resources to entice, cajole, seduce, and co-opt.

Thanks to Éloi Laurent for the tip.

The Second Aircraft Carrier

As a candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy promised that France would have a second aircraft carrier. As President, it seems, he has discovered that aircraft carriers are horribly expensive, the army and air force don't think France needs one, and even the navy isn't so sure it wants to sacrifice other types of ships in order to enjoy the privilege of operating a floating pot of gold. Hervé Morin has noted the obvious budgetary constraints but, having been admonished by the president not to speak out of turn, says that it is up to the head of state to arbitrate. The Élysée says that the president remains "attached" to the project.

A personal side-note: the porte-hélicoptère Jeanne-d'Arc that took part in the recent operation against the "pirates of Ponant" once visited Boston, and I was invited to visit the ship. The captain received us wearing a sword strapped to his side and looking most impressive in his dress uniform. My children were quite taken with the idea that the captain of a modern naval vessel would wear a sword. They staged a mock duel between the captain and attacking pirates on the deck of the ship while my wife and I enjoyed the view of Old Ironsides, which was anchored nearby.