Tuesday, September 22, 2009

UNESCO Saves Its Conscience

UNESCO rejected Farouk Hosni's candidacy in favor of Bulgarian Irina Bokova. Claude Lanzmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy had made quite an issue of this in France, owing to Hosni's threat as Egyptian minister of culture to burn any Israeli books he found in Egyptian libraries. Others had argued that Hosni's election would be a signal to Muslim countries.

Yes, but what kind of signal? It's not often that I agree with BHL, but really--making a man who threatened to burn books, and Jewish books at that, the head of an organization charged with the world's culture. It was an affront to the world's conscience. And the vote--31 to 27--suggests that the world has precious little of that invaluable quantity.


Dominique de Villepin's grandiloquence was abundantly on display at the opening of the Clearstream trial yesterday. With his unique blend of bonhomie, verve, and chutzpah, he presented himself as the "victim" of the "will" and "relentlessness" of one man, Nicolas Sarkozy. This swashbuckling sword thrust successfully captured the attention of the media. In the France24 debate in which I took part yesterday, it seemed to be taken as a given that the presence of the president of the Republic among the parties civiles somehow "compromised the independence of the court."

I tried to push back against this interpretation. Indeed, the independence of the judiciary is always an issue in France, but the questions and doubts would hardly disappear if the president were not a partie civile. In a case that hinges in large part on the testimony of government officials and intelligence operatives and on control of information, there is abundant opportunity to influence the course of the trial, quite apart from any direct hierarchical pressure on the prosecutors and magistrates. Indeed, Sarkozy's being a party to the case is, I think, more of a coup de comm' than a form of influence. He is demonstrating his pugnacity rather than pressuring the court. It would perhaps have been wiser for him to enhance the appearance of neutrality by staying out and pulling strings, if he is of a mind to, behind the scenes, but that might have seemed perilously close to running from a fight, which is not his style. And Villepin has chosen to reply in kind, as if he had just emerged from un cachot to lead the people in an uprising against their cruel oppressor.

Perhaps, when all is said and done, the case will be remembered as a milestone in the shift from one regime of crony capitalism to another. In the past politicians felt the need to conceal their relationships with the "malefactors of great wealth" through a variety of subterfuges. Sarkozy's relationship to wealth is décomplexé. He courts it openly and, so far as we know, has never reached under the table for a stuffed envelope. That's rather remarkable for a political career that began in the Hauts-de-Seine and evolved at the highest levels of the UMP, which cannot boast in general of so clean a record.

Sarko the Unamerican

John Vinocur of The New York Times sees tensions mounting between France and the US over Russia's desire to buy a French helicopter carrier to enhance its amphibious assault capability. With the US just having recalibrated its own policy, essentially removing Russia from the list of imminent threats to Europe, it should have no basis in principle for objecting to the deal. And yet, and yet ... old habits die hard, ruffled East European feathers need to be smoothed, and there is also the potential, as Vinocur notes, of European military sales to China, which Sarkozy strongly favors and the US military strongly opposes.

So, in the space of a few years, US-French relations have veered from execrable to euphoric (when Sarko was acclaimed as La Fayette reincarnate by the US Congress) to normal, which is to say, tense and at times testy. Normal, to my mind, is better than either execrable or euphoric, because realism is the only basis for a lasting relationship.