Is there really a “new” Nicolas Sarkozy?

I generally agree with Art Goldhammer’s excellent analysis of whether there is a “new” Nicolas Sarkozy (as described in this sharply worded article in Le Monde) to go with the new name for his party.  Speaking for myself only, the “new” Sarkozy reminds me of nothing so much as the “new” Nixon; it’s the same sour wine in a new bottle.

But I would like to say a few words about the ostensible conversion of Sarko l’Américain to the cause of secularism.   His words are good, but even if one credits his good faith, I suspect that Sarkozy and I don’t ascribe remotely the same meaning to them.  Frankly, I can’t tell whether he’s talking about the 1905 law as secularists like me understand it or whether he’s just using laïcisme as an anti Muslim dog whistle.

As Goldhammer points out, Sarkozy would seem to have undergone a radical change in his thinking:

Remember Sarko l’Américain? Now he is as franchouillard as can be. Gone is the Sarko who thought that the republican schoolteacher needed to have a priest at his side to inculcate moral values. Gone is the Sarko who stood at the Pope’s side (texting, to be sure, on his cell phone).

It’s such a remarkable about face that he’s either had an epiphany on the road back to the Elysée Palace or he’s simply playing a joke on everybody.  Personally, I think Sarkozy’s failure to specifically address the historically overbearing role of the Church in France as, shall we say, the impetus for the 1905 law and the way in which his own beliefs have evolved casts considerable doubt on the sincerity of his new found love of secularism and the revolution is the big tip-off to his lack of sincerity.   I think he’s just making a transparently insincere attempt to find new allies in his fight against the Muslims.

Sympathy for the devil

“It’s a certain tragedy when agony and resentment are all you have left connecting you to someone you once loved.”
J.S.B. Morse, Now and at the Hour of Our Death (2013)

I’m in agreement with Art Goldhammer:

Jean-Marie Le Pen, suspended from the Front National and denied the right to speak in its name, wants his daughter to marry Louis Alliot or Florian Philippot, so that she will no longer bear his name. This marks the end of a month-long battle. Some observers believed it was all a sham, a clever ploy designed to allow the daughter to distance herself from her father in order to further her ambitions, with his consent. Anyone who saw her face when Jean-Marie, wearing a bright red coat, mounted the platform in front of the statue of Joan of Arc and tried to usurp the role of party leader can no longer believe that the pair are playacting. They have come to a parting of the ways, as child and parent sometimes do. We are witnessing a psychodrama, not a political drama.

A glance at the faces of the players makes the truth unmistakable. That which might have begun as a calculated political theater is now undeniably real and tragic for the Le Pen family.    We are witnessing the death of the love between father and daughter as the struggle for control of a family business spirals out of control.

Politics may be everything but everything shouldn’t be politics.  It is sad to see love die regardless of anyone’s politics.  I hope that Jean-Marie Le Pen can see how toxic things have become in his family and reconcile with his daughter while there’s still time.  Not even the devil should die alone.

PEN’s Charlie Hebdo Tribute and why there is no freedom of speech without the freedom to blaspheme

© Chappatte in The International New York Times
© Chappatte in The International New York Times

I want to respond to some of the continuing debate about  PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo and what it means to say that there is a “right” to blaspheme without a corresponding duty on the part of civil society to protect blasphemers. Aside from the letter discussed in the Manchester Guardian article, I do not want to cite any specific critics so as to avoid having the conversation degenerate into personal attacks. 

I think the authors of the PEN letter are cleverly dancing around the real conundrum. They seem to be advocating for two contradictory values at the same time. On the one hand, they loudly proclaim the absolute right to freedom of speech (including blasphemous speech) while at the same time urging everyone to refrain from ever actually exercising that right because doing so would be “impolite”.  The unstated subtext is that writers shouldn’t blaspheme against Islam because only a fool whacks a hornets’ nest with a stick.

But, frankly, even though this sort of high-minded temporizing might make the authors feel less embarrassed about being intimidated even as once can almost feel the fear dripping from the page,  I think what the authors of the letter missed is that it’s no longer possible to pretend.  It seems to me that with the Charlie Hebdo massacre a Rubicon of sorts was crossed.  I think you have to chose one or the other. Condemning blasphemy while acknowledging that people can blaspheme but shouldn’t is not an abstract call for a politer discourse between Islam and its critics. Rather, it is a tacit acknowledgment that the religious fanatics are calling the tune now and we’re just pretending that the dance we are being forced to perform is really one we would have freely chosen for ourselves as a matter of principle. I no longer see any middle ground between unqualified support for blasphemy and a tacit understanding that anyone who blasphemes against Islam is on his own and won’t get any help from the rest of us.

Charlie Hebdo blasphemed. There was a massacre. The Danish cartoonists published their cartoons and others republished those cartons; some of these people were murdered, others had their property destroyed and all those who survived will spend the remainder of their lives under constant threat. The danger is only intensifying; politely averting one’s eyes won’t make it go away.

It seems obvious to me that some of PEN’s critics and many in the Western media have learned the obvious lesson that we now live under very much the same blasphemy laws as in Pakistan.  Naturally, they don’t like it but the butcher’s bill is already very high and they don’t see a way around things as they are. I can understand deciding that discretion is the better part of valor but everyone needs to be honest about what this means for the future. The places where we live will be forever different and we will spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders.

A response to threats of murder against blasphemy that is anything less than full throated, with no hemming and hawing or genuflecting at the altar of politeness is no defense at all. What matters is the right to publish blasphemy without fear of reprisals by violent religious fanatics. If it exists only in the abstract and with the tacit understanding that the right won’t ever be exercised, then it really doesn’t exist at all.

Sometimes it can be quite difficult to tell the difference between a polite man and a terrified one.

Aristos Doxiadis is wrong: Greece doesn’t need more of the same

20 Jan 2015, Athens, Attica, Greece --- A woman receives a portion of food at a soup kitchen, organized during the years of the Greek economic crisis by
20 Jan 2015, Athens, Attica, Greece — A woman receives a portion of food at a soup kitchen, organized during the years of the Greek economic crisis by “The Fellow Man” group, in Athens January 20, 2015. Image by © MARKO DJURICA/Reuters/Corbis

I don’t think these ideas of Aristos Doxiadis from his New York Times oped represent a path to prosperity for Greece. They’re really the same tired conventional wisdom dressed up as a attack on the new government. And his main idea, that of giving more power to the oligarchs, is a truly horrible idea and will do nothing to help the vast majority of the Greek people.

I don’t deny that streamlining approval procedures and chipping away at pointless obstacles can improve the business environment. There are useful reforms. But, in and of itself, regulatory reform can’t motivate business to invest in new plants and hire more workers if there’s no prospect of selling anything because most people are totally skint. And yet, Doxiadis says nothing about the role of austerity in creating the crisis that smashed the Greek economy. Neither does he discuss the inability of previous governments to collect taxes due to massive corruption.

What’s more, the term “regulatory reform” means a lot of different things to different people. Frankly, “regulatory reform” scares the hell out of me. Louisiana, where I once lived, successfully “reformed” itself into being basically a gigantic toxic waste dump with a crappy education system and no social services after people like Doxiadis promised them that it was the ticket to prosperity.

You know, one man’s “anti business environment” looks to the rest of us a lot like things that are basically important and very good social policies. Personally, I favor laws against child labour, slave labour and prohibitions against selling dangerous or poisonous products. I like having water that is clean and not flammable, air that is breathable, food that won’t make you sick and so forth. I mean, if you think about it, I’m basically describing China, the most “business friendly” industrialized country on the planet.  I wouldn’t want to live in China and I seriously doubt whether most Greeks would, either.   Fortunately for him, Aristos Doxiadis is rich enough so that he wouldn’t need to live the hellhole to which he and his oligarch friends would consign most of the Greek people.

So I think we should hear some specifics before deciding that “regulatory reform” is a panacea, particularly since he doesn’t cite a single example of a country that would have done business in Greece but for the country’s and the EU’s burdensome regulations. If the term “regulatory reform” isn’t fleshed out then it’s just a throwaway line or, worse, a ticket to become China. In any case, it’s certainly not a key to growth in a depressed economy that exports primarily into a Europe that is itself suffering from deflation and a huge crisis of demand.

I also question why Doxiadis thinks giving the oligarchs more power is a solution to anything in an economy that has been devastated by austerity and privatization. The current crop of oligarchs has looted the country for generations and advocated for exactly the kind of large scale privatizations that would put everything of importance in the Greek economy in their control and at fire-sale prices, too. An expanded role for the oligarchs seems like a recipe for an even worse disaster given their already out-sized role in running the Greek economy into the ground in the first place.

This really seems like the same tired advocacy of neoliberalism that has been responsible for the destruction of most of the Western economies and their increasing transformation into oligarchies. What’s more, the new oligarchs are hardly creating vibrant economies since their main activities seems to be bribing the political class into selling them state assets cheaply or otherwise subsiding their activities by exempting them from paying taxes. The Greek people just voted to stop the oligarchs and assorted eurotrash from looting their patrimony and steal from the public fisc, something that seems like a good idea to me.

I’m very skeptical of anybody who doesn’t think that fighting corruption, collecting taxes and getting the Greek economy moving again aren’t the top priorities that need to be addressed before anything else.  First things first.

A brief response to Benjamin Stora

On his blog “French Politics” Art Goldhammer directs attention to two articles in today’s edition of Le Monde. The first is an interview with Manuel Valls in which he regrets that France has become an apartheid society.   The second is in the same issue of Le Monde, in which 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.

Goldhammer notes that, by way of explanation, Benjamin Stora, like Manuel Valls, 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 États 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… »

Goldhammer then asks:

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.”

To begin with, I agree with Art Goldhammer that Manuel Valls is to be commended for acknowledging that France has become an apartheid society. Indeed, I believe it would be fair to say that Europe itself has become an apartheid society. But let’s be honest about the source of this apartheid of which he speaks.

Europe wanted cheap labour but had no interest in acquiring burdensome new citizens. The cheap labour was a blessing for European economies trapped in the death spiral of globalization’s race to the bottom. The immigrants were isolated and marginalized so that they would be out of sight, out of mind and out of everybody’s way and that’s the way it stayed until 2005 when the poverty, violence and toxic culture of the banlieues exploded in an orgy of violence that terrified la France profonde.

For their part, these immigrants wanted jobs, but nothing more. The Muslim immigrants at first came as guest workers. As globalization, mobility of capital, corruption and cronyism wrecked their societies; the trickle of guest workers from Africa and the Islamic World became a flood of economic refugees. They certainly did not come to Europe seeking a new identity and adapting to Europe’s culture was never a part of the bargain.

Regrettably, the left’s contribution of “multiculturalism” has only made things worse for everyone. The most conservative, most religious and most tribal elements of the immigrants’ societies were lauded as the most “authentic” and were made the conduit through which the host societies would deal with the immigrants. The well-meaning condescension of the left has been every bit as consequential in trapping generations of immigrants in the tribal cultures of their parents as the hostility and bigotry of the right.

Continue reading “A brief response to Benjamin Stora”

Georges Wolinski, R.I.P.

Georges Wolinski with wife Maryse. Image by © Eric Fougere/Kipa/Corbis
Georges Wolinski with wife Maryse. Image by © Eric Fougere/Kipa/Corbis

I have spent many pleasant hours struggling to understand the cartoons of Wolinski. When I first started to learn French, everybody told me to start reading Paris Match. In that magazine, I saw cartoons that were strange, intriguing and seemed to be very simple. I thought that I needed only to translate the words to see the meaning. Many of the cartoons in Paris Match and other places were quite sexually sophisticated. But so often the meaning was deeper and more powerful than appeared at first glance.

Wolinski’s cartoons were often whimsical. He offered a jaundiced, yet somehow quite optimistic view of life. His language was always careful, clever and uniquely French. For me, Georges Wolinski was the Georges Brassens of cartoonists. I will never be able to read another issue of Paris Match without feeling sad.

Here is an homage to the life of Georges Wolinski on the website of Paris Match

The right to blaspheme is meaningless without the right to publish

"Charlie Hebdo Should Be Veiled"
Charlie Hebdo Should Be Veiled

My response to the many people who are essentially advocating “self-censorship” in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings is that while generally speaking it is indeed polite to refrain from crude attacks on people’s religious beliefs, politeness can never be demanded at the point of a gun.  The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were not polite. They believed in blasphemy as a positive good. Even in my country where blasphemy against the fundamentalist Christian faith is punished (usually informally but often very harshly and sometimes quite violently), there’s still an absolute right to publish.  Murdering these artists and threatening any who blaspheme against Islam destroys that right.

I personally was not a fan of Charlie Hebdo.  Over the years, I’ve seen a number of their covers, mostly because Arun Kapil frequently posted the most controversial ones on his website.  I bought an issue last year, thumbed through it and didn’t enjoy it. I have written about some of the covers and I’ve been critical of them for being pointlessly offensive.  What’s different now is that Islamists have murdered these cartoonists and threatened journalists and others who offend against their vision of Islam.

All of the covers dealing with religion were offensive. Some of those mocking Islam were gratuitously offensive.  But many others, while equally offensive, made extremely valid points through satire and were effective in ways that a mere article could never be.  As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Blasphmy is integral to satire.  It is simply impossible to satirize a person without giving offense.  It is impossible to satirize a religion or a religious leader without blaspheming.

It therefore seems clear to me that it a response to threats of murder against blasphemy that does not include more blasphemy in defiance of the threats is no defense at all.  What matters is the right to publish blasphemy. If it exists only in the abstract and with the tacit understanding that the right won’t ever be exercised, then it really doesn’t exist at all and we will be living in a society in which the Islamists are in charge.

Je suis Charlie


I suspect that the repercussions of this barbarity will potentially have great significance well beyond the tragic deaths of the individuals who were slaughtered today. Even now, people are talking about how this tragedy will improve the FN’s chances of taking power. If these killers turn up in, say, ISIS-controlled parts of Iraq or Syria the implications for French society will be profound and very disturbing.

I wish to discuss one significant aspect of this tragedy. Clearly, this was not intended as a “suicide mission”. The killers wanted to escape with their lives and seem to have made advance plans, however imperfect, for doing so. The critical question for France is whether they have will find support among the French people.

Mao Zedong once said that the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea. As his statement implies, without at least some level of support from the people of a particular community, it is difficult and perhaps impossible for revolutionaries or terrorists or even ordinary criminals to successfully hide from the police.

I think we must be honest with ourselves. The natural suspicion is that the killers are Beurs and have disappeared into the Muslim community in France—a community that is frequently castigated as being in France but not of France. We can argue about whether that is a fair categorization (and as an advocate for integration, I think it’s unfair for a variety of reasons) but I don’t see how the question can be avoided.

Certainly, the planning of this operation needed at least some degree of acquiescence among more than a handful of people living in France. At this point, there must be many people in France who know or suspect the identity of the killers. Their escape from France will require both the active support of some people there and the willingness to remain silent of a much larger group. This is the meaning of Mao’s axiom.

Do these killers enjoy any level of support in France? Assuming that they are hiding in the Muslim community, the question is will that community choose to shelter the killers as they, presumably, leave France for a country where they will be welcomed as heroes? Or will the revulsion to this barbarity among ordinary French Muslims (and which seems to be slowly building in the admittedly perhaps non-representative parts of the Beur media to which I have been directed by friends) mean that the killers will be quickly identified and delivered to the police?

Now we will see the reaction of the Muslim community in France. Will they show solidarity with the victims? Will the leadership of the Muslims in France speak out to condemn this attack? Will they help to identify and capture these barbarians?

I believe that the majority of French people will be looking to see whether the French Muslims are simply people who share a physical space with the French while remaining outsiders in separate communities, who are perhaps even antagonistic towards France. This is an important moment. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, my reading of the French media (and my own heart) tells me that this will be a test.


The Grand Mosque of Paris has issued a very strong statement condemning the attacks

In a development, the significance of which cannot be overestimated, the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France, which is a very conservative Islamic umbrella group, has issued an even more strongly worded condemnation of the attack in which they called for all French Muslims to show solidarity by participating in marches or rallies in memory of the victims and stating that a delegation of the management of the UOIF went [to one of the many demonstrations today] in order to show their solidarity. (NB, there were many marches and demonstrations today throughout France in hommage or to show solidarity).

They are in French and I couldn’t find English versions but the statements are in very simple, very direct and very strong French and I believe that Google Translate will handle it nicely.


I would like to direct attention to this very strong statement by Hassan Chalghoumi, an imam in the Paris suburb of Drancy, who has visited the scene of the crime and issued a very strong and extremely moving condemnation of the attacks. (This video is in French with English subtitles).

Voter c’est choisir, aussi : my answer to the call for unity by Christophe Cambadélis

15 Apr 2014, Paris,  Jean-Christophe Cambadlis, delivers a speech after the PS national council during which he was elected First Secretary. Image by © Zaer Belkalaï/Demotix/Corbis
15 Apr 2014, Paris, Jean-Christophe Cambadlis, delivers a speech after the PS national council during which he was elected First Secretary. Image by © Zaer Belkalaï/Demotix/Corbis

On his excellent blog “French Politics,” Art Goldhammer has some insightful commentary on the bizarrely detached reaction of François Hollande to the growing revolt within his party and also to the continuing economic crisis. It is well worth reading. But he also calls attention to a remarkable plea for party unity in the PS by the respected Socialist deputy Jean-Christophe Cambadélis to which I would like to briefly respond.

Art Goldhammer observes how much easier it is to be united in opposition and how very difficult it is to smooth over differences in a Socialist government that spans such a broad political spectrum. This seems particularly true in a government lead by François Hollande, now apparently reborn as a prophet of the center-right seeking to lead a party of the left to the promised land of the “business friendly” right.

But for me, the really interesting thing about the plea for unity by Cambadélis is he does not even pretend to finesse the fractures in the party. He simply wants the discord to stop. But as we saw recently at La Rochelle, there are many in the party whose thinking is quite different from and largely antagonistic to the ideas of President Hollande and, most particularly, the political ideas of Manuel Valls.   Is Cambadélis saying that it is unimportant whether the policies championed by Aubry or the right-wing claptrap of Valls should reign supreme in the party?

This is the chief defect of the call for unity by Cambadélis.  A plea for unity that does not also describe the people and principles around which the left should unite is hollow and meaningless. To borrow from Art Goldhammer, unity for the sake of unity is only possible when no difficult choices are required. That is not the situation confronting the PS today.

The PS is in government and the maxim of Pierre Mendés France applies with brutal force: to govern is to choose. But equally,  to vote is to choose. In other words,  the membership of the PS must decide whether to be a party of the center-right or the center-left. Cambadélis doesn’t even acknowledge the debate but, surely, it is at the heart of the discord he condemns.

Can it truly come as a surprise to Cambadélis that the political manifesto is at the very heart of why the voters of the PS have chosen to vote for the party in the past and will certainly determine whether they will choose to do so in the future because, as I say, to vote is also to choose.

I do not wish to single out Cambadélis for criticism unfairly or to reduce a highly respected man of the left to a caricature but I am amazed that he seems amazed that the voters who elected him might, shockingly, care about what their government does. He seems surprised that voters have political beliefs of their own that they hope will be advanced by voting for candidates of the party that best reflects their beliefs.

One might also observe a different, but perhaps closely related aspect of French politics today. It seems that today only the voters have political goals they seek to achieve or beliefs upon which they are prepared to act. I think it is the assumption that political beliefs are important that separates the voters—who are partisans because of their beliefs—from the political class whose main preoccupations seem to be to keep the perks of office like bodyguards, fine automobiles and entree to the New Versailles. Nevertheless, it is this failure to acknowledge that political choices and policies genuinely matter to most voters that perhaps opens a window into the soul of the political classes and exposes an emptiness that is at the heart of what is wrong with France today.

Thus, the error of Cambadélis is his failure to acknowledge that ideology is the root cause of the discord within the PS. Hollande evidently wishes to reposition the PS as a party of the center right, with an heir-apparent in Valls who will try to move it even more to the right when his time comes. Is it really surprising that most voters of the PS—who are in an ideological spectrum that ranges from the center-left to the left—are unwilling to rally around Hollande and Valls?

To reiterate, what is missing from the plea for unity of Cambadélis is any recognition of the notion that ideas matter, that people can hold genuine political beliefs that the Parti socialiste stands for certain important ideas and principles that they continue hold dear. Since, presumably, most voters of the PS are comfortably within that center-left to left spectrum, isn’t it likely that they would need no urging to rally round a government that was seeking to implement a political philosophy in which they believe? Yet they do not rally to support the Hollande government; to the contrary, many are in increasingly open revolt against it and rightly so.

The centrality of political beliefs as a motivational force for PS voters seems to be the crucial point that Cambadélis is missing. The voters of the PS and many of the party leaders can’t unite around Hollande because his beliefs and actions are anathema to them. The left does not want to struggle and sacrifice to implement the agenda of the right. To unify the party will require nothing less than new leadership who has the support of the membership and a promise to implement a new manifesto for a “socialism of the possible”.