My halfhearted defense of why Hollande is helpless to mediate in the Greek-Germany negotiations

19 May 2015, Berlin, Germany --- Berlin, Germany. 19th May 2015 -- French President Francois Hollande during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 19 May 2015. Image by © Simone Kuhlmey/Demotix/Corbis
19 May 2015, Berlin, Germany — Berlin, Germany. 19th May 2015 — French President Francois Hollande during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 19 May 2015. Image by © Simone Kuhlmey/Demotix/Corbis

A number of observers of French politics have criticized the tepid and ineffective mien of François Hollande as he has refused to aggressively support Greece in her ongoing negotiations with Germany.  President Hollande has demonstrated on countless occasions that he is made of a wobbly caramel pudding with a soft-center.   Nevertheless, I would offer a modest defense of Hollande’s inability to rise to the occasion on this particular occasion.

Frankly, it occurs to me that it may no longer be possible for him to do anything at this point.  In 2012, Hollande had the potential to gather other EU countries (several with governments of the center left) many possible allies around him to support his challenge of German hegemony.  There were a number of EU countries (including several with governments of the center-left) suffering under austerity that might have been interested in joining with France.  Perhaps of even greater importance were popular anti-austerity movements such as Occupy and Los Indignados who could have contributed vast numbers of “foot-soldiers” and their tremendous energy.

Tragically, Hollande didn’t have the courage to seize that moment. Today, all of the governments of the center left have fallen on their swords through their unwavering support of austerity.   Under Hollande, the French government has morphed into a pro-austerity, pro-supply side economics proponent of austerity.

The left is shell-shocked and incapable of action. The popular movements have been crushed and dispersed. It would be difficult for even a beloved and charismatic figure to re-energize them for this fight; for Hollande it would be impossible.

Consequently, Hollande is in no position to threaten Germany’s dominant position or its control over the institutions of the EU. Even if he wanted to fight, I think Hollande has left it for much too late. The great irony is that the mechanism created to end the struggle for hegemony has made Germany the unquestioned ruler of Europe.

Hollande’s “Battle Plan” for 2017

On his blog French Politics, Art Goldhammer discusses François Hollande’s “battle plan” for 2017.   After reading both the Le Monde article and Goldhammer’s excellent analysis this thought struck me:

Either François Hollande is the least self-aware man on the planet or Karl Menninger was right that murder and suicide are interchangeable.  It doesn’t surprise me that Hollande turned out to be a political “family annihilator”.  What surprises me is that it’s that the Parti Socialiste had two recent opportunities to avoid its fate and choose to stick with François Hollande.

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.

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