Friday, November 28, 2008


28/29  November

                "Car c'est vraiment, Seigneur, le meilleur témoignage
 Que nous puissions donner de notre dignité
    Que cet ardent sanglot qui roule d'âge en âge
 Et vient mourir au bord de votre éternité!"

                 --lines from Baudelaire's "Les Phares" inscribed on his                            statue in the Luxembourg gardens

It was really thanks to my friend Steve that I got back to Baudelaire. I had brought along a cheap copy of "Les fleurs du mal," but hadn't spent much time with it. But the text Steve sent me of Roy Campbell's lurid and convincing translation of "Au Lecteur" got me going, and I've been pulling out my little paperback late at night, on the métro, waiting in ticket lines, even lying in bed first thing in the morning. It becomes atmospheric, that world peopled by demons and saturated with a powerful nostalgia for what never existed except in the imagination. 

I also gradually began to take special notice of this statue of Baudelaire as I ran around the Luxembourg gardens. I hadn't noticed him at all the first few times--I was getting my second wind at that point, not sight-seeing--but now I make a point of greeting him, and he me. I take photos of the statue when I walk past it--I have an extensive, all-weather set. I also drop by his grave now and then, here in Montparnasse, and that single faded red rose on his tombstone is the one I put there. 

I had never paid much attention to his poem "Les Phares"--"The Beacons"--but I went back to it after I found its final quatrain inscribed on the base of his statue. In it the poet makes a strange and uncanny visit to his art museum of the mind, starting with the "amnesiac river" that is "Rubens" ("Rubens, fleuve d'oubli"), and continuing on through singular descriptions of Rembrandt, Leonardo, Goya. Eventually he arrives at "Delacroix, bloody lake haunted by evil angels" ("lac de sang hanté des mauvais anges"). I have to admit that I don't for the most part recognize these Old Masters in his phrases. Perhaps scholarship could help me, but I doubt it. These are paintings as seen by the poet and no one else--a visionary gallery. Not even paintings, they are signals, pointing outward, sounding the alarm, or drawing us back, if like the "hunters" he goes on to mention, we should lose our way. 

I don't exactly identify with these iconic figures from art history, either in Baudelaire's poet's vision of them, or my own. But at the end of the poem they become generalized into the outcry of "a thousand sentinels," or better yet, "a thousand loud-speakers" ("porte-voix," if you'll pardon the anachronism). Here I begin to see myself: could I be one of these loud-speakers, these "signal-fires lit in a thousand citadels"? Not that I could claim the singularity of vision the poet ascribes to his artist-beacons, or by implication to himself. But I do hope that these scattered observations of a place, Montparnasse, of Paris, and of a movement to build a better, more equitable society, might like Baudelaire's phares "bear a higher witness," as the poet says, "to our human dignity." 

But for now it's au revoir to all that, or better, à la prochaine.  

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

"it's a party": last thoughts for now

28 November 

In an interview published yesterday in l'Express, Olivier Besancenot was asked (not for the first time) what the positive goals of his anti-sounding party were. His answer: "Socialism updated for the 21st century, ecosocialism, workers' self-management ["autogestion libertaire"], and democratic communism." Later on he added a 5th principle: internationalism. On Wednesday night I listened to three hours of debate by NPA 14e members on what should be the party's platform, and though it will take more meetings before anything like consensus is achieved, what I heard gives specific content to Besancenot's stated principles. So let me explore them briefly in the light of the debate I heard:

1) An updated socialism in a sense embraces all the rest: it must be democratic and thus freed from the control of a small central committee--that's why the localized structure of the NPA will be so important, and why groups like NPA 14e are so intent on seeing how their suggestions are received at the national level.  And that new socialism must be creative in the economic tools it uses: I heard detailed arguments for and against lowering or abolishing the VAT (as opposed to taxing income in a directly redistributive fashion), for and against the LCR demand to prohibit lay-offs. Many question whether the LCR demand to increase income by E300/month across the board has any meaning without price controls, and whether the latter should be general or quite selective. And so on. The NPA's economic and social platform is still in the early stages of development, but that is precisely the '21st century' mode: not bureaucratic, centralized diktat but flexibility and debate.

2) What 'ecosocialism' will mean in this context is also largely uncodified. On issues such as nuclear power and genetically-altered crops the NPA will certainly follow its activist base. Will it also take a more general stand against 'productivism' (and thus for a 'small-is-good' sort of  economy), in favor of local and organic agriculture (and thus for some form of protectionism)? Renewable energy is a given, but will it call for radical reduction in carbon-based non-renewables, and can this be done without jeopardizing France's economic standing by classic measurements? NPA's capitalist critics taunt it as the party of a "European Cuba," but for ecosocialists the transformation of Cuba's economy since the early 90s is one of the few successful models of sustainability anywhere in the world (and we in the US, whose government considered climate change a fraudulent theory until 2006 (!),  have absolutely nothing to be proud of in this regard). 
3) As I understand "autogestion libertaire"--a term I associate with Italian anarchist theory dating from the '70s but correct me if I'm wrong--it is the corrective for the state bureaucratic planning that worked so dismally in previous socialist experiments. Besancenot has been clear that his "service public bancaire" would not be a 'nationalized,' i.e. state-run, banking system, but a financial sector run by 'users,' 'employees,' 'the people.' Likewise industrial management is understood in theory to be the domain not of a national ministry but of workers' councils. As I understand it 'democratic communism' is closely related: a communalism governed from below. What would this look like? The most that can be said is that it would not resemble in any way the socialisms of the 20th century, of the Soviet system or China. 'For the 21st century' means incorporating the openness of a modern society, using decentralized technologies like the internet, in ways that are unprecedented. This is not a question for next week or next year. But as I discovered on Wednesday, the activists at the base typify the highly-informed and passionately-engaged citizenry such a system would hope to will into existence. My NPA 14e camarades would be really good at autogestion (though they'd spend a lot of time doing it).

4) Finally, no one imagines that France will head off in this direction by itself. I heard some useless talk on Wednesday about how companies could be kept from relocating elsewhere if they didn't like France's revolutionized economy, but in reality the smallest scale on which the NPA imagines its revolutionary transformation could take place is Europe. That is why the 'Other Europe' question is so important, and why the European Parliamentary elections next June will be a major focus: NPA needs to help form an anti-capitalist bloc within the EU, whose long-term goal will be to build a Union that will accommodate the France envisioned by the NPA. 

That is one prong of NPA's internationalism. The other is North-South solidarity. Though less immediately in view, the party imagines a whole new relationship between the fully industrialized European nations and those less developed in this way, among them its former colonies: fair trade, regulated immigration and work visas, and cultural exchange are parts of this redefined relationship. The emergence of Chavez and Morales and a somewhat 'anti-capitalist' bloc in Latin America is also of great interest: asked who he most respects among global political leaders, Besancenot named sub-commandant Marcos of the Zapatista Army in Chiapas.

A third side of the internationalist question--relations with the world's most powerful country, an insular nation in decline and therefore particularly dangerous--are very little mentioned. It has been hard to imagine a 'democratic communist' France or Europe in dialogue with the US of Bush and Cheney. It is still hard to imagine in the 'Obama era.' In some pathetically small way I have hoped that these posts would help to clear a space for that eventual conversation, many years from now. Perhaps they will. It is a long road the NPA is just about to embark on. Only those who believe in history and have some hope for the future of our species would set foot on it. En avant!    


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

not in Kansas

25 November

So I'm walking down the rue de Seine in the gallery district when I run smack into a demonstration: sound truck and chants, flags and banderoles, a regular labor action. But I missed the front of the cortège where the leafleters and signs were, so I couldn't tell what it was about. So I asked a guy on the corner, who told me matter-of-factly, "It's the archaeologists."  And that's just who it was: several hundred archaeologists marching down the street, shouting and chanting, demanding that the government withdraw plans to disperse the headquarters of its national archaeological service from Paris.

"Toto," I said to myself, "we're not in Kansas any more."


Monday, November 24, 2008

débat public

23 November

NPA 14e continues to impress me with, among other things, its dogged determination to make this party happen. In that spirit mes camarades spent long hours last Saturday and Sunday a week ago leafletting every market and métro in the 14e to invite people to a public discussion (débat) last Thursday on the current financial crisis. About 40 people showed up, half militant(e)s, half new people from the neighborhood, and the discussion-after a rapid-fire intro from an academic economist--was lively. France's economy is heading south (though maybe not as fast as the US's) with new lay-offs every day, and people here are looking for solutions beyond 'Obama will save us.'

In that light I want to use this post not to summarize the (rather fluid) débat but to lay out what it helped me see are some of the most pressing issues and concerns of a French anti-capitalist movement at this time:

1) "Le NPA n'est pas Olivier Besancenot." It was remarkable to hear how some of the new people completely attached their remarks--about the crisis, social change, the anti-capitalist movement--to the hasty metonym 'Olivier Besancenot.'  Remarkable but not surprising: the mass media themselves have created this usage not knowing any longer how to present any issue of substance except in the personalized, psycho-dramatic terms of 'Who will lead us?' Thus the importance of our presider's succinct response: "Besancenot is not the NPA." The NPA has to be a 'parti de base,' a grass-roots operation, not only to grow but to avoid all the risks of identifying with a single personality, no matter how attractive that leader is--and the skill and mediagenic attraction of Besancenot make this problem all the more urgent.

2) The European Union: I am only gradually becoming aware of the wealth of issues that led a large majority of the French Left to oppose the European Constitutional Treaty three years ago, effectively questioning the status of the EU as presently constituted. While some on the margins, Left and Right, simply want the Union to go away, that is certainly not the position of the NPA (or any other reasonable party to the conversation). On the other hand, the claim of the Left that the EU is an agent for dismantling the Social-Democratic legacies of many European countries in favor of a 'neo-liberal' or free-market economy has considerable merit. The call for an 'Other Europe' is a broad rallying cry, from eco-activists who want the Union to promote a local and organic agriculture to Marxists who want to socialize the entire financial sector.  And France's bitter experience of pursuing 'socialism in one country' in '81-'83 makes a European-wide transformation look like an essential idea.

3) The European Parliamentary elections next June are thus crucial, partly because to define this 'Other Europe' is to resolve a lot of policy issues, and partly because the election will bring about a whole series of political alliances, Left and Right. In that regard the looming question for the NPA--a question that came up again and again on Thursday--is how to approach the new Parti de Gauche founded two weeks ago by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and other left socialists leaving the PS in anticipation of its continuing rightward drift. I personally find Mélenchon compelling--his blog strikes me as a frank testimonial of personal engagement quite unlike the discourse of any elected official I know. And I feel that the NPA had best be very flexible in this first round of campaigning, that is, open to all who see capitalism as the central problem, quite apart from any details of interpretation. I believe mine is a consensus position, at least in  our local group, but Mélenchon has inspired a lively debate that is far from over. 

4)'Revolutionary' vs. 'Republican': Mélenchon himself suggested that this pair of terms defines his difference from the NPA. This means in part that his new Parti de Gauche, like Die Linke in Germany, would take part in a reformist, left-center government, even though his stated goal is not the reform of capitalism but its 'dépassement.' (Do we have a word for this in English?) NPA would not take part in such a government--its strategic plan is to build a majoritarian movement, and abstain from governing until it has the power to create a post-capitalist order. A revolutionary strategy--but also a 'republican' one? (The intention is not to overthrow the Republic but to seize it through mass movements including elections.) Conversely, isn't Mélenchon, though clearly a 'republican,' also 'revolutionary'? Can the two terms coincide? I raised this question, thinking it was lexicographic--how are these terms used in French?--but I discover that there is no clear answer, that in fact the question contains the crux of a large theoretical and strategic debate that hasn't apparently reached a conclusion. 

5) "What sort of society are you aiming for?" "How will you get from here to there?" "Ordinary people just want to go on living their lives--will they be able to do that under your program?"  These naive questions, which arose from newcomers in pretty much these exact terms on Thursday, are questions that any serious movement that aspires to be majoritarian had best be prepared to answer. Lots of theoreticians think they know the answer to the first one, drawing on a now classic body of Marxist theory. Some think they can answer the second, though the contingencies of the current situation will always modify any strategic blueprint--just ask the ghost of Lenin. But the third question, the most commonsensical one of all, is less evident in the classic literature, because revolutions haven't generally been designed for affluent, in many ways comfortable societies like France's (or Europe's).  The revolutionary impetus to put it all on the line makes sense if you are starving or being sent into the trenches. It makes less sense if the system 'merely' threatens mass starvation somewhere else, or ecological catastrophe several decades from now, or slow economic regression. Somehow this revolutionary--NOT reformist-doctrine needs to develop an evolutionary theory of transformation, a way to imagine the revolution in slow motion, with stability in many of the modes of daily life, even during major institutional changes. Is an evolutionary theory of revolutionary transformation imaginable? I don't know the answer, but I do think the question will have to be answered before the NPA can lead a mass movement in the direction of a social revolution.

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Falstaff (2): forever waiting at the station

24 November

"Les joyeuses commères de Windsor" (aka "The Merry Wives of Windsor") is not one of Shakespeare's more original works, though the guy did have a knack for putting a show together. Seen primarily as a vehicle for resurrecting Falstaff (allegedly at the insistence of the Queen, to whom one did not say 'no') it is a bit disappointing: unlike in "Henry IV," where the pathos of Falstaff's downward trajectory, juxtaposed to the upsurgence of the prince, is the stuff of universal drama (see my post of 22/11), the outsized Falstaff is here fitted into a standard comic plot of fickle wives and jealous husbands, where his enormities are just another occasion for low humor. So I wondered what a company as original as the Théâtre du Voyageur would make of this material, and said as much to Chantal Melior before the show. "You'll have to see," she said, sphinx-like, and see I did.

One simple fact is that Chantal's two 'episodes' directly connect in a way that Shakespeare's do not: two hundred years of social history and a change of genre separate Shakespeare's feudal Falstaff from his early modern one. In the Voyageur's episode 2, though, the rather touching conclusion of episode 1 is replayed, verbatim, except that Falstaff, rebuked and abandoned, trudges to the far side of the stage ... and into a boxing ring! There he KO's one, two, three of his erstwhile critics and emerges a winner once more. Later the ring will become a stage where Falstaff's desperate housewife (now known as Mme. de Gaie?), will croon a love-song (in English), Motown style, while the rest of the cast sings back-ups. More choral numbers similarly yank the scene into the present day--but of course that's exactly what Shakespeare did by creating a contemporary bourgeois bedroom farce.

Other interpolations worked less well for me. The English wars of succession break out all over again, just long enough for Falstaff as recruiter to engage in a lot of wordplay (I no doubt missed a lot here), but then the armies seem to get laid off and everyone goes home. On the other hand the fact that the play actually erupts in the bar/waiting area before it officially starts, with Falstaff bellowing and cursing from the stairwell and the cast warming up at the piano, is a wonderful way to launch a sequel. This was particularly effective as half the audience was a group of middle-schoolers (who had seen the first half as I did the night before): not quite knowing what to expect, they were both amazed and a little worried as this enormous and rather unstable-looking fellow was suddenly amongst them, using language they knew one didn't use in polite settings ... but was this a polite setting? Had their teachers brought them by mistake to a bordello? In some ways the uncertainty of that moment set a perfect tone for what followed.

After the instabilities of these preliminary gestures the main plot of "Merry Wives," in which Falstaff's adulterous designs are deceptively encouraged, then foiled in a crescendo of humiliations, goes ahead like a mechanical toy, delightful in its details but finally all too predictable. Falstaff is left on all fours, wearing a ridiculous set of horns (antlers, actually), while the honest burghers of Windsor--that boringly upright bunch--make sport of him. That's as far as Shakespeare takes it: Falstaff realizes his folly, and the romantic subplot (altogether missing from this version) is left to work its charms. 

But in the Voyageur version a wonderful thing happens at just this moment, a gesture with which Chantal Melior has won my heart forever.  Falstaff picks himself up, antlers and all, and returns to the studied nonchalance he tried to assume in the face of Hal's devastating rebuke at the end of episode 1. Turning to his faithless friends he asks--in exactly the words he used last night-- "Who wants to have dinner?" and strolls off as if nothing has happened: no moral lesson, no triumph of bourgeois propriety, no change of heart. For all his faults and follies he is still Falstaff, heavyweight champion of the world, now, tomorrow, forever. Now that's an ending.    

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Sunday, November 23, 2008


23 November

Each Sunday that I've been here I have jumped on the RER and gone down to Saint-Eustache for a 5:30 organ recital. These are brief experiences--they function as a prelude to the 6:00 Mass (which I do not attend)--but powerful. All but one (a Bach recital) have featured the music of Olivier Messiaen, whose hundredth anniversary is being celebrated all over Paris this fall. And from the effect of Messiaen's singularly modernist music blasted into this flawlessly high Gothic interior space, I have learned to hear the organ in a new way.

If you don't know the music of Messiaen, you should. I discovered him through his "Quartet for the End of Time," a work composed (incredibly) in a prison camp in 1940. It is the most luminous piece of music I have ever heard. After that I listened to some of his piano works that evoke birdsong: Messiaen traveled all over the world, from Morocco to Utah to Japan, notebook in hand, transcribing the music of birds. Though he composed for many instruments, Messiaen was foremost an organist, a professor at the Conservatoire de Paris and the regular Sunday organist at l'Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris. I had heard his organ music here and there, but never listened to it systematically, as this fall's festival has allowed me to do. 

A fervent Christian, Messiaen's organ works are often directed toward mystical experience: his nine "Méditations sur le mystère de la sainte Trinité" (1969) were a substantial part of the programming at Saint-Eustache. As a teacher of composition--and a wildly inventive musical genius--he also looked constantly for ways to expand the vocabulary of musical composition and the technical possibilities of both the organ and the piano (he wrote for his wife, a virtuoso pianist). At another anniversary concert, this one at Saint-Sulpice, I was lucky to hear excerpts from his Livre d'Orgue, a notebook of bold, often powerfully dissonant inventions not often performed--and I was lucky to hear it there, in the same church where the teen-aged Messiaen came on Sundays to hear the improvisations of his teacher Marcel Dupré, France's other great modernist composer for organ. Small world, Paris.

What I suddenly realized one evening at Saint-Eustache is that for Messiaen the organ itself is only half of the composer's equipment. The other half is the resonant chamber of the church, and in the case of Saint-Eustache, it is a magnificent instrument. All those lofty spaces, those stone indentations and galleries, transepts and ambulatory, they all hold and return the vibrations from the pipes at variable intervals that build and overlay the sound. Knowing this, Messiaen inserts spacing into his scores. A fortissimo blast of one of his impossibly dense chords will sound, then be followed by silence while the sound finishes its circuitous journey through this echo chamber. (I did not detect this effect in Bach, glorious as it was in other ways.) The space likewise separates out the layers of sound characteristic of Messiaen's work: in the 9th meditation, the one I heard this evening, he builds up from a sort of bass ostinato in the pedals, with one melody in the middle range and another reedy bird-like melody played in the highest register. Each layer resonates differently, so that while they are simultaneous, they persist in quite different temporalities, hanging there in nether space. In this way Messiaen, the organ, and the Gothic space are able to simulate something like what the Scholastics described as the convergence of time in eternity. 

Saturday, November 22, 2008

with Falstaff on the railway platform (1)

22 November

Crowned and regal, Bolingbroke surveys his destiny, his wanton prince, and us from a high chair, which is rolled majestically across the vast stage when History beckons. Hotspur and his rebellious colleagues, on the other hand, wander through the same space like nomads in their mobile HQ tent. When the battle occurs, it happens as an athletic ballet, part West Side Story, part soccer match. These spacious effects come naturally to the Théâtre du Voyageur at Asnières, just north of Paris, a big stage housed right on the platform in a former railway station.

But what do we care about kings and battles? The production is "Le Ventre de Shakespeare," the Belly of Shakespeare, or "the Lives and Deaths of Falstaff in Two Episodes," and we spend most of the evening carousing with Sir John and Mistress Quickley and their patchy friends in a seedy piano bar that takes up most of center stage. Oh, and Prince Hal is there too, in it but not of it, his acerbic wit setting him apart, starting with his first lines, though it takes him the length of episode 1 to realize it.

At the Théâtre du Voyageur, as its website informs us, each production is "un apprentissage et un voyage," an exploration and a journey, which departs from the "psychological theater" to create "an experience lived simultaneously by actors and spectators." The local genius who inhabits these precincts is a dynamic woman named Chantal Melior, and it is she who has assembled the script, produced, and directed it. Chantal (everyone seeems to call her by her prénom) has nurtured her little repertory company over nearly two decades. It was she who saw the possibilities of the abandoned station and somehow persuaded the local and regional governments to renovate it. Though she disclaims much knowledge of English, she knows her Shakespeare, and she has stitched together these scenes from four of his plays with the cunning of a master, adding songs and choreography as needed. Her Falstaff, a hogshead of a man whose belly deserves its top billing, not only lives and breathes--as he does in Shakespeare's vignettes--but takes on the full amplitude of a major character, not tragic but sad in a modern way, a perpetual adolescent whose tricks and fancies never cease to amuse, but who gets left behind when Hal's express train leaves the station. 

Before that happens, though, we get the full enjoyment of this outsized character: hear his quick lies as he tries to repossess his squandered bravery, hear him load his beloved prince with calumnies he smoothly disavows when overheard, hear him declaim on the hypocrisies of "honor." A floozie named "Do-Do" sings a dancehall number in his honor, in which he seems to be compared to an orangutan (my French isn't always up to this sort of scene, but folks around me found it hilariously naughty). And best of all, with Quickley on his arm, Sir John himself sings her a little chanson d'amour as they two-step across the stage, a scene the Bard would have stolen in a minute.

Theater is meant to be transport, and Chantal's  brilliant insight in claiming this space is only a small part of how that effect is put to work. Apart from its luxury of stage space the company's style is low-budget: the cozy coffee bar/waiting area is furnished with mismatched chairs and makeshift tables and lit by a large dripping candelabra, a cross between an Allston group apartment and a set for La Bohème. But I feel immediately drawn in as the volunteer hostess absolutely refuses to take my euro the coffee is supposed to cost, and insists that I meet Chantal. "Is this your first time here? Welcome to the Théâtre du Voyageur" is said to me at least three times. This is clearly a voyage we're taking en groupe

At the final moment of episode 1, though, that voyage becomes vast and solitary. Sir John and his friends witness the triumph of their pal, now crowned as Henry V, from behind a crowd-control barrier of chicken wire. Falstaff is his bragadoccio self, assuring one and all that his personal connection to the new king will have them all rolling in titles and repaid debts. But the new king has moved on to another life. As he rebukes his old companion from the far side of the stage, telling him how unsuited his capers are to his white hair, we can all but hear the air leaking out. Abandoned by his prince and his disappointed followers, Falstaff, slumped and vacant, makes an achingly slow walk across that spacious but empty stage, a voyager to nowhere. 

What I saw last night was just episode 1, "la dolce vita." Falstaff's death is recounted in a rapid-fire epilogue just as the lights go out,  but Chantal's notes to episode 2 promise that he will be back on other terms, not a person but a "character" (personnage de théâtre) living a "farce tragique." Will that be so very different? I'll find out tonight and let you know.


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Thursday, November 20, 2008

legality and legitimacy

November 20

  • Last  night I had the good fortune to hear Louis Joinet, legal scholar and former magistrate of the Cour de Cassation (French Appeals Court?), currently attached to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. M. Joinet was invited to speak on the rights of foreigners by the 12th arrondissement collective  that supports undocumented workers, with whom I demonstrated a few weeks ago on behalf of an improperly challenged resident immigrant. (My 15 seconds of fame, a video interview on that occasion posted on, would appear here if I knew how to make the link.) M. Joinet gave a theoretical overview of the question but spent most of his time fielding questions from the 50 or 60 interested citizens who filled a conference room in the Mairie of the 12th. Here are a few highlights of his talk: 
  • Though like many here he refers to France as the "pays des Droits de l'Homme," M. Joinet derives the theory of Civil Disobedience, his principal topic, from Thoreau and  M. L. King, both of whom he cited;
  • While undocumented workers are by definition in a situation of "délit" (infraction?), Joinet made the point that theirs is an administrative rather than a criminal offense, a distinction the current French government has deliberately blurred, as in the case of the immigrant I was involved in supporting;
  • Joinet's fundamental distinction was between legality and legitimacy: his point being that disagreement with the law is legitimate in a democracy, and thus the acts of resistance to the law which characterize the efforts of groups such as the sponsoring collective have a legitimacy as well. For Joinet such resistance in the name of what he called an "interêt supérieur"--the human right to immigrate, to live decently in the host country--is not only 'legitimate' but essential to the democratic process;
  • Several members of the audience challenged the limits to that resistance, which Joinet insisted must be non-violent: one cited the violence of 1789 and 1871, both of which the questioner insisted were legitimate instances of violent resistance, while another pointed out that resistance to the Vichy government was only legitimized après-coup, and only then because Germany lost the war. Numerous audience members cited the extraordinary violence the government employs when enforcing its immigration policies. Joinet cautiously acknowledged the place of violent resistance under carefully specified conditions, e.g. that no other means of resistance is available, but he clearly believes in the efficacy of carefully monitored and calibrated non-violent resistance;
  • He also cited an extraordinary precedent in French law, which he called "légalité future": several decades ago, after the right to abortion had become widely recognized but before that right was codified in the law, a French judge ordered that prosecutions cease on the grounds of future legality, i.e. the inevitability of a change in the law. I wonder what American legal specialists would say about that principle;
  •  Joinet placed repeated emphasis on the importance of transparency for the argument he was making, and the dangers of clandestinity. Being legitimate, civic resistance must make its actions and its rationales perfectly clear, so as to distinguish itself from criminality, which he noted is by its nature clandestine. He cited a personal instance: while trying to negotiate an agreement in El Salvador between the military government and the FMLN, he noted that the quite understandable clandestinity of the latter made it hard to reach a verifiable agreement on the basis of the UN-guaranteed principles Joinet was there to represent. 
Finally, Joinet thanked his audience, saying "You know more than I do about civic resistance because while I deal with it in theory, you practice it on the ground ("au terrain")." Coming from this eminent jurist whose long record of support for humane legal principles would be hard to dispute, this was high praise indeed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

sortilège du coin

Ever since I arrived in Montparnasse, I have felt peculiarly drawn to the rue de la Gaîté. I don't know why. Perhaps its name: a street that promises gayety is not to be bypassed. Or its history: in the pleasure days of the 19th century this was a spot where Parisians came for, well, gayety, for dance, drink, and amour. In the last century these pleasures evolved into music halls and burlesque theaters, most famously Bobino, where Piaf sang and Chevalier got his start. Now interspersed with peep shows, the street remains nonetheless a theater district, a miniature Times Square full of show crowds, neon, and the buzz of cafés.

The other night I saw "Les Sortilèges de l'Amour" at the Comédie Italienne, surely the smallest theater on the rue de la Gaîté, where for the price of a ticket I bought a potent dose of magic. Just buying the tickets was an experience. Pushing open the little swinging door that separates theater from street I entered a darkened lobby hung with masques and costumes, where a voice from nowhere greeted me. Eventually I located a spotlit desk at the far end, where I met Attilio Maggiulli, co-founder of the Comédie, adapter/translator/director of "Les Sortilèges," ... and ticket-seller on this slow afternoon. Signor Maggiulli, Italian by birth, has dedicated much of his long career to bringing Commedia dell'Arte to France, studying with the eminent Giorgio Strehler in Milan, collaborating with Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theâtre du Soleil as well as the Comédie Française, and launching his Teatrino Italiano in Montparnasse in 1974. He moved to his present location, the former site of a police commisariat, in 1980, and expanded next door in 1991, replacing a sex shop (more on hybridization in a moment). Famous for his revivals of the Italian Baroque, he has also created an adaptation of Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks," and more recently, as a sequel to his "George W. Bush ou le triste Cow-Boy de Dieu" (2003),  he performed his piece called "Guantanamo Palace" in San Francisco. Told I came from Boston, his eyes lit up: "Ah, le North-End ...."    

"Les Sortilèges de l'Amour" is steeped in metamorphosis from the moment the narrator steps on-stage, wearing a parrot-mask, and delivers his prologue with little bird-coos separating the phrases. Each character in turn has such a hybrid identity: the King, a bull-dog, punctuates his speech with little barks; the ingenue Clarice not only wears a mosquito-nose and brandishes a rapier but buzzes around the stage en pointe while her exasperated father chases her with an old-fashioned bug-sprayer. The lovely Angela, played by Maggiulli's co-founder and companion Hélène Lestrade, alternates between a feminine voice of exquisite softness, and little lamb-noises that become a second lexicon of devotion.

In fact every element in this play of marvels is apt to transform into something else. The actors all play three or four parts, changing masks and costumes with a sort of mad glee. The court of faraway China becomes an enchanted forest when a set of enormous but delicate Chinese fans are folded out to make it one. Of course there is a magic spell that turns the King into a Beggar, the evil Minister into the King, the Beggar into a Cerf (deer), and even the Cerf almost becomes a Cerf-volant (kite). The play itself is a strange cross-fertilization of works by Goldoni and Gozzi, contemporaries and bitter rivals whose involuntary collaboration in "Sortilèges" is a theatrical inside-joke.

But the greatest metamorphosis is the one the viewer experiences stepping into Maggiulli's miniature world. The theater itself, with no more than fifty seats, is like a jewelry case lined with deep red plush. When the narrator pushes open the curtain, he reveals a small stage whose every surface is adorned with little decorative emblems--pictures, bits of glitter, hanging things-- suggestive of someplace faraway. Maggiulli's characters speak in an antique French that retains the inflations of court-Italian, though they lapse as well into speech rhythms--"Permesso?" " Avanti!"--more suited to a present-day trattoria. Likewise the magic curtain--what Maggiulli calls his féerie--parts to admit sly references to François Fillon (France's evil Prime Minister) and Carla Bruni (its balladeer First Lady). But for the most part we are swept along in the currents of the fabulous, so that when the actors remove their masks at the second curtain call, their reinsertion into the everyday is a more outrageous travesty than the play itself.

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À quoi sert la Tour Eiffel?

À encadrer la Tour Montparnasse, évidement.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

mesure pour mesure in bobigny

16 November

"Measure for Measure" is an intellectually fascinating text but a hard play to bring to life on the stage. In fact, it's a hard play to justify in lots of ways, as I found out one time when I attempted to teach it to sophomores at Commonwealth School... but  that's another post. I went to see the play in French at MC 93 Bobigny last night, and the experience taught me some new things about the play--and a few about France as well.

One of the most successful aspects of this production was the set. Director Jean-Yves Ruf has the action begin (after a sort of prologue delivered by the duke from the audience) behind a gauzy transparent screen, through which we see what Vienna has become under the lax Duke's reign: prostitutes flaunt their wares under a garish light, as one of them squats to rinse her crotch and several clients exchange ribaldries while peeing (toward the audience) into a large rectangular pool/urinal that literally sets the stage for this drama of infraction and purgation. It is a world, as the duke admits, whose moral authority has gone flaccid in response to his negligence in enforcing the law. It is every Angelo's nightmare, every law-and-order conservative's case-in-point, every French droitiste's view of ... places like Bobigny. 

Allow me to digress a moment. In this morning's Monde I read an interesting op-ed piece, "Appeler un Noir un Noir,"  in which the writer examines le Monde's use of racial and other sensitive terminology, and notes how the Obama campaign among other forces has put pressure on that usage manual. One of the terms the author still considers defamatory is the chic adjective neuf-trois, 9-3, which identifies the départment Seine-Saint-Denis, northeast of Paris, but is understood to "stigmatise" the residents with undertones of criminality and foreignness. (American speakers, think of the adjective "ghetto") Bobigny is part of that world: MC 93 is Seine-Saint-Denis (93)'s public theater. 

Of course, one could hardly compare the French government's policies to the duke's. Under Interior Minister, now President, Sarkozy enforcement in places like Bobigny has been much more like ... Angelo's 'reforms.' Candidate Sarkozy famously suggested directing a watercannon at such places, and under his vigilance the racaille of Seine-Saint-Denis, as in Vienna, are rounded up, incarcerated, deported.  Once you understand that Angelo's real principles are hypocrisy, abuse, and personal gain,  voilà!--Ruf's lurid scenography takes on a hard edge. In yet another turn of the screw Sarkozy's cultural ministry has been trying to execute what local commentators call a "hostile takeover" of MC 93 by the ministry-managed Comédie Française (against the wishes of artistic director Patrick Sommier and Bobigny's Communist mayor), though that initiative seems to have been deferred. But the context is particularly pertinent for this play that is all about official power in conflict with human desires, as mirrored in the contrast of aristocratic and plebian standards of behavior. In its lavish and engaging presentation of the more populaire elements--not just the staging but virtuoso readings of a number of comic parts--this production comes down heavily on the side of le peuple and its humane republican values, and against the republic of les flics--of cops like Angelo and Sarkozy.

What is less successful is the effort to make coherent the angelic worldview, the absolutist standard of right behavior, whose burden in the play it is Isabelle's to impose on this bordel of a town. It is not the fault of the actress that she is constrained to play her entire role in a white nightgown more suggestive of Bon Marché than of Heaven. But she wouldn't have to intone her moral lessons so operatically, though really the fault is in how untrue these lines ring to moderns. Even her beloved, soon-to-be executed brother Claudio can't believe his ears when she patiently explains why her chastity is worth more than his young life. I'm in no position to judge André Markowicz's verse translation except to say it was 'difficult' for me in a Racinian sort of way, but I'm not sure Shakespeare's original makes Isabelle's case any more successfully.

This production's version of the Duke, on the other hand, is an improbable success, as well as the part of the play when I was most aware that it was in French. Let me say that my 10th graders were particularly unwilling to take this guy seriously, despite their teacher's increasingly plaintive insistence that they had to, that he was the obvious center of authority and truth in the play. But what a wacko he is, with his plots and disguises and non-stop machinations. And that's just how Jérôme Derre played him, waving his hands and rubbing them with glee, shouting at Isabelle and pulling her by the ear, just before he suddenly turns and gives her a 10-second smooch right on her virgin mouth. Is this sounding French?  At last it all makes sense: it's all about the desire of the Other of the other, which displaces the phallocratic law of the father into a chain of signifiers ... Just wait till I explain it to the sophomores.

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Friday, November 14, 2008


14 November

In just a few weeks I leave Paris, and already I am looking back. Among other marvels I am startled to realize that my most recent NPA post ("En avant le NPA!") was my ninth substantive report. Together they make up a narrative of --I'm guessing--5000 words, some of them directed at the mediated persona of Olivier Besancenot, others written from the trenches with my wonderful comrades from the comité du 14ème arrondissement de Paris du Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste, i.e. NPA 14e. 

The very existence of these dispatches amuses me, as I had no intention whatsoever to write this blog, or any formal account of my NPA experience. I wasn't even sure it would be an NPA experience--I looked into the Greens and others before settling on the NPA. But the conjuncture of numerous events--the general crisis of capitalism (the so-called financial crisis), the rightward drift of European Socialism, the relative success of Besancenot in the 2007 presidentials, and then in the mainstream press, and above all the portentous decision to create a new party--has made the founding events of the NPA worth recording. The opportunity to post "Olivier Besancenot and the Besancenot-effect" on Art Goldhammer's blog showed me what fun the blogosphere could be, and here I am. It's not quite "Ten Days that Shook the World," this NPA story, at least not yet ... but close? (You tell me--that's what the 'comments' link is for.)

But here's the dirty secret (the one John Reed never told you): it's really all personal, this batch of political reports. To hell with dialectical materialism, my decision to become part of the historic forward march of the NPA was in response to the question, who will I have to talk to in Paris? Since I don't know a soul there anymore, who can I meet, and how? There. My secret is out. And since I've said plenty already about what I think are some of the grand historical themes of the NPA narrative, I want to address the question, also thorny and dialectical in its way: did it work, my ploy?

Not entirely, not in the six short weeks I've had. The local committee is a professional sort of connection: its meetings are formally organized, and I've spoken little, while listening for hours to, and just barely keeping up with, the lively back-and-forth. I've spoken more personally to a few of the comrades at other meetings, emailed with others; at the Besancenot rally Debra and I were warmly greeted at the door by Dimitri and his Greek Communist pal Mikele (?), and sat surrounded by them, Dimitri's son, another comrade named Bruno, and Bruno's wife--practically a little clan in that sea of faces. I was actually asked to give a talk at the last meeting, an indigène report on Obama's election, but we ran out of time. I plan to reconvene at a café with at least a few of the comrades to hold that session before I leave. So yes, I do feel a some real personal connection--and a great deal of warmth--for these NPA comrades, but no, it would be unrealistic to think I could build real social ties in a few months.

On the other hand, as an observer I've had a fascinating immersion into a small social world that was forming long before I got there and will go on for who knows how long, but even in six weeks has shown real growth. I feel that NPA 14e is like my own little "Village in the Vaucluse" (a famous longitudinal study of French peasant life), only vastly speeded-up for the 21st century. As in a village, the 25 or 30 attendees distribute through the available roles: the one who keeps order, the one who tells a joke, the passive listeners, the objectors and the consensus-builders. Like a village square, NPA 14e meetings are the scene of flare-ups and reconciliations, dismissal (rare) and admiration (frequent). The 'old guard' of middle-aged men I saw running the meeting in October was mostly listening to a crew of 20-somethings last time, including our two pre-congress delegates and a team of computer-savvy leaflet designers who astonish us oldsters. See? I have a kind of a niche too, though they laughed when I introduced myself as "NPA un peu provisoire."

So History will continue and so will I, but the NPA et moi will live our histories in different places. More will happen in the next two weeks--this isn't my last post from Paris about the NPA. But it's probably the last time I'll take a photo in the mirror, so I hope you liked the picture.

En avant, le NPA!

14 November

[Warning: the following post contains hard-core communist political analysis. Readers wishing to avoid such content are advised to proceed to the next post, which will offer a more personal account of the same experience.]

"After all, it's not every day that one founds a political party."
--One of the NPA 14e militants, on the question of why we need weekly meetings from now till January

With the apparently quite successful work of the November 8/9 pre-Congress, and deepening crises in both the world economy and the French Socialist Party, the NPA is taking on greater solidity in the minds of its adherents even though it's still more than two months before it will officially exist. The sense that the historical moment draws near has sharpened the focus of NPA 14e's work, including its meeting last Wednesday night, and makes these preliminary manoeuvers all the more significant.   

The pre-Congress itself: all accounts agree that it was a serious, even tedious working session. Delegates from 400+ committees from all over France were divided into four work-groups, and proceeded to analyze the founding documents--programme, statuts, and orientation--line-by-line in 3-hour sessions that went through Saturday and into Sunday without quite finishing. The Sunday session on finding a new name for the party was (as I predicted) adjourned indefinitely without any resolution. The party will head toward the European elections next spring as the 'New Anti-Capitalist Party,' and after that, who knows. Some other decisions of consequence:
  • (programme) The party will operate for now with a 'small' program, that is, a statement of general principles--democratic, revolutionary, eco-socialist--without trying to define for now the 'large program,' i.e. exactly what sort of socialist organization, what distribution of goods, what systems of management, in short, all the details of that new society that will go about replacing the capitalist system. One has a general idea, but .... Likewise the strategic steps for getting from here to there will not be mapped out by the time of the January Congress, but will presumably evolve over time in response to a variety of conditions.
  • While relations between the party and its allies in the left of the labor movement were recognized as extremely important, there too no specific mechanisms were created to connect the two. For now the party will continue to support syndicalist movements on an ad hoc basis, but the pre-Congress agreed that a more formal institutional relationship will need to be defined.
  • (statuts) After some debate the proponents of a more centralized party were out-voted by federalists, that is, there is agreement that primary authority resides in the local committees, from which the authority of the central committee (CPN) devolves. This was understood as part of a larger effort to dissociate the structure of the new party from that of the more Leninist LCR, whose dissolution on January 30 will directly precede the foundation of NPA on the 31st.
  • (Orientation) This document, which intends to supplement the theoretical and formal structures with more concrete plans, engagements, and strategic initiatives, was the least finished, and a draft of its status quo will not be available until next week. But concrete prises de position are more interesting to many than ideological declarations, and NPA 14e agreed to focus its immediate efforts on staking out a position on this part, which it will sent to the central committee. It was agreed at the pre-Congress to divide this question in two:
1) All the specific movements the NPA supports, such as anti-privatization of the Post Office and other public services; support for immigrant rights and regularized work status; enlarged unemployment benefits and a moratorium on lay-offs; and so forth need to be catalogued into an active program; and
2) the party needs to position itself for the June, 2009 European elections. This thorny and ultimately quite revealing question involves defining "What sort of Europe,"  a question one hears all over the left, especially since the French voters rejected the Treaty of Lisbon (in a non-binding referendum). NPA insists on the need for pan-European and international solutions on many fronts, but opposes the EU in its present form as an agency of the Capitalist system. It will hope to elect deputies to the European Parliament who will convey this message, but the big question is: with whom will it construct lists of candidates within the regional districts? Greens? Left Greens? Left Socialists including the new Parti de Gauche that has split from the PS? In my view this question, and the lists of candidates that result, will define the identity of the NPA far more effectively than all the official documents put together end-to-end. Let the debate begin.

Meanwhile, the debate already did begin in a most interesting fashion on Wednesday night. Background: Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the senator who just left the PS to start the Parti de Gauche, left open the question of a potential alliance with the NPA. Besancenot, in a press conference related to the NPA's pre-Congress, seemed to shut that door with a remark one of the comrades described as 'sèche' (harsh?). This gesture was first gently, then roundly criticized by a clear majority of the 30 or so members of NPA 14e for two reasons: 1) they want a much more flexible and open system of alliances within the far-left, rather than the old sectarianism of the LCR, and 2) (most interestingly) they don't know on what authority Besancenot can make NPA policy on this sensitive issue: no one has elected him to any NPA office, there are no mechanisms to do so, and in short he seems to have spoken out of turn. A motion to this effect was deferred, for lack of time,  to the next meeting, but in a week's time the NPA 14e will almost surely send what amounts to a motion of censure to the CAN (temporary central committee), enjoining Besancenot from making unilateral pronouncements.

 I draw three conclusions from this:
1) the media perception that NPA is a vehicle for Besancenot and/or a continuation of the LCR's highly centralized structure is completely at variance with NPA 14e's view of its role;
2) the local or 'federal' basis of power in the NPA is already a fact for this local group; and 
3) both of the preceding ideas will be put to the test if and when CAN responds to NPA 14e's motion.   

So the gears are meshing, and the machinery of the Revolution lurches forward. My own quite personal reflections on this process will follow in a next post.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

tour de Montparnasse

13 November

One of the great Parisian traditions is the ritual of the visite guidée. Half a dozen perfect strangers, consulting their Officiel des spectacles, show up at a designated exit from some métro station, perhaps greeting each other shyly, perhaps not even. Then a scholar arrives to lead them on a walking seminar around the quartier, discoursing on its history, its anecdotes and notable inhabitants, its architecture and public art. Instant liberal arts education, bonus points for exercise, and a lesson in spoken French, all for 10 euros.

When I lived in Paris 26 years ago the visites were a favorite of mine for all these reasons, and I went on enough to know which guides--there were then about a dozen regulars--were more substantive and which were fluff. First place in the former category was an intense little man named Pierre-Yves Jaslet, who looked and talked like a perpetual graduate student, and I saw pas mal de choses in his company. 

 The other day I picked up my Officiel, and found a triple surprise: Jaslet was still giving tours all these years later, I remembered his name beyond a doubt, and he has added Montparnasse to his repertoire. This was all too good to ignore, so last Monday at precisely 10:30 Debra and I found ourselves in front of métro Vavin, sortie blvd. Montparnasse, côté impair, looking about expectantly. Sure enough I recognized him as he came huffing up a little late, Jaslet himself, a little heavier, same intense black-framed glasses, maybe even the same red silk ascot, still in need of a wash and badly tied. 

We began--a little group of eight--by crossing the street and walking straight into the Coupole, the art deco cafe-restaurant whose grand opening at the end of 1927 signaled both the high water mark and the final movement of Montparnasse's golden age. Jaslet warmly greeted the maître-d' before walking us around the palatial dining room, pointing out the columns individually painted by a roster of well-known artists of the era--but not, he tells us, the artists you associate with the 20's, not the cubists and surrealists. This is a more representative collection.  

From the Coupole we begin working the rue Delambre. Jaslet pulls rumpled papers from his pocket with scraps of information and the codes for street doors so we can enter the courtyards. In this one a series of artists, including the famous model Kiki of Montparnasse, had their studios starting in 1909. This other one has a tall doorway so that farm-wagons loaded with hay could enter: it was a breton dairy, where cows were kept and fresh milk sold, even at the start of the 20th century. But don't raise your voices in the courtyard--the woman who lives upstairs suffers from Tourette's syndrome and has been known to throw buckets of water down on the visitors.  We maintain an awed silence, but the half-timbered construction and exterior wooden staircase speak for themselves--nothing on the street shows this sort of age.

And so we go. At the end of Delambre we stop for a little talk about the progressive walling of Paris. The boulevard Edgar-Quinet, where we stand, marked a fortification less military than fiscal: under the ancien régime tariffs were collected on goods entering the city, and much smuggling took place over the wall, now the site of market stalls. Outside the wall was a free zone, a lieu de plaisance for students from the Latin Quarter since at least the 17th century. It was they who named it 'Parnassus,' the mountain of the Muses, in honor of their own creative leisures. In passing Jaslet notes the balcony of the apartment where Sartre passed his final years, just a few blocks from the studio of de Beauvoir. Another doorway leads to the room where André Breton wrote one of the Surrealist Manifestos--Jaslet can't remember which one, but gives us a short lecture on Breton's exposure to psychotic formations during the Great War, when he was in psychiatric training, and the relation between the Freudian unconscious and the fantaisiste realism of the surrealists. 

Gradually this little grid of streets, familiar to me for its shops, turns into a hive of interconnections over time and space. We enter more courtyards, some older than the quartier as such. We hear about the urbanist impulses of the incipient Vth Republic, which left the Tour Montparnasse to hover like Modernity itself over the once-bucolic environs of the Gaîté. And about the cultural politics of Jack Lang and the Socialists, which would explain the placement in the little public garden of that lovely proletarian sculpture by a Franco-Lithuanian sculptor whose name I've forgotten. (I should have taken notes.) We hear about more artists, more groups of artists, and --yes--the expatriate American writers, whose real café, we learn, the apex of literary snobisme,  was the Select, across the street from where our visit ends.

If the name Jaslet stayed in my memory for all those years, even now when I have trouble remembering my own, it must be because his profession has always fascinated me. A really good visite requires a rare intensity of knowledge, ranging across many disciplines but homing in on an area just a few blocks square. With that clarity of context and intention the sometimes dilettantish pursuits of cultural history become as precise and applied as engineering. After two hours with Jaslet the back streets of Montparnasse have changed for me forever; they echo as I walk them, and their closed doors open onto a dozen secluded vistas. If education, as its roots suggest, is a leading out, then an educator might have much to learn from a guide de visite.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

partie de campagne

12 November

"Nos Enfants Nous Accuseront" is not a particularly well-made film. Directed and partly written by Jean-Paul Jaud, a television producer making his first documentary film, it relies too heavily on gorgeous stills shot across the rich fields and mountains around Barjac, the village at the center of the film. These, and the swelling music, give the film the feeling of a series of epiphanies, when actually it records an ongoing social struggle whose outcome is far from certain. That struggle, though, is worth the careful scrutiny it gets in Jaud's film, quite apart from the director's artistic pretensions.

Barjac's drama is the drama of the earth itself, threatened with industrial methods of agricultural production that poison the soil and contaminate our food supply. The film cuts from farmers spraying clouds of chemicals on their crops to a UNESCO conference in which epidemic levels of cancer and birth defects are linked to the concentrations of poisons in our food. Led by its forward-looking mayor and a cadre of dedicated school personnel, Barjac fights back: the school canteen announces an all-organic food policy, children learn to appreciate organic food by growing it in little plots, and experts engage a skeptical group of local farmers in lengthy discussions of subsidy-driven market distortion and the logic underlying sustainable production. In this film cafeteria cooks are heroes, and by the end the whole village sings a protest song--"aux armes citoyens!"--while sampling one another's pot-luck delicacies.  

What interested me most was not the issue, important though it is, or the sentiment deployed to advance its message. No, the really remarkable thing is how this small-town mayor, these ordinary country folk, are able to act decisively and communally in the face of a vast threat that leaves many of us shaking our heads and changing the subject. The mayor takes a brave stand because he knows he needs to. Teachers tell their students what is right and what is wrong--their descriptions of processed turkey patties have the kids making sick faces--with no apparent fear of being labelled ideologues or fanatics. A rough consensus forms around the urgency of the problem, and the children, their parents, and the local farming establishment are brought to reason. The mayor asks a number of people how it's going, but he doesn't ask if they think he's right.  Close-ups of the faces of adults at meetings--cooks and parents and farmers, straining to understand the scientific explanations of medical and agronomic experts--are some of the film's best moments. Close-ups of children delighting in the lush produce they pull from the earth are a close second. But although the film's vocabulary is an antiquated repertoire of sentiment combined with the false sublime of the wide-angle lens, its unstated message is of solidarity, people's power, and resistance. In this domain the people of Barjac have much to teach Paris, and us all.


Friday, November 7, 2008


November 7

He is young but battle-tested, an eloquent and inspirational orator, a visionary ready to open a new chapter in his nation's political history. He is ... Olivier Besancenot in 2012? Well, maybe not, but from where I sit it is interesting to compare the careers and messages of these two meteoric and somewhat improbable political leaders.

Let me first note that the Obama phenomenon continues to resonate through French political life. At 80%, after all, French voters were prepared to give him a margin somewhat higher than Hawaii's. Media coverage has been intense and uniformly effusive. This is all the more poignant as the Socialist party faithful have just voted provisionally for Ségolène Royal over several even less inspiring figures to carry on as party leader. Meanwhile the citizenry and the editorialists on all sides are asking bluntly and rather plaintively, where is our Obama? 

Obamania was somewhat less in evidence at last night's first big NPA Paris rally, though Besancenot's remarks on that question are worth quoting: "It would be foolish and sectarian," he said, "to overlook the historic importance of this opening of the American political process to a black man whose race would have excluded him in an earlier time. But is would be equally foolish and sectarian to imagine that Obama or any leader of the Democratic Party can bring about the sweeping changes needed to rescue Capitalism from its crisis." And that about sums it up: the interest and frank admiration for Obama's success are genuine and profound, but as every comrade I spoke with was well aware, Obama was the chosen candidate of the financial class, and his job is to get the system running again, not to change it in any fundamental way.

Besancenot and the NPA, on the other hand, are riding the crest of a powerful wave, and the impending shipwreck of the Socialist Party will only add force to the new party. Besancenot delivered a fiery exegesis of the crisis, which he resolutely sees as the "inevitable" conclusion of a long series of crises which as he said are "systemic" to Capitalism. He spoke for more than an hour to an auditorium full of shouting, cheering, laughing supporters, several thousand of them. Preceding him on the program were a series of quite moving speakers from labor movements, a pair of undocumented workers whose descriptions of the sans-papiers struggle drew the loudest applause, and a teenaged student shouting in kidspeak--"v'là!" Besancenot came on with a fervid, almost angry denunciation of the capitalist system, but as he relaxed into his speech, he found more connection to his audience, with his distinctive mix of ironic humor and pedagogy. "It doesn't matter whether you call it revolutionary socialism, ecosocialism, communism, or a democratic workers' state," he said. "But it needs to be a completely new system."After he finished, and the audience was on its feet, clapping rhythmically, OB and the emcee led the audience in a "song," and I have to confess that the sound and sight of a thousand militants et militantes, their fists upraised, singing the Internationale in its original tongue, left me more than a little moved.  

Does that mean that OB and Marxism are 'right,' and Obama and the Democrats are 'wrong'? Three days after his election and seventy-four before his inauguration, is Obama already headed for the dustbin of history? Well, let's not be hasty. Economist that I'm not, I have a sense that a well-managed operation like Obama's may have a good chance of pulling the system together and restoring confidence, and for purely selfish reasons I sure hope they can. More broadly, I can imagine a few more good cycles in the American economy (even if it can only be done by borrowing even more against our childrens' future, and their children's ...). America's size and dominance of many sorts give it more room to maneuver through a crisis whose magnitude is still unknown.

But--to go deeper into treacherous waters--I wonder if France's economy isn't more vulnerable, for reasons of size, to such a debt-driven recovery strategy. As OB and many others have noted, France and much of Europe were heading into recession before the financial crisis, and have already experienced a lot of social tension because of the shrinking government safety net. If Sarkozy isn't able to fend off a prolonged and deep recession, the anti-capitalist logic expounded so clearly by OB and the NPA will sound more--to use OB's word--inévitable to French ears than to American.

Would it not then, indulgent reader, be a scenario of World-Historic grandeur if in 2012, they were both running for president: Obama reaffirmed and reelected by a resilient and grateful America; and Besancenot, in a France devastated by relentless recession, unemployment, and despair, leading the French left to a historic and revolutionary victory ...?