Thursday, December 23, 2010

Politics of Color

Several years ago I saw up close the troubled state of 'diversity' questions on the French far-left. I was at a local meeting of the NPA where proposed bylaws for the new party were under discussion. One of the comrades, a young woman of visibly African origins, though impeccably French, was suggesting that just as 'parity' would guarantee equal representation to women in the party's governing bodies, so some form of ethnic 'parity' might be useful as well. She had just attended a regional gathering of party activists and taken note of the absence of people there who "looked like me," as she put it. Her suggestion was roundly rejected by the others, who pronounced it 'anti-Republican,' an affront to the full and equal citizenship enjoyed by people of color, and an invitation to consider such people as second-class party members. The suggestion was never voiced again.

I recall that story while reading in today's Monde an op-ed piece by François Durpaire in which he decries the failure of the French left to embrace what he calls France's "visible minorities." Professor Durpaire, who is something of a pioneer in 'identity studies' in France, recalls the moment in 1956 when Aimé Césaire felt compelled to leave the French Communist Party because of its indifference to ethnic concerns, and the incomprehensibility of that gesture for the Left, then and now. He notes the solidarity many on the left felt for the social demands of protesters in Martinique and Guadeloupe last year, but the absence of support for inclusion of créole in the bac. Wedded to its marxist heuristic traditions, the Left cannot see the double causation at work in the collapse of the quartiers: it understands the economic problem, but fails to see the overlay of ethnic discrimination. The PS's call for "Real Equality" may seek to address some of the barriers to upward mobility--access to schooling, hiring discrimination--but fails to take in the magnitude of the problem for those who are visibly 'different.' What good does it do to repair the elevator, asks Durpaire, if the doors are blocked?

I was interested to notice that M. Durpaire's academic competence extends to the US: his research includes North American studies as well as post-colonial francophone topics. He was prescient enough to write a biography of Barack Obama in 2007--the first non-English biography. All this suggests to me that the French Left could learn a lot, as he has, from the example of that woebegone American institution, the Democratic Party. For all its shortcomings, the party of donkeys has forged and maintained a durable relation with America's 'visible minorities,' without whom it would win very few elections. The future of its social program rests with the growth of those communities (particularly the Latino ones), much as for Durpaire the progressive future in France rests with the young, and especially those whose ancestors, as he says, were not Gauls. To that honor roll so dear to the Left, that starts with 1789 and passes through 1848 and 1871 en route to 1936 and la Libération, he would add France's post-war "multicultural revolution." It's a challenge in historical revision the French Left can hardly afford to overlook.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In Memoriam

I never met Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa. In fact I had never heard of him until last month when I went to hear him talk about Notre Europe, the think tank he directed. From the vitality of his remarks and the respect he elicited I gathered he was a distinguished personnage. Looking him up when I got home I discovered that many regard him as the intellectual force behind the creation of the Eurozone--a large claim. Looking back, I realize that his determined and elegant defense of the European mission--in the face of persistent criticism from questioners responding to the steadily expanding debt crisis within the EMU--was a genial exercise in statesmanship. I hoped to hear more from this eminent man on some other occasion.

Now Padoa-Schioppa is dead, quite suddenly at age 70, of a heart attack, and with him a little piece of the European vision. The death itself was dramatic: having assembled 100 or so guests and led them through a private visit to the Sistine Chapel, he was just welcoming them to dinner at the nearby Palazzo Sachetti when he collapsed and died. The tributes that followed in the European press were effusive. As Romano Prodi's finance minister in the last center-left Italian government Padoa-Schioppa made the notable remark that "taxes are very beautiful and civic-minded, a collective contribution to those indispensable goods that are health, security, education, and the environment." Berlusconi's harsh criticism of his tax policies was another form of tribute, as was Italy's success in weathering the crisis in 2008.

Padoa-Schioppa was above all a banker, an economist, a regulatory official--and only accidentally a politician, as he remarked. A leading player in the Basel Accords that designed banking rules for the EMU, one could argue that (like a lot of other regulators) he placed too much confidence in the existing financial institutions. As a consultant for a global management firm, a recently appointed director of a Fiat subsidiary, a director of the ECB, Padoa-Schioppa was unquestionably an icon of the financial establishment. And yet he was if not a left-wing banker, certainly a social-minded one--an anomaly and perhaps an anachronism in a world of nihilist financiers and bottomless greed.

In my one encounter with him, though, Padoa-Schioppa was wearing not his banker's hat but his Europeanist one. He spoke in a visionary way of collective global problem-sharing, of post-sovereign cooperation, of the ethical imperative to go forward with the European experiment despite all the cross-winds. As the debt crisis proliferated through the Eurozone in the past half-year I can only imagine that this architect of the Euro was heart-sickened by economists who decried the impracticality of "a currency without a nation," his cherished construction. The man I saw exuded confidence, forbearance, a belief in the long-term--but at what cost? Was the effort to maintain that tenacious optimism finally too great a strain for his heart?

Monday, December 20, 2010

It's new! ... It's hot!! ...

It's the trailer for the European General Strike, coming soon (?) to a boulevard near you! Music by The Clash. Don't miss the cameo by General de Gaulle.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

To form a more perfect Union

It can be a lonely business following European news in the American press. For instance, last Wednesday's alleged donnybrook in the German parliament, with opposition members calling the Chancellor an enemy of Europe and worse, got no mention at all in the Times or anywhere else that I could find. It has therefore been mildly heartening to find a number of op-ed pieces recently in that journal that address the problems of the Euro and the Union as if these somehow mattered, even at this distance.

Yesterday the Times reprinted a piece from Le Monde by Jacques Attali and Haris Pamboukis, calling for European treasury notes (a version of the Euro-bond idea Mme. Merkel has summarily dismissed?) that might absorb member states' sovereign debt up to 60% of their GDP--a bold expansion of the EU's financial regime. Today a rebuttal appeared, authored by the conservative Dutch professor of finance Harald Benink, calling for a version of the North/South division of the Eurozone (in this case, winners stay, losers like Greece, Portugal, and Ireland take a 10-year time-out, returning to their own currencies until they get their houses in order). Clearly the Eurozone and the EU itself are at some sort of crossroads, and will either adopt measures to effect more centralized control, or dissipate altogether. How to design those measures is a problem of compelling interest.

The Times might have shared with its readers (but didn't) another scenario (of the many), also drawn from the forum in yesterday's Monde. This piece, by Pierre Khalfa of ATTAC, the progressive activist organization, takes a different view, one Khalfa notes is likely to be ignored by the financial barons who run the EU. Khalfa observes that most solutions to the various debt crises involve private financial institutions making large profits as they lend money to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and such, while insisting on destructive austerity measures to insure their investments. Why not, he argues, simply empower the ECB itself to lend directly to member states, 'monetizing,' as he says, their deficits, and requiring holders of speculative sovereign debt to take their well-deserved losses? (Perhaps someone better schooled in economics will tell me exactly which taboos Khalfa would have us violate here.) Under this regime, freed from the control of the commercial banks, the EU could reinvent itself as a guarantor of the social values European workers are in imminent danger of losing. Thus socialized, the EU and the EMU could fulfill a different historic mission, building a continental system based on social welfare, environmental justice, and economic cooperation, not competition. This was surely not what Delors and the 'founding fathers' at Maastricht had in mind--but given the ongoing financial crisis and the threatened shredding of the social fabric in so many EU countries, might it be worthwhile to imagine a radical change in direction?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

With all the trimmings

Prognoses for the destiny of Europe, the Union, and the Eurozone paint an ever bleaker picture. Yesterday's metaphor was the "tsunami"; tomorrow's ... Armageddon?

It was refreshing therefore to read on the same op-ed page an upbeat assessment finally of Europe's fortunes. The authors are the foreign ministers of four significant and quite various countries--Sweden, Italy, Finland, and the UK--and they write in anticipation of Monday's meeting of the EU's General Affairs Council. They believe that the royal road to European prosperity is the expansion of the Union, and they insist that that road runs through ... Istanbul to Ankara and beyond. It is Turkey that represents "the free flow of capital, goods, services, and labor" in an easterly direction--and back again. Its current rate of economic expansion is five times that of the EU's, and before long it would be one of its larger constituent economies--if it was one. What the ministers don't quite say, but almost, is that Turkey and the global markets it has developed could be the engine that pulls Europe into its next cycle of prosperity.

The ironies abound. Only yesterday Turkey was the land of ten million migrant workers waiting to storm the European frontier. For many it stillsounds the tocsin of Christian civilization and its bellicose values. Remember Vienna and the battle of Lepanto! In my one brief visit to Turkey (I was only in Istanbul and some western regions) I was struck by the signs of modernity and prosperity everywhere I turned. I was awed by the cultural legacy that includes much of what we call 'Ancient Greece,' and thrilled by the call to prayer broadcast across the courtyard of the Blue Mosque--much as I am by plainsong chant echoing through the galleries of St. Eustache in Paris or in the Florentine Duomo. Turkey struck me as confident, young, energetic, and--yes--open to the world. It would be the EU's good fortune if Turkey still wishes to embrace it.

And yet the same economic conditions that make Turkish inclusion suddenly a more palatable topic for discussion in Brussels have sharply raised the political stakes throughout Europe. Unemployment and recession have a way of intensifying people's most parochial feelings. Marine LePen polls over 15% these days, and the wave of Islamophobic politics is far from cresting (See my post, "Bigotry on the March," 9/19/10). Is either France or Germany in the mood for an expansive gesture? Can either afford retrenchment? In its quiet way Monday's meeting--and all the maneuverings that surround it--represents one of those crossroads where civilizations check their roadmaps. Does the EU know where it's going?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Life Lesson

At 91 Helmut Schmidt has seen 'em come and seen 'em go. This makes for a number of quotable moments in his interview with David Marsh, published in today's Market Watch. But as wisdom for the ages, the following is in a class by itself:

"You can divide mankind into three categories. In the first category are normal people like you and me. We may have once stolen an apple from a neighbor’s trees when we were boys, or we may have taken a bar of chocolate from a supermarket without paying for it. But otherwise we are dependable, normal human beings. Then secondly you have a small category of people with a criminal character. And thirdly you have investment bankers."

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Reading Jean-Luc Mélenchon (part 1)

I've been reading Jean-Luc Mélenchon for several years now. It's a big job. Not just the steady flow of political essays in book form (which I haven't read), but the weekly blog posts (which I do try to keep up with), stretching to thousands of words each week, a deluge of words. "I think in writing," he remarked in a recent post--and this is a man who thinks a lot. Where else is there a politician of similar stature who is this committed to the practice of writing? And it's not just the quantity but the remarkably personal quality. This is not PR stuff put together under his signature but the real thing, an inexhaustible series of thinking-out-loud essays, stocked with philosophical quotation and pungent anecdote. One might instructively compare this practice to the growing tendency of American politicians to tweet their followers in 140-character bursts of sub-literate soundbite. Mélenchon by comparison is a Montaigne.

So what does he write about? I'll pass over the most recent polemic, a studied evisceration of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's legitimacy as a 'socialist.' Yes, partisan in-fighting is part of the genre, as is the routine nurture of a fledgling political party and the obligatory comments on recent events. But JLM (to the horror of his handlers, if he had any) doesn't scruple to go deeper. Over the last month, for example, he has been interrogating the concept of 'populism,' a word far more pejorative in French (where it seems to be a near-synonym for 'demagoguery') than in English. JLM has been tarred with this label as he questions France's membership in the EU and its role in the financial crisis (and as his growing visibility makes him a potential threat to his former PS comrades): one compared him to the xenophobic nationalist Le Pen (a particularly low blow), while another questioned his commitment to democracy.

Rather than repudiate the populist label in the face of these attacks, JLM has--rather shockingly-- chosen to embrace it, starting with its progressive appearance in late 19th-century North America, and continuing with the 'populist' experiments underway in Venezuela and Bolivia (he has been a visible supporter of both Chávez and Morales). The root of the term, he points out, is 'the people,' and the notion that power ultimately resides there. He traces this idea all the way back to the Aventine revolt of the Roman plebes, and makes the link to the sans-culottes of 1789. Le peuple is the proper subject of history, the agent of what JLM likes to call the "citizen revolution." This is particularly true when the people are identified with the 'précariat.' This term, fusing as he says the notion of precariousness with that of the proletariat, best defines the contemporary, historically significant identity of le peuple. Because of its precarious status (in English would we say 'at risk' ?), this subset of le peuple is the dynamic embodiment of popular sovreignty, and JLM's social program is derived from its needs. As a 'populist,' JLM charges himself to speak through and for the précariat. To do so is to align himself, from 1789 to Jaurès by way of the Commune, with the progressive path in French history.

Reading Mélenchon, in other words, is a bit like taking a short course in Marxist historiography (and so is interviewing him, as the TV host Jean-Jaques Bourdin discovered the other day). You can take it or leave it, but personally I find it a refreshing, and even amazing exception to the flattened and constrained norms of political discourse that deaden our own political life.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Au revoir, Ilham (et bonjour, tristesse)

It's official: Ilham Moussaïd and 11 of her colleagues have resigned from the NPA's Vaucluse chapter, after eight months of fruitless negotiation with the central party. Moussaïd gave the party its most widespread--though least welcome--burst of publicity last February when she appeared on the list of local candidates in the regional election wearing the Islamic headscarf she favors. Squeezed between the strident criticisms of feminists and secularists, she held her ground--and insisted on her qualifications as a long-time social and party activist--with grace and poise that belied her 21 years. (See my previous post, "Veiled Threat," 2/15/10) After a storm of polemics, mostly hostile, both inside the party and in highly visible venues such as the Idées pages of Le Monde, Ilham and her local supporters had hoped the delicate issues of tolerance and diversity she raised could be fully aired in a party congress. But as that public debate receded in time--originally scheduled for November, then December, now February--she apparently lost confidence in the party's openness to her situation, and now her chapter is closed.

But the larger question is anything but resolved. If no one anywhere on the French political scene was willing to rise to her defense, the fact remains that France's Muslim presence, like the rest of Europe's (and North America's) is growing, and the willingness of such immigrants and their children to forswear all allegiance to their culture of origin is in decline. Moussaïd, let's be clear, was no fundamentalist. Her belief system is shaped by Marxism and social justice more than the Koran, but like many young people in her working class suburb of Avignon, and in many other such communities, she declined to abandon this simple gesture of adherence to a norm of appearance. Dutiful? Perhaps, but certainly not subservient, as so many feminists were wont to charge, safe in their make-up and figure-flattering outfits.

While Ilham is at best a footnote, her story I feel is devastating for the NPA (which is hemorrhaging members for a variety of reasons), and for the immediate future of the far-left. My assumption had been that the disaffected young people of the quartiers (many of them French citizens) would represent not just a ripe harvest for the NPA, whose program speaks directly to their needs, but would define a historic mission for the party: to bring the alienated sectors of immigrant populations into the political process where their increasing numbers could lead to real social power and thus broader integration. Ilham's headscarf was not an impediment to this project. But the "petrified" attitudes of the traditional militants were. (The term belongs to Moussaïd's supporter Omar Slaouti, who ran a dignified if futile regional campaign as head of the NPA's list in the Île-de-France.) This situation will not improve as the phobic secularist Jean-Luc Mélenchon assumes the mantle of the far-left. Moussaïd and other promising young people like her will continue their social activism, while the political sphere maintains the purity of its laicité. But in the changed circumstances of the present, that laicité wears no clothes.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Trotskyist Outburst in Financial Times

As the Eurozone debt crisis deepens (Italy? Belgium? France?), and the full measure of the Irish 'resolution' begins to take hold in our imaginations (state pensions used to securitize continental bank loans?!), Martin Wolf is not alone when, writing in yesterday's Financial Times, he raises doubts about the whole arrangement. But one particular sentence caught my eye:

Bank debt simply cannot be public debt. If bank debt is to be such debt, bankers should be viewed as civil servants and banks as government departments.

An interesting proposal, but it sounds oddly familiar. Where ...? Oh yes, two years ago, as the Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste was forming, wasn't it Olivier Besancenot who called for a public financial service to replace the discredited private-sector one? And yet when Besancenot offered his proposal, it was widely viewed as proof of how absurdly out-of-phase the Trotskyist position was with reality.

Now in fairness, Martin Wolf isn't exactly advocating for such a thing--he just says it would be logical, much more logical than offering public securitization to private, hugely exploitative banks for any and all of their high-risk, socially useless investments. So no, Martin Wolf hasn't turned Trotskyist on behalf of the financial establishment--he only wishes he could.