Nov 142017
 

By James Graham, 99GetSmart

G-Unit in the poster for the Complete Unknowns Show at Galérie Stash, Paris, 2016

G-Unit in the poster for the Complete Unknowns Show at Galérie Stash, Paris, 2016

Hangdog and half-awake, I gaze at the face of the man about to search my belongings. On line for fifteen wobbly minutes, I’m closing in on the head of the queue.

I scrutinize the guard standing beside the metal detector, trying to find the live being in this solid citizen with his droopy cheeks and sober stare. He’ll leaf through my things with hands that reveal the manual labor of his youth while he radiates the world weariness of a poet or a postman thumbing a stack of junkmail. What’s he really looking for? I don’t trust him. Just routine. He’ll rifle wallet and keys, my half-eaten croissant, feed them into the x-ray while I step through the body scanner. Then it’s on to the next suspect.

And then it hits me: no passport. I left it at home. I can feign some unspoken excuse and duck out. That will arouse suspicion, won’t it ? Who is this man who bolts from the queue and takes off down the street ? What kind of mission is he on ? The Conciergerie is the Vatican for the Paris police. There are officers everywhere, most of them standing around with nothing to do, crushing plastic cups and killing time. Out on the street plainclothes cops loiter, giving passersby the once-over.

Well, let’s find out who’s awake at this Tuesday morning. I give myself a shake and sail through the detectors. Everyone is on automatic, they’re barely alive, they’ve performed the ritual a thousand times. That it’s for show is taken for granted: people with murder and mayhem on the agenda don’t stand on queues. But we submit. It’s our Auto da Fe, proof of our innocence.

Weapons check cleared. The passport office is a free-standing structure a dozen steps away. There’s a guard in between to make sure litigants, witnesses and supporters go directly, point A to B.

I’m not going in. Still, it all depends on what sort of officer you get. When you have papers, some cops flip the pages idly and others are sticklers. Depends on the hour, the mood. No point to that today.

I swing wide of Security Dick like I own the place, give him the quickest of glances and head for the courts on the ground level.

Do I resemble someone important, someone he’s seen before? No time to find out. Better to disappear in the warren of passageways behind Sainte- Chapelle. I head to the street-level courtroom on the north side where G had his first hearing.

The officers have nothing better to do so we go down the list of the day’s cases together. G isn’t on it. His appeal is being heard elsewhere but no one has a clue where that might be.

G-Unit lost the first round in typical fashion : overwhelmed public defender, expired visa, failure of nerve when it came time to present his case in French. Back to the hoosegow on the other side of Bois de Vincennes went G. Today’s appeal is simply to state the obvious : there being no charges against him, he be released with time served.

Ah yes, this G, aka G-Unit, Big G, Gun. You want to know about him.

Honduran, some 30 years of age, G was picked up on the streets of Paris on September 3rd while riding a velo- or bike-taxi near Notre Dame. Asked to produce papers, he could not; he’d lost them in a bar fight two years before. He made efforts to renew but there being no Honduran embassy in Paris, he let it slide. He worked in construction and on the velo-taxis and the overwhelmed Paris police, with graver threats to pursue, missed him in previous encounters. But this time G-Unit got a mean cop. The velo-taxi was impounded and he was sent to the Redoute de Gravelle (“Immigration Integration”) outside Joinville-le- Pont, where detainees can be held for as many as 45 days when, if there ae no charges pending, they must be released.

Mechanic, driver and level head in the free-spirited community of Paris velo-taxi drivers, G was, as far as law is concerned, guilty of no crimes, serious or petty. Just another soldier of this earth tramping one place to another, the immortal race of chancers looking for a fair share of the world’s riches. In that sense, the differences between G-Unit and hundreds of African souvenir hustlers or Bangladeshi water sellers on the streets of Paris can only be measured by the sheer desperation of their flight.

But where is he?

Big G still has a phone, his only possession in captivity. Frantic textos ensue. Where the hell are you hiding ? I’m somewhere else, he replies. Prophetic phrase. Yes, I know but where? Escalier T35bis, he writes after asking the guard. Good luck finding that! Do you have your head screwed on this time, bro? No copping out! Insist you’re not leaving France. To which he replies, Don’t worry, boss. Bolas bien puestas.

I spend the next 45 minutes covering the Conciergerie from bottom to top and back again trying to locate this fantastically secret stairway.

I find it – behind a door that flush with the wall is well-nigh invisible. I clamber up the stairs straight into a swarm of guards who inform me that the public isn’t allowed into appeal hearings. Why? Five of us were there for the first go-round. Well, you can’t. No explanation. Something suspicious in that. Can’t I see him for a minute beforehand?

Consternation all around. There seems to be no definitive answer. He’s right on the other side of the wall, just past the latest metal detector, cooling his heels while the court deals with other cases. The cops mill about, sit down, promise to think about it. I can wait in the hall, they tell me.

Watching the cops without looking at them directly, I read their lips. I don’t have a chance of seeing Big G. I’ll wait anyway.

Lunch hour arrives. No cop on the beat, no private security force, no able- bodied anti-terrorist is going to miss a meal. You can’t run after a jihadi or even write a ticket on an empty stomach. So my new friends troop past me down the stairs and away to the canteen. They leave a clean-faced rookie in charge, an officer who looks all of nineteen and hasn’t yet had the gentleness wiped off his mug.

I approach, put in my request, G-Unit full name yes there it is on the list, case hasn’t been heard yet, only a minute or two, yes, right here is fine, and I go back to the hallway, where I promptly nod out on a wooden bench.

Barrelling laughter invades my dreams.
“Hey Gringo!”

I open my eyes and there he is, framed by the metal detector, glowing, happy to see somebody he knows. He’s Honduras in Paris, born on a coffee plantation that once stretched for miles in the highlands near the Salvadoran border, a big overgrown macho with German-Indian blood, an Olmec face and an identical twin who never left their small town. His German grandfather made hay and babies with the local ladies and the generation that came after fought like scorpions for their share of the land. G has 35 cousins and it was his parents’ generation that tore the finca to shreds, leaving G and his siblings to grow up in a plantation house à l’andalouse with vitrines full of WWII regalia and little else.

A French lady arrived in town one day. It didn’t take long for G to make his decision: he’d follow wherever she went. And she went home. How was he going to get there? Hard to imagine a place further from Europe than Marcala, Honduras. With no way to make real money on the finca, the only way to France was by indirection. By heading North.

He made two journeys to the U.S., the first packed in a truck with 150 hopefuls from all over Central America. Departing from Mexico they travelled for days jammed together like sacks of coal. He crossed the Texas scrub desert on foot and got caught near Austin, set out again from Honduras and made it, worked on a chicken farm in North Carolina and saved the dollars. Two years later he landed in Europe but never found the woman, kicked around the cities and ended up in Paris on a velo-taxi, waiting, watching, wondering if she’d appear.

G and his race will ramble on to the next open city, wherever there are chances to be had and thrills along the way, with or without those precious papers that any semi-pro terrorist can get in under an hour. Shown the door in one city or a hundred, banned here and jailed there, the searchers will never be eradicated. They can’t be. They’re part of the human tribe, the crazy ones who write poems with their feet.

For five minutes we jabber in an easy going, allegorical Spanish-English meant to mystify the guard. We’re a bit too friendly, shaking hands too often, things are slipping out of control. The cadet doesn’t want to blow it on his watch so he looms in close and declares the metal detector a no-fly zone.

Five minutes and the interview is over and G returns to the antechamber. He’ll lose this round as well.

That’s the last I saw of G-Unit, all 6’3″ of him. Why ? Because the police decided to deport him and they bent the law to do it.

On Thursday, little more than a week after his appeal, the forty-fifth day of his incarceration, they would have had to let him go. His friends, legal and otherwise, were waiting to welcome him back.

He hadn’t been charged or convicted of any crime and he wasn’t a vagrant. And then at midnight Wednesday he called – from Madrid. He was waiting for the flight back to Honduras, and he was saying goodbye. Two immigration dicks stood guard while he called his friends.

As le Canard Enchainé pointed out (18 October), the European Court of Justice has condemned France numerous times over the last decade for its illegal expulsions, principally but not limited to gypsies from Eastern Europe. According to Canard, in January the Macron administration will propose legislation that reëstablishes the so-called double peine : foreign aid only to those countries that accept anyone France expels.

G’s experience takes place against the backdrop of a France where the special powers of the Etat d’Urgence have been written into the constitution and the police have near unlimited sway to enforce as they see fit. (Regional newspapers are the place to go for that story.)

And Paris? The city is having a panic attack. The Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, caviar gauche to her heart of hearts, campaigned for the Olympics and won and yet the din of police sirens and screech of motorcycles suggest not so much a festive city but one under siege. Meanwhile the grubby, grumbling resistance of everyday Parisians – les velo-taxistes y compris – shambles on. They’ll still be here when the police have other mice to catch.

Mar 222017
 

By James Graham, 99GetSmart

France-image

The presidential race got serious at last. The first televised encounter took place a few nights ago, March 20, 2017 when the Big Five Political Lizards met up for the first of three debates.

You didn’t hear about it? What country is it? A small Caribbean island or one of those quiet socialist experiments one hardly ever talks about – Ecuador, Norway? Is Denmark voting? Holland had a primary, didn’t they? So which is it and who’s running?

It’s that bastion of liberal values, the country Americans yearn for when they need a saving dose of liberté, equalité, fraternité. The one that has been in a state of emergency for almost a year. France, indeed.

And what the interested viewer saw the other night, depending on their point of view, was either a well-moderated debate or a ghastly spectacle, a masquerade. Myself, I confess to regarding it as yet another circuit in a demolition derby where one character after another self-destructs in public. Who’s next, I wonder? The 2017 election is without precedent in the Fifth Republic, one in which “Populist Fascism” is within a bank shot of the Palais Elysée.

How did France get here? And is France really so different from anywhere else? After all, if Marine Le Pen of the National Front wins France will have its very own Trump, with the added frisson of an elderly sadist, Holocaust-denier banging around the halls of the presidential palace. (That would be Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, the founder of the Front. )

The current President, Hollande, announced in early December that he wouldn’t be a candidate for a second term. Not exactly a shock, even if it was unprecendented. But, fait accompli, his approval ratings hovering just slightly above Artic zero, what choice did he have? A living embodiment of the Peter Principle, the man who famously pledged to take on the finance sector delivered little more than gay marriage and a tell-all memoir before he left office. And yes, expanded snooping, an unending State of Emergency, involvement in Syria and… An excellent paddleboat captain, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon observed five years ago.

After his defeat in 2012 at Hollande’s hands and his announcement that he was now a private citizen, Nicholas Sarkozy formed Les Républicains from the shell of the old center-right UPM, and he did it, let it be observed, while keeping a steady stream of prosecutors and investigators off his trail. He’s a feverish, frisky sort and he gets himself in trouble, whether it be over money from Libya or L’Oreal. Les Républicains were to be his comeback vehicle in their November primaries but a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation: the employees decided they were sick of their hyper-active Boss. The annointed was then supposed to be Alain Juppé, the reasonable, grandfatherly Mayor of Bordeaux – but surprise again, François Fillon, one of Sarko’s henchmen, a man on the Paris merry-go-round for decades, pulled an upset. Austerity for all, he beamed, as if the medicine hadn’t already killed the patient elsewhere. A self-proclaimed Thatcherite with a Welsh wife named Penelope, he had the faithful cheering for what he was going to do to them, cutting here and slashing there. The man is a gift from the gods to those with a satiric bent. He looks a bit and sounds even more like our own Dick from Yorba Linda, full of snarlng, self-pity under pressure.

In mid-January, the Socialists held their primary. No hope in sight. How do you win an election with a dead dog tied around your waist? Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Hollande’s enforcer, a guy who looks like he wakes up covered in sweat, was supposed to win that one, too. The prize went instead to Benoit Hamon, a man in and out of the Hollande government twice (Economy, Education), a young Socialist (49 years old) with the dubious conviction that Socialists should project ideas other than career advancement. The Party faithful presumably couldn’t take any more business as usual but until his rally two days ago in Paris, Hamon was invisible, and he still is after the first debate.

(To watch Hamon’s rally at Bercy on Sunday was excruciating. How do you waltz with that dead dog? He had to say something about finance, he had to attack them, throttle them, repudiate them… what else are bankers and neo-cons good for at a Socialist rally? But there it was lurking in everyone’s minds, Hollande’s famous comment about his invisible enemy “finance” when he kicked off his campaign five years ago. Hamon had to say essentially the same thing but not use the same words, not invoke Hollande, not trip up, not leave himself open to charges of using bankers to get elected… Did a single soul believe what he said?)

And then came those merry days in late January, when the weekly Canard Enchainée broke the story that Mr. Austerity Fillon was in fact Mr. Largesse as far as family was concerned. No-show jobs for his reticient wife, legal assignments for his two children who had yet to pass the bar, it all came spilling out day after day in gorgeous detail. Dubbed Penelopegate, it opened a window on the Way Things Are and gave the French something to laugh about. Mr. Probity called it calumny, he called it misogyny, he called it all sorts of things but it wouldn’t go away, and the amounts kept climbing. Fillon is now officially under investigation, which means he will be charged. The question is when. Can one govern France from jail? Once touted as the safe bet to beat Le Pen, his latest speeches have been positively deranged, invoking Jeanne d’Arc and Jean Moulin, both of whom died agonizing deaths for their convictions. Fillon has not only destroyed Les Républicains and much of the right, he has made a national issue of the genteel practice of no-show jobs. He refuses to quit. Is that Presidential or isn’t it?

Meanwhile that eternal hothead, serial quitter of parties, the candidate with the sharpest tongue, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is running on his own self-created France Insoumise. (Impossible to translate, it sounds like the party zone at a libertine club; Rebellious France will do.) Mélenchon, whom I’ve watched shove a journalist against the bar, is hard left in the jargon of papers like the Guardian. A candidate who had a far bigger rally in Paris on Saturday than Hamon did on Sunday with the whole Socialist apparatus behind him, it’ll be a surprise if Mélenchon gets more than 10 or 11% of the vote in the first round in late April. Still, never a dull moment around Jean-Luc.

A quick reading of Mélenchon’s manifesto (l’Avenir en Comun) makes it clear that he is even more of a dreamer than the nostalgic Le Pen. On matters specific to France he is astute and engaging but… the book is a lefty wish list of things that will never happen, written with a wand. Not that that sort of effort isn’t necessary from time to time but… As regards the EU, you wonder what he was doing in Strasbourg. He sees France acting independently to enact audacious changes in the script, without a hint as to how he will gain the support of 26 other EU members, also known as Countries That Aren’t France. “Europe is dead,” he announces. The problem, if that’s what it is, is that Mélenchon has ideas, some great, some mad, and while you can separate them out, few have a chance. France produced a great figure like Juarès on the back of labor and civil organizing. Who supports Mélenchon? The younger, disaffected, urban intellectual work force, who attend his rallies in numbers but are so presumably overcome with existential despair they can’t show up to vote for the man.

Ah well, bring on the Tin-Tin Brigade! Mélenchon even plans a space station on the Moon, to be shared with the Russians. It’ll probably be a paradise. Book me a ticket when it’s up, Jean-Luc. But pass the vodka now.

(Being patient and having borne with me this far, you are entitled to blurt out something like, “I don’t understand! Do you mean France of the Revolution, of ’68? Where is France’s equivalent of Podemos or Syriza or the Green-Left coalition in Holland… or anything?” Unfortunately, there’s no answer for that. Only groans in the dark….)

That leaves the winners for last, the two candidates leading in the polls: Emmanuel Macron, former minister of the Economy in the Hollande government (2014-2016), the handsome, charismatic fellow who at the head of his En Marche party is the new centrist hope to beat Le Pen. He has a program, a website, money, a ingratiating manner. How exactly does he intend to govern should he be elected, as a charming Third Way financial insider-political outsider? Legislative elections are in June and En Marche intends to run candidates fielded on-line. Seriously? He’ll be starting from zero, even fewer reps than the FN. He’s leading in the polls now and if he wins it will be a nail in the coffin of parties of all stripes. The whole thing feels like a gauzy fantasy.

Marine Le Pen is under investigation at the European Parliament for détournement of funds but as her father taught her long ago, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. (It’s known as the Farage Two-Step: take the money and then… stand there as if you bloody hell haven’t done a damn thing out of the ordinary.) The Front National is untouchable anyway: their entire existence is a scandal, an outrageous family opera that pretends to be about politics and is instead an anachronistic vision of France that stretches as far back as Algeria… and Vichy… and don’t ask. Industrial policy? Don’t ask. Marine wasted the debate getting excised over burkinis, a Moslem approximation of what proper ladies wore to the beach 100 years ago. Jews, Papa’s bete noire, are already fleeing to Israel in record numbers. There’s a good chance she’ll blow her Golden Opportunity when everyone else is in disarray.

But maybe not.

Of Le Pen and Macron there will be plenty to say as the campaign grinds on. Hopefully we can find some humor in it. France employs the antiquated first-past-post system with two rounds of voting, eleven current candidates winnowed down to two for the final on May 7. (You can check under the hood here.)

And yet “Macron surges among undecideds…” Let’s forget about parties and polls. Yesterday’s news. The Socialists look finished after Hollande and Les Republicains after Sarko and Fillon. Empty shells, hollowed out by money, avarice, lifeless ideologies. Is there a future for parties in living-breathing democracies, even the half-strangled ones? Maybe the left-right schism is over, too. Both Mélenchon and Le Pen want to drag France out of the Europe, Melenchon out of NATO, Le Pen out of the EU. Some sort of realignment awaits, some sort of opening for new energies must come about…

The early money on the horses says Macron over Le Pen but a whole slew of things can happen between now and the finish line. It feels like we’re in some species of Eternal Return, repeating things over and over without knowing it, sleepwalking towards an Apocalypse where the ponies collapse from exhaustion, panting for water. Or like the Bukowski novel where the losers always pick the wrong horses and the two factotums make off with the loot…

So, I say it’s Le Pen and not Macron. How so?

I get around a little and I meet people who’ve probably never been polled in their entire lives but who vote. Farmers, carpenters, some educated, some not. Macron with his bright and shiny future, his financial investments in this and that, his neither left nor right, Hamon with his universal income… it doesn’t touch them. They don’t believe it. Even after the first debate, they still don’t know who Macron is except a young guy in a sharp suit. Of the EU, on which everyone is dependent, they see an organization that refuses to adjust. Do they want closed borders, zero immigration and the old currency, le sacré franc, as Le Pen insists? Not one person has said as much to me but that, too, is not the issue. The issue is what they will do in early May when faced with More of the Same or Throw Them Out, and whether they decide, like a gambler down to his last desperate throw, to take the risk of a far-right candidate they don’t trust but who will administer a shock to the system. Either that or they don’t vote at all, which ends up being the same thing.

Trump will likely have an effect. As he inevitably stumbles and proves how impossible it is for a clueless autocrat to govern, his model will look less and less savoury. From the point of view of France, it’s question of when. It’s a short season. May comes soon.

Change the optics a bit and the question posed above returns: where’s the alternate current in France? Smaller countries (either land size or population), less encumbered by a domineering colonial past, seem to go in one direction (Canada, Denmark, Spain, Scotland, parts of central Europe, Latin America) while the Old Giants, the UK, Russia, China, the U.S. seem “doomed and determined” to adopt a schlerotic, oligarchic model. Which camp for France?

I realize that my form of polling and rampant speculation is unofficial, untabulated, anecdotal, probably inadmissable. But it’s as good as “Pretty Boy Macron up 3% this week, vows to woo London financiers to Paris.”

On verra, France.

May 032015
 

By J Iddhis Bing, 99GetSmart

J.J. Grandville and Eugène-Hippolyte Forest, 0ctober, 1832.

J.J. Grandville and Eugène-Hippolyte Forest, 0ctober, 1832.

In late April Luxembourg’s public prosecutors indicted a French journalist (without naming him publicly) for his widely-followed reports on tax evasion.

99GetSmart readers are familiar with the scandal now known as LuxLeaks. In fact, readers here knew about it more than a year before the readers of the Guardian, ICIJ, et al. I worked with the mentioned “French journalist” to present his findings to English-language readers. His documentaries evidently got some attention, enough to cause hearings in Parliament and furious denials from the Duchy.

Earlier this year the Valls government in France abandoned its efforts to pass a “business secrets” act that would have enacted draconian punishments on whistle blowers and reporters with evidence of malfeasance in the private sector.

Edouard Perrin has won several awards for his documentaries. He covered Egypt and Libya during the uprisings, and is best known for his work in the burgeoning field of tax evasion. He’s one of the many hard-working journalists who operate just below the radar, compiling massive amounts of data on stories before they enter the general consciousness, making contacts and generally staying out of sight. Not so any longer.

On Thursday the grand Duchy of Luxembourg bestowed its highest honor on Perrin. Its prosecutors indicted him.

How to find your way around Luxembourg.

How to find your way around Luxembourg.

Antoine Deltour was the first person charged by Luxembourg as a source for documents from Price Waterhouse Coopers, the accounting firm that, in league with Luxembourg government officials, ennabled corporations such as the Big Friendlies – Google, Amazon, Pearson and hundreds of others – to evade taxes in their countries of operation by renting a mailbox in Luxembourg City and calling it their business headquarters. This arrangement is rife around the world – Apple employing the fiction that it is domiciled in Ireland comes to mind – and helps companies pay taxes in the country that offers the best deal regardless of where they are actually located. Nevertheless it is against the law, violates the rules of organizations such as the OECD and certainly spits inthe face of the European Union, despite the innocent, laissez-faire spin a small country such as Luxembourg puts on it.

All this is now known by almost everyone because a small number of journalists like Nicholas Shaxson and Ed Perrin compiled the data. The EU’s inability to take action with these scofflaws remains disturbing and inexplicable.

Deltour has confessed to providing documents to journalists. He seems overwhelmed and intimidated, what with the full weight of his country’s legal system coming down on him.

There is a second source for the Price Waterhouse Coopers documents, as yet unnamed. Thursday’s indictment seems to be an attempt to drive a wedge between journalist and source, intimating that Perrin did not limit “his role… to receiving information offered by the indicted but, to the contrary, directed that person in gathering documents which particularly interested him. The journalist would therefore have played a more active role in the commission of these crimes.”

Jean-Claude Juncker’s 18-year reign in Luxembourg ended in July 2013, when his entire government resigned in the midst of a spy scandal that implicated not only Juncker and his government but Grand Duke Henri was well. (Yes, little Luxembourg has a Grand Duke.) Juncker wasn’t out of work for long. In the stalemate after the poorly attended European elections in November last year, with no candidate having a clear majority, Juncker emerged as the compromise. He was vociferously opposed by David Cameron and quietly by France. (Le Monde’s journos boasted they would take care of him tout de suite.) But there he sits at the head of one branch of European governance. Somebody or bodies obviously wanted him in.

It  stretches credulity to suggest that Luxembourg’s happy Tax Paradise took place without Juncker’s blessing.

While this indictment certainly is a threat, it also helps to keep the issue in front of the public and very much alive. That it takes place during a repressive time, with journalists in record numbers in jails around the world, is a given.

 

Mar 142015
 

By J Iddhis Bing, 99GetSmart

Greek Prime Minister Tsipras at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Thursday, March 12, 2015. Photo by Iddhis Bing.

Greek Prime Minister Tsipras at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Thursday, March 12, 2015. Photo by Iddhis Bing.

 

Alex Tsipras and ministers of his government – among them, the Alternate Minister for International Economic Relations, Euclid Tsakalotos, and a certain Minister of Finance, name of Varoufakis – were in Paris on Thursday for a wide- ranging series of talks with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). After the discussions Tsipras gave a short press conference followed by a speech to OECD member nations and the press. The OECD announced a number of joint initiatives with the Greek government in areas such as job creation, public finance and spending, taxation and, intriguingly, “disrupting oligarchies and cartels.” The organization’s Secretary-General, Angel Gurria, was careful to note that “The OECD is not replacing any other institution that the government works with. We are involved because we were asked by one of our founding member countries to offer help and advice on their reform program.”

Regular readers here will pardon the pro-forma above. I snuck in the OECD’s side door and took notes. I looked pretty good, considering that my hands were covered with bloody scratches courtesy of a cat I met the day before. Events at places like the OECD in the opulent 16th are interesting theatre, at least the first time around. They are rigorously controlled affairs, so you have to lean in if you want to glimpse the human beast.

The Greeks need friends in Europe. They’re looking everywhere, and the trip to Paris can be seen as part of the continuing charm offensive. They need public statements of support and not quiet murmurs of assent such as François Hollande dispenses. (Not too loud, Angela might hear.) They have confidence in what looks like a lonely fight but they seem to be still hoping that the tide will turn, that Europe will join them in replacing the Austerity Drones. That’s one explanation for their presence. But it leaves a lot out.

… The plush little theatre where the press conference takes place is crammed with journalists. In the first two rows, a swirling crowd that speaks only Greek and is constantly hopping in and out of their seats, as if they were making policy decisions at the last second. The camera men are set up with their ridiculous foot-long lenses, the facilitators line the aisle, we’re all waiting. Do my co-workers expect anything new to be said? There’s no bar down here in the basement of the OECD – I haven’t found one anyway. Just fruit juice. It’s nice to be healthy but a drink helps when you have to listen to politicians for a few hours, and without a bar there’s no fraternity. Journalists these days are a quiet lot and far too many of them are staring at the portables on their laps like zombies getting the feed.

And then – swoosh. The doors open and one buzz replaces another as Tsipras and cohorts glide in. The photographers order anyone in their way to sit down. What jerks.

Tsipras and Gurria take the platform. Gurria grips the lecturn like he’s maybe going to pull it out of the floor and hurl it at us, or maybe a bit like a sea captain staring off into the mist on a stormy night. Tsipras’s body language is patient, deferential, waiting his cue. He’s willing to play the game. I wonder if he can understand a word Gurria is saying.

He’s a fast talker this Gurria. Six languages or so the official bio claims. Brooklyn is full of guys like him, always on the up and up, everything positive, always shaking people’s hands, aways trying to sell you something – an idea maybe. (People in Brooklyn have ideas.) They come at you fast on the sidewalk and it’s always too late to avoid them. They’re not so bad, it’s just that they’re always brimming. Well, Gurria has the right, he’s head of the OECD, unofficially known as the “world’s club for the richy-rich.” Readers with memories of old columns will recall that Luxembourg is a member too and that they simply choose to “exercise the privilege” of not signing the organization’s tax avoidance mandates, which they had every right to do. It’s called taking care of business properly.

So Gurria is finishing up, he says again and again that “Syriza has only been in power a few weeks,” and underlines that the OECD is not replacing any other organization at least twice. Who could that be refering to, I wonder? Greece will take help anywhere it can. As the poet Roque Dalton observed, “The drowning man doesn’t ask which way the boat is headed.”

Tspiras is not so nice. The Troika is his voodoo doll: if you bring it on stage, you have to stab it – at least twice. And he obliges. Syriza remains committed to its social program in all its aspects, he says, as well as the Memorandum of reform they signed in mid-February. But he stresses that it is reform their way and not what the Central Bank and the IMF think change looks like. Watch a few videos of the Euro group President Jeroen Tijsselbloem, read his body language as he says, “We are still waiting to see evidence of reform by the Greeks.” (My paraphrase.) The two parties are speaking different languages. In a video after Syriza’s election he talks about how much his organization helped Greece with interest delays and other bookkeeping sleights of hand (heroic acts). Tijsselbloem is a human in functionary drag, passenger on a boat going the wrong way. He is the kind of man who says “water” before he lifts the glass to his lips. It’s a policy statement.

Gurria smacks down a journalist who dares to ask a pointed question about Spain and deficits, and the journalist takes it. It’s a regular love-fest in here, Gurria seems to be saying. Let’s not let reality interrupt.

This “only been in power a few weeks” gets on my nerves. Who’s he saying it to? He sounds like he’s trying to convince a judge in some small Texas town that his client shouldn’t hang – right away anyway. He repeats it, staring over our heads into Nowhereland. Is he addressing it to Christine Lagarde at the IMF? Did they have a spat? “Look, Angel, hang with the Greek boys on Thursday. But don’t even dream about pal-ing around over the weekend. What if you give me the disease?”

If I were a professor of institutional semantics, I’d roll it out like this: the OECD is a parallel international organization that wields power behind the scenes. Corporations are always knocking on their door demanding special privileges and they (the OECD) hold sway within the different national bureaucracies, within the mindset. Greece needs breathing room and if the OECD isn’t offering cash, it’s access, which may be more valuable. Of course they’re “enterprise-oriented.” National salvation isn’t in their tool kit. It will be up to Syriza to resist. In any case, the OECD isn’t issuing diktats.

More interesting to speculate on Gurria’s motives. Why has he so forcefully interposed the OECD between Greece and the Troika? Clearly not “replacing any other organization,” but it’s as if that Brooklyn glad-hander stepped between the bully and his victim and yelled, “Hands Off!” Whose side is he on? Impossible to say. His face is a mask, he speaks in soundbites. (Is there a school for that?) Greece in any case will be able to say to Tijsselbloem et Co., “We’re playing by OECD rules. Good enough for you?” when that all-but-inevitable departure from the Euro threatens again. Greece is playing for time. Syriza has to both implement reforms and see some positive results. In four months. Pasok had ten years to shoot their wad and blow the treasury. I don’t remember the European fright wigs complaining then.

But what! – Hey!- What’s that noise! – breaking glass – in this soft little amphitheatre. Here? It can’t be. But it is. Reality is not so nice. Reality is the Syriza snarl. Here they are showing the OECD what attentive fellows they can be – but just a day before – a bit of mayhem before they arrived in Paris. They went before the world and accused Germany of the systemic pillage of their country.

In December 2014 the Greek finance ministry published a report which calculated that Germany “owed” Greece €9.2bn for the first world war, €322bn for the second and €10bn for money Greece was forced to lend the Nazi regime in 1942.

On Wednesday Alex Tsipras weighed in before the Greek Parliament. “After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the legal and political conditions were created for this issue to be resolved. But since then, German governments chose silence, legal tricks and delay.”

Now we get to the good part of the drama, when the upstart Southerners confront the Northern behemouth. They prick them where it hurts. The worst part of it, for the Germans, is that the Greeks are trying to steal their role, that of the Great Reproover, the Clean Liver, the Prosperous. You’re thieves, the Greeks bellow. And the Greeks were being nice about it. They didn’t even mention the gold bricks the Germans took with them at the end of the Second World War, a theft that William Pfaff, the dean of American foreign policy writing, calls “a legitimate issue.”

To their immense credit there are numerous Germans, individuals and political groups, who have stood up and publicly backed the Greeks in raising the issue.

No one can seriously believe that the Syriza-led government is naïve about what the OECD represents. At the same time the fly on the conference room wall knows more than we do about the OECD’s real strategy for Greece. OECD assistance may help to cauterize the wound; looked at another way it brings Greece closer to the business establishment.

There was more to the afternoon. Tspiras had yet to give his speech. His English is nearly incomprehensible and it got worse as the speech went on. He was saying something, it was the kind of speech the OECD likes to hear, full of initiatives and targets. He did say, “We don’t want to reform Greece, we want to transform it.” For that dream, he will meet obstacles on all sides, international and domestic, not least that part of the Greek left who have already decided he’s a sellout.

In the corridors close to the centers of power, where Power takes the shape of human figures gliding down a passageway surrounded by body guards, Sub-Ministers for various offices, journo-hangers-on desperate for a quote, everything is rumor, opinion, hand-held devices pumping out new info, distraction – buzz. Very little is really known and what is known can change instantly into its opposite. That’s what Syriza is banking on.

What’s the probability that the sea of hemmed-in, shoulder to shoulder journalists, administrators and facilitators would somehow part to allow an awkward young German reporter, tall and a little stiff like he was new on the beat, to step forward and block Varoufakis’s path? Not likely in that crowd – but it happened. He had a question. Not about reparations. “Is it true, Mr. Minister, that Greece will run out of money in seven days?” A short freeze in the crowd surge. Varoufakis gives him a quick look up and down. It’s provocation with a German accent. “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Varoufakis replies softly. “Good song. Do you know it?” The crowd moves on, out of the room.

The journalist looks verklempt, augestorben – overcome, lost. Varoufakis played him. That’s game theory: change the terms of the debate. The reporter hobbles back to his computer. He didn’t get his quote, or so he thinks. Humiliated, he looks around for help.

The OECD is an interesting faction of the elite to have on your side. They can’t say you don’t play by the rules, even if you have to bend them. Everybody does, just look at Luxembourg. But I think we are nearly at the end of the epoch when Greece can be regarded as a pariah. What happened there happened with the full knowledge of the EU, the ECB and the IMF, and therefore, one could argue, with their consent. The OECD plans, I suspect, to play the role of mediator, with or without the blessing of the Troika. So far Syriza has shown that it’s one step ahead of the functionaries of Reality As Such.

Jan 102015
 

By Iddhis Bing, 99GetSmart

Stephane Charbonnier, Publisher at Charlie Hebdo

Stephane Charbonnier, Publisher at Charlie Hebdo

Edouard Perrin is a French documentary filmmaker who works at Premières Lignes in Paris. As part of Cash Investigations, he is widely known for his programs on tax evasion in France and other countries, most notably Luxembourg. 99GetSmart Readers may remember the Invisible Money series that appeared here, which was based on the documents provided to Perrin by Antoine Deltour, an ex-employee of the accounting firm PwC. Perrin’s refusal to be intimidated by approximately 300,000 pages of material and his persistance with the story led to several awards and a major European scandal, now known as LuxLeaks. Subsequent revelations that have appeared on the ICIJ and Guardian websites are in substantial measure based on Perrin’s research. Readers may also recall that the material appeared on 99GetSmart more than a year in advance of those somewhat larger news organizations.

Premières Lignes is located on the same floor of the same building as Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and Perrin was present when the well-armed attackers burst into the building at 11:30 a.m. He along with others managed to escape to the roof. What follows is a translation of the brief message that Perrin posted on his Facebook page on Wednesday.

Readers interested in the Invisible Money series can find it at the bottom of this post.

J Iddhis Bing

 

Ed Perrin’s statement:

Facebook asks, What’s on your mind this evening?

I don’t have any idea.

Or too many, far too many.

I work at the Premières Lignes press agency.

We are Charlie Hebdo’s neighbors on the same floor.

Hebdo was where I published my first articles. During the last century.

Just a few hours ago, I searched for the pulse of my revered mentors in journalism, in criticism, in derision and above all in freedom of thought.

In vain.

Cabu, Charb, Honoré, Maris, Wolinsky… and others whom I cannot recall at this moment.

May the earth rest lightly upon you.

P.S. If by some miracle there is a god who shelters them, they would want to see EVERYONE on their feet. Charb had even made it his raison d’etre: To die standing rather than live on one’s knees. Or worse, in hiding.

PPS: If by chance, someone, anyone, has personal contact with Tony Barber of the Financial Times, could he or she be kind enough to inform him that he’s not welcome here. That’s a euphemism. I recommend that everyone read, if it hasn’t been pulled by the Financial Times, yesterday’s midday editorial blog. It is exactly the opposite of how we should think and act.

PPPS: On the subject of Fight, and therefore of an enemy, I invite you to reread Camus.

“The evil that exists in the world almost always stems from ignorance.”

The Plague

“There always comes a time in history when those who dare to say two plus two equals four are punished with death.”

The Plague, again

“For those of us who do not believe in God, without justice there can only be despair.”

The Just

“I have thrown a bomb at your tyranny – not at a man.”

” – No doubt. But it is the man who was hit.”

Also from The Just

“Happiness? – To hold the hand of a man before he dies.”

The Just, once again

With love, Ed

Notes

1 Barber’s column was subsequently pulled by FT.

2 Fight (Combat, in French) was the French underground resistance newspaper Camus wrote for.

Charlie 5

Invisible Money Series by Iddhis Bing:

– Invisible Money 1: How It Gets That Way: http://99getsmart.com/?p=4736

– Invisible Money 2: Voyage to Luxembourg: http://99getsmart.com/?p=4914

– Invisible Money 3: http://99getsmart.com/?p=5319

– Invisible Money 4: Of Luxembourg, London and Paris, and a Lady Named Merkiavelli: http://99getsmart.com/?p=5411

– Invisible Money 5: The Cloud Factory Revisited Up The Ladder, Marius Kohl to Luc Frieden: http://99getsmart.com/invisible-money-5-the-cloud-factory-revisited-up-the-ladder-marius-kohl-to-luc-frieden/

Feb 042014
 

Posted by greydogg, 99GetSmart

My intrepid friend, journalist James Graham (a.k.a. J. Iddhis Bing), has been living in Paris and writing about the disastrous conditions in Greece, where financial collapse has led to widespread violence and homelessness. The situation has been underreported in the mainstream press, and Jim is heading to Greece to research what’s happening and ferret out the implications for the rest of the Europe and the world.

Banking shenanigans by the 1 percent appear to be among the causes of the collapse.

He is crowdsourcing his trip and will send gifts from Greece or other alluring perks to you if you can spare a few bucks. Here’s the link:
http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/greece-and-the-future-of-the-european-union

Jan 222014
 

By J. Iddhis Bing, 99GetSmart

Chronicle of the Time When We All Went Mad: The Bankers Grab The Prosecutors By The Cojones, The Coward Who Could Have Saved Greece, The Economist’s Nightmare, And A Shameless Promo For Myself

 Lanny Breuer, Assistant Attorney General and one of Bill Clinton’s Merry Pranksters.


Lanny Breuer, Assistant Attorney General and one of Bill Clinton’s Merry Pranksters.

And so, like the revolving mechanisms of an old mantelpiece clock, each playing his part without a clue how the whole gizmo works, we tumble into yet another new year. It’s way past midnight, the empty bottles of champagne are scattered around the floor and we begin again, full of resolution that things will be different this time.  The old music, however, continues to play on and so, like the inebriated gangsters they are, the bankers continue at their folly, which is nothing less than pushing the world over the cliff, leaving us behind, as a friend put it, on “the scorched earth of their stampede to Mammogeddon.” Someone is tugging on our sleeve and telling us it’s time to go home. But we’re lost, the streets are a maze and we have no idea where the subway is.

Could we live in a world in a world without banks? Heretical idea. A few years ago the legendary French footballer Eric Cantona  – he who once said that a striker’s goal ought to be as beautiful as a poem by Rimbaud – suggested a solution to our problem: everyone should just withdraw their money from the banks. What came next, he didn’t say. And in any case, compliant governments would rescue their pals by printing more money and delivering it in dump trucks to HQ at high speed. And yet…

The game will go on for a while yet, even if economists tell us it can’t. They have their own night-thoughts, and I’ll get to that, too. Meanwhile the small countries are pulverized, raped of their resources, strangled. Business as usual. For a few details on that, see my columns onGreece and the fundraiser on Indiegogo . My friend François Fleury spent months in and near the Congolese diamond mines, and as good as his photographs are, it’s this quote from a Congolese miner that comes to mind now: “We are cursed because of our gold. All we do is suffer. There is no benefit to us.”

A miner in the Congo, photo copyright François Fleury.

A miner in the Congo, photo copyright François Fleury.

Shall we check in to see how our banker brethren are doing? On Wednesday December 4th the European Union leveled penalties of €1.7bn on seven banks in the Libor-Euribor-Yen rate fix. The banks named were Barclays, UBS, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Deutsche Bank, Société Générale and two American banks, Citigroup and JP Morgan. Morgan plans to fight the charges. According to their regulatory filings, they’ve set aside $23 billionfor just such occasions.

At nearly the same moment in the U.S., the Justice Department stepped forward to announce that they had “reached settlement” in a different case, reaching settlement being a fancy way of saying, No Trial. Everyone wants to avoid going to trial; not only does it cost you thousands of billable hours in legal fees but all sorts of unpleasant things can come out when prosecutors start asking questions. And yet there’s something very strange about this “settlement.”

Lanny Breuer is now Assistant Attorney General, and he made the announcement in the HSBC case, specifically the laundering Mexican and Colombian drug money. Lanny Breuer… the name rings a bell, doesn’t it? Longtime Clinton pal. How’d he get to be Assistant AG in charge of criminal activities? But let’s stay with the case.

English HSBC, frequently referred to as a “banking giant,” or simply “venerable,” has confessed to accepting billions of dollars of deposits from Colombian and Mexican drug cartels (among others), which, as you’ve probably already guessed, violates a few minor inconveniences they choose to overlook, the Bank Secrecy Act and Trading With the Enemy Act among them.

The Justice Department heralded the settlement as a record. $1.9 billion. One analyst took out his pencil and calculated that that equals five weeks income for the bank.

How did they do it? Breuer admitted that drug dealers would “deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows.” No one noticed. Maybe all the tellers at that Mexico City branch should be fired.

There will be no prosecutions. But Breuer did mention that, “As a result of the government’s investigation, HSBC has . . . “clawed back” deferred compensation bonuses given to some of its most senior U.S. anti-money laundering and compliance officers, and agreed to partially defer bonus compensation for its most senior officials during the five-year period of the deferred prosecution agreement.”

It gets better. America’s very own Pravda, the New York Times, reported that “Federal and state authorities have chosen not to indict HSBC, the London-based bank, on charges of vast and prolonged money laundering, for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and, in theprocess, endanger the financial system.” HSBC has already had to clean house: most of its senior management has been replaced. Or rather, they ran out the back door at high speed, hoping no one ever remembers their name.

Matt Taibbi, in his column, argues that, while thousands languish in jail on minor drug charges, this settlement reveals just how hollow America’s massive War Against Selected Illicit Substances really is. But it reveals something else as well: just how close the connections are between the banks and our governments. We’ve all watched as Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon gets the kid-glove treatment in Congress. But here the government had the banks within their grasp on the most serious charges, ones that relate not only to drugs and trading with the enemy but which, if pursued, might lead to the cash nexus of terrorism, the illegal weapons industry… and they backed off, for reasons we are left to surmise: “For surely the bankers would have talked.” Instead they gave up five week’s pay and shuffled the board room. Would the world have ceased to exist if HSBC was no more? No one apart from the U.S. Justice Department thinks so. One is left to wonder just what all this has to do with Hillary Clinton’s chances in 2016.

Beppe Grillo called our current politicos “zombies.” You may or may not agree.

In the next Chronique I’ll take a close look at the incredible exchange between the IMF and the finance ministers of Greece and Germany, a chess move that not only determined the short-term fate of Greece but which almost no one has written about. It’s an eye-opening episode that reveals the human reality behind the politics and to be perfectly shameless about it, I’ll post the story here on Ground Report as soon as I have 700 in the kitty on Indiegogo, the crowdfunding site. Over 7,000 people read my last piece on the banks, for which I’m grateful and not a little amazed. If each of you kicked in 1 big fat dollar, I’d be writing this column from Athens. So go toIndiegogo, toss in a fiver and you can read the inside story about the finance ministers here in a few day’s time. Let’s just call this an experiment in interactive livelihood.

For now I leave you with this, courtesy of an economist who not only has a heart but writes coherently about the world, too. (I’ll leave him unnamed for now.) After a long exegesis on the state of things, he broke down and told me what goes on his head after the lights go out: “I honestly think the revolutions on a grand scale will be sparked this spring and the summer will be a hot one.” It’s not something to look forward to but there it is. He crunched the numbers, analyzed the ratio of debt to GDP and when he laid his head on the pillow, that’s what he saw. Maybe we all do, maybe the bankers do, too, maybe they’re thinking, “Why the hell doesn’t anyone stop us?” when they turn out the lights.

See you then.

J Iddhis Bing

Jan 142014
 

By Iddhis Bing, 99GetSmart

I’ve been writing and reading about European politics, and Greece in particular, for a while now. Long enough, in any case, to call myself reasonably informed. But Greece is a special case. We stay up on the news and know about the Shadow Cabinet in Westminister in great detail; about Angela Merkel’s telephone and her fall on the ski slopes; about François Hollande’s midnight rides on a scooter across Paris to visit his new girlfriend – and yet, apart from sites like 99GetSmart, there’s a kind of news blackout concerning Greece. Maybe people don’t want to know. They can’t bear it. They suspect they might be next.

But Greece really is an exception, isn’t it? So the argument runs. Its ancient culture, its oligarchs, its Mediterreanan dependence on agriculture, its subterreanean ties to the ancient cults in the Near East, all of these things added together… therein lies the contradiction at the heart of what I am going to propose to you: that Greece is different culturally, that many other European states were opposed to its entry into the Union and it only got in through with the help of some imaginative book-keeping, and yet its fate and ours are now inextricably linked. The only meaningful difference being that Greece is ahead of us on line to the scaffold.

And so I got the crazy idea that I would go to Greece and report what I saw. The proposed trip is now up on Indiegogo, the crowdfunding site. The goal is to write a book which gives us a sense of the human reality in a country trapped between the Scylla and Carybdis of the financiers and the politicos.

This idea is a reality because Linda Ross encouraged me, badgered me, supplied me with endless contacts in Greece – which resulted in articles here on 99 and elsewhere – and essentially wouldn’t give up until I said I was going.

I’ve been writing for 99 since it picked up one of my pieces. Actually, Linda lifted an article from another site and reposted it and I wrote her to ask her who the hell did she think she was. (Little did I know back then. I was a newbie.) I was lucky – theft is the sincerest form of flattery. And thus began a conversation that’s still chugging along fruitfully.

The economy of internet journalism is the pits. Everybody knows that. And if you’re not in the business of taking cheesy ads or innovating your way to the next time-saver app, it hurts on the publishing side as well. Nobody knows what’s coming next but Linda meanwhile plugs away and keeps a terrifically informative site currant. Hats off, says I.

You, the reader, can help out. You read 99GetSmart on a regular basis so you know better than most what’s going on in Greece and maybe you feel we should get the word out to a larger public, especially among the Anglos (as the world calls us when they aren’t inventing much kinder names). You can visit Greece and the Future of the European Union and chip in a few dollars or euros or whatever you have laying around. And you can spread the word, both about 99 and the crowdfunding project. Pass it around, post it, repost it, tweet it, let your friends know that a writer is going to Greece and will report back what he sees and hears.

Merci en avance, as they say in these parts.

Bing

Dec 142013
 

By J. Iddhis Bing, 99GetSmart

Bob Diamond

Where’s Bob Diamond Now?

Early in the summer of 2012, Bob Diamond was an American banker with a talent for making numbers say what he wanted them to say. He was legit and was sitting in the catbird seat at Barclays Bank UK. He’d made $100 million over the previous six years.

A few weeks later, in early July, the world had flipped. Instead of sitting at his desk at Barclays Diamond was answering questions from a Parliamentary committee investigating LIBOR rate-fixing in 2008. A week after that he was out of work.

What’s LIBOR? The London Interbank Offered Rate measures the price at which banks lend currencies to each other. It gauges how much banks charge each other when they carry out interbank trades and it affects the rates businesses and households all over the world pay on loans and other financial products.

Diamond lost his job and Barclays was fined £290m. It was the financial scandal of the summer. Some say of the century, but we’ve got plenty of time to go yet.

July, 2012 was just the first act. The European Union wasn’t asleep at the wheel and started to investigate two other currency markets, the EURIBOR and the Yen LIBOR. They took their time and announced their findings two days ago. It turns out to be a good deal more serious than having to sweat through a rough morning in Parliament. Barclays got off with a £290m penalty in 2012 for their bad behavior. Maybe that wiped out a quarter or a half year’s earnings, and brought them some bad publicity. They found a way to dodge the bullet this time.

On Wednesday it was Joaquín Almunia’s job to announce EU charges against the banks involved. Almunia is the European Commission Vice-President in charge of competition policy. He stood behind the podium in Brussels looking like the stern accountant with the big glasses who comes in to set things straight after the wild party’s over. The European Commission was going to levy €1.7bn in fines on seven banks and a brokerage firm for their roles in the worldwide interest rate manipulation. Banks named were Barclays, UBS, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS, bailed out at taxpayer expense), Deutsche Bank, Société Générale and two American banks, Citigroup and JP Morgan. A brokerage house, RP Martin, is in the mix, too. They’re contesting the charges and the fine. The tables with the damages, courtesy the EC, are included here as illustrations.

EU penalties in the Euribor scandal, by duration and number of incidents

EU penalties in the Euribor scandal, by duration and number of incidentsOfficial EU data on the instances and duration of Yen Euribor violations.Official EU data on the instances and duration of Yen Euribor violations

For its part of the deal, RBS will pay another £300m on top of the £390m it has already paid to US and UK regulators. RBS is a nationalized bank. That means English taxpayers will pick up the tab for the bank’s behavior.

Barclays was the first bank caught in the sting back in 2012. They knew which way the wind was blowing. They decided to cut a deal: by exposing the cartel in Euribor rate-fixing they avoided an additional £570m fine. Swiss bank UBS was spared a £2bn fine by doing the same for the rigging of yen interest rates. A cartel? The banks were working together? This is where things get interesting.

“What is shocking about the Libor and Euribor scandals is not only the manipulation of benchmarks, which is being tackled by financial regulators worldwide, but also the collusion between banks who are supposed to be competing with each other,” Almunia said.

Barclays tried to make it sound like they were Boy Scouts who got a little lost in the woods and stumbled on a coven of witches: “The European Commission has today announced that it has reached a settlement with Barclays and a number of other banks in relation to anti-competitive conduct concerning Euribor. The settlement acknowledges that the banks’ conduct infringed EC competition law by attempting to distort the normal course of pricing components for interest rate derivatives referencing Euribor. As today’s announcement from the Commission confirms, Barclays voluntarily reported the Euribor conduct to the Commission and cooperated fully with the Commission’s investigation.”

Which is a nice, elaborate way of saying, we burned the witches and got off scot-free. Would the EU have known about the Euribor fix if they hadn’t?

JPMorgan Chase, not a bank that makes nice to anybody, used the “Rogue” defense, citing “two former traders during a one-month period in early 2007.”

“The settlement makes no finding that JPMorgan Chase management had any knowledge or involvement in the conduct at issue, or that the traders’ actions had any impact on the firm’s LIBOR submissions or the published LIBOR rates. JPMorgan Chase has cooperated fully with the European Commission throughout its investigation and does not believe that the firm engaged in wrongdoing with respect to the EURIBOR benchmark. The company intends to defend itself fully.”

What we know now that we didn’t know in June 2012 was that the banks acted in concert. They didn’t compete on rates, they put their heads together and figured out a way to make even more money by jiggering them. Maybe you’ve read the emails where the traders promise each other crates of champagne if they help each other out. Which is something else that makes it difficult to believe in those “two former traders during a one-month period in early 2007.” The banks are all bonus-driven, and maybe the best way to survive is not to let your boss know what you’re doing. Results are what matter. JP Morgan and the others have cleaned house, and those two rogues won’t be heard from again.

Welcome to the world of the international cartels. The banks now work together to raise interest rates on everybody across the globe. The compliance officer at UBS saved his bank a €2.5bn by blowing the whistle on the yen scam. Maybe bankers only object when the numbers go over a billion.

Almunia said there is more to come. “This will not be the end of the story.” The EU is investigating the firms that refused to settle with the EC over the EURIBOR and yen LIBOR charges, and is taking a look at possible shenanigans in the FOREX market. Regulators in other countries are hard at work as well.

But that’s the problem. We’ve been stuck at the beginning for a while now: the banks find a new way to transgress, they make a bundle, investigators announce fines a few years later, somebody walks the plank and on we go to the next round.

The fines are big but they won’t hurt the banks too much. Nobody’s going out of business. They’ve got Quantitative Easing to thank for that. It’s a nice little program that helps out when the banks get tight.

You get knocked around on the market these days but there’s always a government somewhere to help you out. Even the moderate Socialist “enemy of finance” French government. Whenever Dexia in Belgium gets in a tight spot, François Hollande sends somebody over with a few billion to stop the bleeding. Too much old French money there to take any chances.

Bob Diamond’s long gone. He at least lost his job. Nobody remembers him. Where’d he go with all his millions? Who cares? There’s another millionaire to take his place, saying the same things about how it was all done by subordinates and he had no knowledge. Nobody knows what’s going on at the banks, the traders and compliance officers are running wild. Then one or two of them get caught, there’s an investigation, the bank shells out, somebody leaves and somebody else takes his place and life goes on, right over the waterfall until we all get soaked. Where’s Bob Diamond these days? In some nice paradise where he’s laughing his head off. What’s that to any of us?

J Iddhis Bing
Paris

Dec 132013
 

By J. Iddhis Bing, 99GetSmart

Doublethink in Action: France 2013

Rachida Dati in 2009

Rachida Dati in 2009

Ever since George Orwell described the practice of doublethink and newspeak in his novel 1984, politicians of all stripes have made it their business to perfect the art of saying one thing while meaning something else entirely. They have, to their immense profit, used 1984 as a textbook rather than as a warning, taking to it with real vigor and professional pride. It’s now a kind of hobby in which they try to outdo each other. Those who master it go a long way on coded messages and innuendo. (Maybe we should call it “turning things inside out.”) With our current debate over “freedom” vs. “security” we may even have entered a golden age of doublethink, the ability to hold beliefs in complete contradiction to their stated objective. (“I am in favor of freedom, and in order to remain free the government must read everyone’s private communications.”) Even so, you can still be startled by individual instances of the craft, when its practitioner scores a bullseye.

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them,” Orwell wrote. Here’s a current instance of the phenomenon.

Christiane Taubira in the National Assembly after the vote on the Gay Marriage law.

Christiane Taubira in the National Assembly after the vote on the Gay Marriage law.

Christiane Taubira is the Minister of Justice in the Hollande government in France. She is a visible and even controversial cabinet minister. She is also black. Given her public stances on issues such as gay marriage and prison reform, she is a lightning rod for discontent during a time of financial crisis, when the French, like people all over Europe, are disgruntled and like to point the finger at “foreigners” they think are stealing parts of the pie. (She was born in Guyana and has represented that country in the French Assembly.) She is insulted on a regular basis and was in October compared to a monkey by a member of the Front National, who has since been drummed out of the party.

A new report is out about racism in France. It has caused a bit of a stir since it was released earlier this week, with its color coded charts depicting town and cities where varying degrees of discrimination exist. Populist and rightwing politicians have been quick to seize on the report for their own ends. Which brings us to this week’s Golden Doublethink, courtesy of Rachida Dati, a member of the populist UMP. (The full report, in French, is available here.)

“Les Français ne sont pas racistes,” Dati said on LCI, a French television station. “L’elite, oui. Je pense qu’ils instrumentalisent et utilisent Christiane Taubira pour se donner bonne conscience.”

“The French are not racists. The elites, yes. I believe they put Christiane Taubira in office and make use of her in order to give themselves a clean conscience.”

A classic, rife with contradictions. The French people are instantly freed of responsibility while unnamed elites, whom every populist must run against, are blamed. The virus is somehow magically contained within this small (by definition), shadowy (by insinuation) group, who, since they are never defined, are easy to hate. (And who, it must be said, provide the money for every political party in France.) And not, it is implied, just any elites but left-leaning elites of the sort running the government now, who are putting Christiane Taubira through her calvary.

Voilà! Ms. Dati subtly asserts that it is the appointment of Taubira that is causing the fuss. She is a diversity hire. Cynical elites are using her as a salve and a battering ram. Subtract Taubira, her statement insinuates, and the problem goes away. The same sort of talk is going on in the conservative press about Harlem Desir, also black and the current spokesman for the Socialist party. Unfortunately for the UMP, all of this “Make the World Go Away” talk leads straight to the Front National and not to them.

Alert readers have already grasped that the rigorous practice of doublethink requires leaving as much up in the air as possible. Insinuation is a subtle art. Definition is the enemy, shadowy forces your friends. Facts and clear opinions are verboten. Dati does not offer an opinion on Taubira or criticize her positions but instead suggests she is the object of an ill-defined conspiracy. Not a lot of sisterhood there, folks.

Behind much of this is, of course, the divisive issue of gay marriage, which is now legal in France but nevertheless provoked large demonstrations in opposition all across France both before and after its enactment. A perfect issue to seize on, because, while it affects a small percentage of the population and changes nothing substantial, it rallies people to the cause. Whatever that cause may be.

But as to elites and their shadowy machinations Ms. Dati perhaps knows whereof she speaks. The politician, who runs Paris’s bougie 7th arrondissement and is of North African descent, was, as it happens, Minister of Justice in the Sarkozy government from 2007 to 2009. To her our first Golden Touché.
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I’d be interested to hear from readers about doublethink, if they know of current instances. A weekly column on the subject seems possible, or, if they are familiar with French politics, perhaps they strongly disagree with my diagnosis. Either way, let me know and we’ll make more statuettes.

J Iddhis Bing
Paris