DRINKING WITH MÉLENCHON
“O my God / am I here all alone?”
I want to tell you a story. Yes, I know, 99GetSmart is not exactly a story teller’s site – although we could debate that – but I am going to tell it because it illumines a few dark corners that can not only bear the light, but that could be useful to those who are engaged in airing and publicizing what Ed Dorn once called Heavy Business in the White World, while attempting to aide those who are on the receiving end of the World’s Big Stick.
If I do that, I have to pass up the chance to talk about the untold juicy morsels that flew across the desk in the last few days, viz., in cash-strapped, austeritarian Spain, where the priest’s favorite altar boy, Mariano Rajoy, is in power, it has just now been discovered that party of which he is the head, the Partido Popular, keeps two set of organizational books, and in the second and more compelling one, they have parked 22 million Euros in a Swiss bank account. For what purpose? This seems to me worth investigating for any number of reasons (how it got out, the persons involved, how badly it will damage the PP, etc.) Maybe the Partido Popular is just planning ahead and when Austerity collapses, as it inevitably will, the upper echelons will flee to Switzerland and retire on their savings. Plus there is news from Greece, where Blackwater, the security firm close to the Bush mafia, will now be protecting the Greek parliament from the rabble.
But instead I am going to tell you a story, a bit of old news, because I think it reveals a little bit about the current state of things. It’s just too damn good to pass up.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a French politician, a long-time Socialist close to François Mitterand, who eventually split with the Socialist Party because he could not tolerate their drift towards the center, and formed the Front de Gauche. The F de G ran seriously for the first time in 2012’s presidential race and then in the legislative elections in June. Mélenchon ended up doing very poorly, scoring 11.4% of the vote (in contrast to Marine le Pen’s 17.3%) for a variety of reasons that if you try to explain it, becomes a kind of Rohrsach Test of your feelings about French politics: it was his first national campaign, the party was new, everyone was sick of Sarkozy so they coalesced around the one candidate who offended almost no one and had a chance to win, François Hollande, and who did. There are many other possibilities, none of which explain the dreaded Le Pen’s 17% share of the electorate.
You could argue that a large swath of the French electorate might say that Mélenchon, his quick verbal repartee and aggressive, unashamed leftwing take on issues appeals to them but they would never actually go into the voting booth and pull the lever for the man.
Now I read what Mélenchon writes and have published a translation of an interview with the man, and I find him smart, energetic, straight-on – even when, during the course of an interview it looks like his eyes are about to pop out of his head. Does he wake up angry in the morning? Is that a problem for you? Maybe we need a few more angry people around. The man engages with individuals when he meets them, he is committed to social revolution (yes, he dares to use the word from time to time), and he has provided the best ongoing criticism of Hollande’s presidency over the last six months. The French elect a monarch and give him five years to prove he deserves the kingdom. If not, off with his head. Mélenchon keeps the blade sharp.
OK, since I am not a Protestant and believe neither in purity of motive nor even in the desirability of a pure outcome, I find the following story vastly instructive and even infuriating – but not for the reasons you think. Revealing, certainly, because it tells us a little bit about our current politicians and about us.
It’s a true story, I have it direct from the horse’s mouth, that is to say, one of the participants – the man who found himself with Melénchon’s hands aimed at his throat. The story had a little play in the French press but never a whisper of it among the English speakers so, you read it here first. The photojournalist is Guillaume Binet and the journalist who accompanied him is Marion Mourgue. The story is old and it’s still good.
My friend works in politics, knows Mélenchon, has photographed and spoken with him on several occasions. And he also knows that Mélenchon had, in 2010, characterized the UMP politico and then-Minister of the Interior Brice Hortefeux in the following words: “C’est sa tête qui est un terrain vague, à cet homme-là. Il n’y a rien dedans: des mauvaises herbes, des pensées névrosées, la peur de l’étranger, la haine de tout le monde. Pour dire autant de bêtises et s’y prendre aussi mal.”
To wit: “The man’s head is a vacant lot. There’s nothing inside it except weeds, neurotic thoughts, fear of foreigners, hatred for everyone. Just talking about it is bad for you.”
Strasbourg. The European Parliament building, the 26th of October. 1:30 in the afternoon, after a vote on the budget. Binet is passing through with Mourgue and in crossing the ground floor, takes a short cut through the bar.
And there at the bar, sharing a glass of champagne with none other than Brice Hortefeux on a beautiful autumn day in Strasbourg, is Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The only customers at that hour.
Binet walks on. He does not take out his camera, he does not play the paparazzi, he does not do anything more than gently poke his friend in the ribs with his elbow.
This is an interesting scene. From my own, limited point of view, I’m not sure I want politicians to talk to each other. Every time they communicate it’s a conspiracy against the people. Maybe they should be kept in isolation, or some sort of public pillory. Of course, I also believe in the moderate application of the guillotine for pols. (Every other week?) But there’s no law against talking.
And what happens next? Mélenchon charges my friend, who let it be observed, enjoys a rather strong height advantage over Jean-Luc, as well being twenty years younger. But – ah, champagne, the great equalizer. Mélenchon decides to go for broke and screaming that he knows this piece of shit journalist is going to make a story out of the fact that he, the one and only Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is drinking with a prominent right wing pol in the Parliament bar. He charges Binet, yelling “Mais racontez-le donc, hein ! Jean-Luc Mélenchon et Brice Hortefeux qui discutent ensemble, ah ça vous plaît, hein, ça vous amuse !” (“Go ahead and tell the story, so what! Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Brice Hortefeux talking together, you really like it, ha! You think it’s amusing!”) Clearly, Mélenchon shares my opinion of what happens when politicians get together for a chat.
He gets his hands up around my friend’s neck and maybe he starts to squeeze but Mr. Vacant Lot Hortefeux comes to the rescue and slipping his arms around Mélenchon, pulls him off. Upshot? A brief media flurry and for the next several months Mélenchon regards the photo-journalist – who did not do his job, that is to say, took no photos before, during or after, they did not tweet the incident – with a withering contempt and a refusal to talk.
A rich scene, no? Maybe not Shakespeare but still compelling. In a perverse way I admire Mélenchon for being so explicit about his relation to the press, for making the point irrefutably clear that the press and the politicians have completely different interests. If M. makes it to the Palais Elysée one day, maybe he’ll put a boxing ring in the back yard.
I told this story last night to a mixed crowd of French and Americans and the response was, stupefaction on the part of the Americans, who hardly know who Mélenchon is and disbelief on the part of the French – that takes some doing. A few denied that it was even possible. “Never! Mélenchon hates Hortefuex, he would never drink champagne with him….!” Hence, this scene, which can be viewed from so many angles, becomes the Rohrsach test mentioned earlier.
I want to argue that this incident, based on your knowledge of Melénchon and your partiality or aversion to left-wing politics, reveals your regard for politicians as a class.
Because that is what they are – a class with a specific function. In the U.S. it is obligatory to believe in a politician, to believe that this or that self-motivated hustler is going to fix things. He is going to change things – even when it is obvious that the politician, as a member of a class, has absolutely no interest in the vague wave of change that he constantly alludes to in his speeches. His goal, if he has one, is to readjust the status quo ever so slightly in favor of his pals. But that doesn’t stop large numbers of people from falling in love with a politician, and the true believer stays in love after all evidence of infidelity is in. One stays in love with a politician after they have betrayed – by necessity – everything they said to get elected, and go on betraying until their last day in office. (I can’t help but remember Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich on his very last day as president. But that boyo offers such rich, copious evidence of betrayal, one hardly knows where to begin.) Reagan, Clinton, Obama – recent American history offers such splendid examples of betrayal. The great advantage possessed by the Bush dynasty is that they never betrayed anyone – they simply and brazenly acted on the interests of their monied class, and never apologized for it.
This is the moment when you, dear reader, leap out of your chair and accuse me of being a cynic. Maybe you even hurl your glass at me – because I have dared to tell you that most love is not love, and in any case, the mere act of believing in a politician of whatever stripe is tantamount to asking to be betrayed. Don’t worry, you’re in good company. Most journalists make the same mistake, and are, in effect, in one camp or another. Melénchon knew this – he simply chose the wrong target, and made an enemy when he didn’t have to. Which may help explain his 11.4% of the vote.
Politicians occupy a very small portion of the political bandwidth, and the untiring obsession with what they are doing or saying obscures a simple fact: their power derives, not wholly but substantially, from the people from whom they stole it. If people really and truly stopped waiting for politicians to deliver a fraction of what they say they will… the jig would be up. The obsession with politicians makes it endlessly easy for us to avoid looking closely at what the people are doing and making a critique of that. It is the blind trance of our love affair, the demise of a republic.
Meanwhile, Greece, whose government is as close to a protection racket as can be imagined, has just announced a deal with the notorious American firm Blackwater, to provide “security” – from the people. Drones will in all likelihood be patrolling the skies over the Parthenon very soon. But if the Greeks stopped paying attention to their governors, if they stopped waiting to see how Syriza does in the next election, if they decided to take back a bit of the power they have so recklessly given away… ?
None of which should be construed as that lowly seconal, advice, to the Greek people but taken for exactly what it is: the description of a predicament. Criticism never solves anything. It isn’t meant to. It’s meant to break the silence about an intolerable situation. That’s enough, but it will have a tough time with Americans, who want instant solutions to intractable problems. And meanwhile half of Paris dreams of living in New York and the world pines for American solutions that after 200 years have yet to arrive.
The politicians have their hands around all of our throats, while we, ever patient, persist in believing that this is their tortured form of love, and if we just wait awhile, they will come to their senses and set things aright. Who is the cynic in this equation?