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.

Dec 082015
 

By SnakeArbusto, 99GetSmart

After Sunday’s first round of the regional elections, the extreme-Right Front National is being called “France’s leading party.” Its candidates led in six Regions. Its spokespersons are now invited to take part in election-night specials by the different TV networks, private and public. This legitimization of the party seems to be progressing inexorably as the media and the establishment political parties they support look on, powerless to stop the process.  But in fact, the media have played a part in legitimizing the Front all along. And it should not be forgotten that as far back as 1986, Socialist president François Mitterrand had encouraged the FN, using his executive power to allow proportional legislative elections in order to undercut the establishment Right. And that Right has moved closer and closer to the Front’s positions, especially during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. The Front National may be a threat to France, but to some degree at least, it isFrance.

The question now is not whether the FN will win the presidency of one of France’s Regions, but how many presidencies and legislative majorities it will win. And the establishment Left and Right and the media are in panic over what they can do to stop the Front.

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The Front’s spokemen tend to be young, smart, and modern-looking. They tell us, during the minute or so they are given at the start of the program to outline their major themes, that they are the only party that represents real change. They refer to the two leading official parties, PS (Socialist) and LR (Les Républicains), as the “LRPS”, implying that there is no real difference between them. The Front’s leader and presumed presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, has now eased comfortably into her party’s growing legitimacy. j-mIt is almost as if the party’s real face – the sneering bulldog face of her father, founder Jean-Marie Le Pen – were no longer visible. If one looks closely at Marine, however, chieftain’s features and mannerisms clearly emerge, despite Marine’s younger, female (if not feminine) repackaging. And the candidate for the Regional presidency in the South, Marine’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, is young and, on the surface, attractive.

But no one who looks below the surface has illusions about what the Front really represents. Just as Jean-Marie’s face is visible in the hatchet-carved contours of Marine’s, the party’s real program – or at least that is what the Front is surely counting on – is legible like a watermark. There is no need – they hope, and their future victory depends on it – to trumpet racist, supremacist rhetoric anymore. They can discuss economic issues and pretend to have truly new solutions, and they can spotlight Front members and even candidates who are of North African or Black African descent, much as the Republican Party in the USA now does. marion_sVoters can vote for a party whose stock in trade has always been racism and xenophobia out of simple, ingrained racism or out of a genuine fear of “immigrant hordes” – to borrow a phrase from another politician who plays on the same fears – just as the party itself denies its real face in presenting these token members and candidates. But in the party’s pronouncements, phrases like “respect for our culture and our identity” send a barely-coded message.

And the Front’s candidate in the Ile-de-France region, the aristocratically-named Wallerand de Saint-Just, is more indicative of the party’s real values and traditions – those of the reactionary, anti-Socialist, anti-labor, and even anti-republican, bourgeois and even aristocratic, traditionally Catholic “Old France.” For, hidden just below the surface of France’s i-Phone-toting society, a discreet segment of the population defends “traditional values,” with some even calling for the restoration of the monarchy. Not so discreet, in fact, as time goes on and the Front National consolidates its influence. In 2010, for example, young “traditionalist” Catholics, male and female, staged an attack on gay demonstrators at a “kiss-in” on the square in front of Notre-Dame cathedral, shouting “habemus papam!” – a reference to the election of conservative Pope Benedict XVI and to their preference for the Tridentine Mass. wallerand_sBehind such “traditions,” one can perceive the outline of the Vichy regime, whose façade of tradition and family values in fact concealed a willingness to surrender to Nazism in exchange for ridding France of a government that genuinely represented the working class. Saint-Just is among the reactionary Catholics, aligned with the Society of St. Pius X, who have illegally occupied the church of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris since 1977. A ceremony in honor of Holocaust-denying historian and declared Fascist Maurice Bardèche was held in the church in 1998. St-Just is now being sued by his environmentalist opponent in the current elections for saying in a tweet that the Left bears responsibility for the Friday the 13th terror attacks.

The official Left and Right are now united in pointing to the Front as a threat to “our values,” to democracy, to the Republic. Their spokespersons attempt to call out the Front on its real values, history, and alignment. But they can’t debate positions that are unspoken. They attempt to discredit the party by pointing to the loans it has received from supposed “Russian Mafiosi aligned with the dictator Putin.” This is a reference to Konstantin Malofeev, founder of the international investment fund Marshall Capital Partners. It would be more accurate to call Malofeev a successful young entrepreneur, whose interests include telecoms, real estate, and agriculture. Somehow these loans are supposed to raise a red flag in the minds of readers/viewers of the official media, which have participated in the campaign to portray Vladimir Putin as a brutal dictator for years now, following the standard NATO party line. The problem is that Putin is now an ally of France and to some extent of the US in the “struggle against terrorism.” And if you think about it for a minute, all the Front is doing is seeking funding from corporate interests – exactly what all the “legitimate” political parties do. The problem is that French corporations are not yet ready to openly support the Front. But it’s a fairly safe bet that they will if the Front’s legitimization and rise to power continues to advance. And after all, is there really a fundamental difference between the “Russian mafia” and large French corporations, other than the fact that the latter publish Sustainable Development reports and sponsor the COP 21 environment conference?

France’s official Right and Left, along with the media, have themselves to blame for this situation. The Socialists are in danger of losing most of the Regions where they now hold power, and worse, of being on the wrong side of a momentum that is likely to carry either the Front or the official Right to power. François Hollande has used the recent tragedy to bolster his status with potential Front voters, calling the terror attacks “attacks on the values of the Republic” and at the same time using them as an excuse to curtail civil liberties and freedom of speech and of the press – those very same values –, increase surveillance of citizens, and increase the powers of the police. He used the emergency powers he put in place just after November 13th, and which the legislature has now voted to extend, to arrest peaceful organizers of protests at the COP 21. Aren’t such measures more or less exactly what the media and the “respectable” politicians are warning us we can expect from the Front if it takes power?

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As for the official Right, or the “Republican Right” as the media call it to distinguish it from the extreme Right, it has never been very far removed from the Front, and current leader and former president Nicolas Sarkozy captured the presidency in 2007 by co-opting the Front’s themes of law and order and fear of an immigrant invasion. Sarkozy has feigned courting the Front National, even saying once that “Marine Le Pen is compatible with the Republic” – no doubt as a way of giving voters a signal that if they vote for him they can count on getting what the Front promises and still maintain respectability by voting for a party they can admit they voted for. Indeed, the Front’s popularity was long underestimated partly because many voters who vote for them will not admit it in a poll or to family and friends. Now, of course, more and more of such voters will come out of the closet. The “Republican Right” has tripped itself up: If Le Pen is “compatible with the Republic,” then who needs the Republican Right, who have been in power many times and never ushered in the “real change” politicians are always promising? The result of all the overtures to the Front’s voters is that the voters no longer see any difference between the two.

The same is true of the Socialists. Their own pandering to the Front national vote is nothing new. It shifted into a higher gear when Manuel Valls became Prime Minister and, taking a page from Sarkozy’s playbook, staged arrests of undocumented working parents who had come to fetch their children at school and hounded the Rom population. Valls physically resembles Sarkozy – short and cocky – and his intention of duplicating Sarkozy’s strategy is transparent. The Socialists have made it clear from the start ¬– indeed, from the time of the Mitterrand government – that they are Socialists in name only and at best are a kind of Social-Democrat party. Hollande had declared during his presidential campaign that “my real adversary is finance.” But since he took office, he and his Prime Minister have announced several times that they “love business.” Their real constituency, in fact, is enterprise and finance, and their mantra is “growth.” They have shown themselves to be facilitators of the Washington Consensus, privatizing publicly-owned companies to the point where one would need a very strong light to see the outlines of the fundamental Socialist values – that housing, health care, education, and transportation should be protected from the forces of finance and the market. The environmentalists, considered a constituent element of the French Left, have now distanced themselves from the Socialists. In fact, there is now a socialist wing of the Socialist party. These factions have now struck compromises and merged their tickets with the Socialists to face the “threat” of the Front National. Such maneuvers can only cause voters to wonder how much substance there actually is behind the political rhetoric. The PS seems to hope that citizens will continue to vote for them out of a belief that they still do embody those values, but no longer talk about them out of a need to attract voters away from the Right. But again, if the Left has become indistinguishable from the Right, and since both have had their chances before, who can blame voters for giving the sanitized Front National a chance?

Dec 022015
 

By SnakeArbusto, 99GetSmart

The other night ARTE, the German-French cultural channel, explained why it’s such a rare thing to see a French flag displayed anywhere but on a government building: In Europe, flag-waving is associated with nationalism, and Europeans now realize that nationalism – promoted by newspapers, schools, authors, even musicians including Claude Debussy – was largely responsible for the butchery and destruction of the Great War. Not so long ago, politician Ségolène Royal’s suggestion that French homes should display the flag to show their pride in their country the way American families do met with ridicule.

But now, walking through the town where I live and others like it, you see flags displayed in windows and on houses – sometimes a bit incompetently. Those who heeded François Hollande’s call to fly the flag realized they didn’t know where to go to buy one. For now, people print their own flag on their home printer and tack it up in a protective plastic sleeve or on an improvised flagstaff.

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Or they put out sets of three candles – one blue, one white, and one red. And on cars you see decals that read Même pas peur (“Ya didn’t even scare me.”) – a reference to the attacks of Friday, November 13th. Europe is at war again, we’ve been told; but this time the enemy is something called “terrorism” or “Islamism”.

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Also, on stop signs and road signs, on walls, you see stickers that read “Stop Islamicization!” We see one on the mailbox in front of a Muslim-owned grocery. For as long as I’ve lived in France – nearly 30 years -, most local convenience stores have been run by Frenchmen of North African descent, who took over long ago from owners who are not willing to stay open at night and on Sundays. The “identity” group behind the sticker is almost certainly linked to the Front National, which hopes, with its recently-applied veneer of respectability and photogenic female leader, to ride the fear generated by the influx of refugees and the recent terror attacks to victory in the regional elections in the coming weeks. The spectre of Daesh/ISIL is concretized in photos of “terrorist armies” waving their black flag.

The weekly Canard enchaîné carried a story about a Mass celebrated in honor of the victims of the terror attacks in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris attended by the Mayor, a cabinet minister, the presidents of the National Assembly and Senate, a former president, and two former prime ministers during which the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, was played on the Great Organ. The Canard pointed out that in 1918, Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau, a fierce opponent of anti-Semitism and nationalism, refused, in the name of the Republic’s sacred principle of secularity, to allow members of his government to attend a ceremony of thanksgiving at Notre-Dame to celebrate the Armistice. The same principle of secularity – separation of church and state – has been invoked recently to justify the banning of the Islamic veil in schools. No one would dare point out a time like this that such a measure has less to do with protecting the values of the Republic than with undermining the Front National. Meanwhile, Catholics write to the Right-tending daily Figaro to protest the inappropriateness of the anthem’s being played at Mass, pointing out that “the Republic has always been the enemy of religion”.

This mixture of politics, religion, and nationalism does remind one of the Great War: In Europe and in America, when it came to depicting the Other, the Enemy, as inhuman and barbaric, truth was indeed the first casualty of the war. The huge propaganda campaigns waged to convince Europeans that they owed the Republic not only a life of hard work, but their sons and to convince Americans to get involved have never really ended. TV and film and popular songs are still programming us to trust our leaders just as we trust the makers of the breakfast cereals and cleaning products we buy. A week after the Friday the 13th attacks, 12 Socialist legislators tried to resurrect a measure dating from 1955, during the unrest over Algeria, that would allow the government to take censorship measures against the press, radio, cinema, and theatrical performances. Such measures would surely be adopted now if the executive felt they were needed. But in fact the media’s self-censorship makes them unnecessary.

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The real war, of course, is the same one we’ve all been passive participants in all our lives – the war to secure lucrative resources and keep sovereign peoples from using those resources for the good of the greatest number. Declaring war on “terror” or “Islamism”, like declaring war on the “Hun” in 1914, ensures that the great engine of militarism that drives that domination and the economies that serve it will continue to churn out death, turning human lives and precious resources into more gold for a small global elite – an elite to whom nationalism and religion are little more than a joke.

The people of France, of Europe, and of the world should not count on their politicians or their media to lead them out of their blindness to the economic and geopolitical motives behind the immigrant crisis, the proxy war in Syria and their own countries’ complicity therein, and the development of jihadism. Meanwhile, the war goes on.

Nov 202015
 

By SnakeArbusto, 99GetSmart

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French president François Hollande’s speech to the Congress at Versailles rode a wave of political solidarity, most politicians refraining from trying to make political profit off the terror attacks and “standing united against a common enemy”… with the notable exception of Hollande himself. He shamelessly used the situation to undermine the political threat from the Right and advance the implementation of an all-out police state. The satirical _Canard Enchainé_ called him “the General of [the] Division.”

Hollande announced that France’s borders were being closed and that he would ask for an extension of the emergency powers he has put in place, which can be maintained for a maximum 12 days without a legislative vote to extend them. (Today, as I write, all but a handful of deputies voted to grant an extension of three months.) Hollande further said that he would seek an amendment to the law governing the application of emergency powers allowing the executive to keep them in place longer without consulting the legislature. He said that “administrative” (meaning executive) searches and seizures will be able to be made with no court order. He promised to hire 5,000 new police and gendarmes in the next two years. Long-planned budget cuts designed to lower the costs of France’s armed forces have been frozen through 2019. He promised that he would seek an amendment to the constitution extending the conditions under which he can declare a state of siege – equivalent to full martial law. Constitutionalization would put the measure out of the reach of challenges from European human-rights legislation and France’s own Conseil Constitutionnel, which could challenge a law.

All of these legal and constitutional extensions of powers, Hollande suggested, are needed to cope with a “new context” which “the Republic will evolve” to face – presumably meaning a context in which young French men and women are recruited and trained as assassins and suicide bombers… by jihadist militias whom France itself and its allies have armed and trained for use as proxy armies against Assad.

Hollande clearly relishes the opportunity to play the strongman, to talk tough while undercutting his political adversaries. At one point he even made a brief head-wagging gesture that was astonishingly reminiscent of Mussolini. Or possibly Nicolas Sarkozy. Was it calculated, or spontaneous? Is he being coached by a consultant, the way the old George Bush was after his handlers noticed that a few of his gestures were just a touch too graceful? Is he simply aping his likely future adversary Sarkozy, who parlayed his stint as Interior (police) minister into a presidential term by baiting immigrants and ghetto youth, even stooping so low as to arrest suspected undocumented parents in a pre-dawn raid as they prepared their children for the first day of elementary school? Or, inside the chubby little bookkeeper, is there a swaggering Duce bent on taking the stage? And is a full-scale police state part of a long-standing plan to further tighten the grip of the neoliberal matrix?

In any case, Hollande is now “hunting on Sarkozy’s lands” as the French say. Beyond his militaristic posturing, he deliberately drew a connection between terrorism and the young people in France’s pressure-cooker suburban housing projects: “They move from delinquency to terrorism”. He promised that he would see to it that young offenders, born in France and sometimes third-generation immigrants, have their French nationality stripped from them. Playing on the fears of working-class citizens by singling out ghetto youths as being part of a foreign population the Republic is harboring in its bosom is one of the techniques Sarkozy had used to co-opt the extreme-Right Front National on his way to the presidency. Now Hollande – whose party is a direct inheritor of the Second International – is using the horror of November 13th as cover for doing exactly the same.

And the media are falling in line, while praising Hollande’s stern posturing and hypocritical calls for unity. The term “Islamofascism” is again being bandied about. A female journalist on the France-24 news network, commenting on the reports that a woman terrorist had blown herself up during the police attack in St-Denis Wednesday morning, said that “a page has been turned” and that “no woman wearing the Islamic veil can ever be trusted again”. Are women who wear blouson-style jackets and coats now suspect too? Or only if they are of Middle-Eastern complexion? Are all pregnant women now potential suicide bombers? Or only those who don’t have blond hair and/or smoke cigarettes?

The relatively short-term gains Hollande will take to the bank may or may not keep their value on the volatile market of politics. But the harm he is doing to the liberty that is supposedly one of France’s pillar values won’t easily be undone. And he chooses to do it rather than face the hypocrisy and the contradictions of France’s – and its allies’ – policies in the world in general and the Middle East in particular.

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

May 032013
 

By Iddhis Bing, 99GetSmart

Jerome Cahuzac, May 2012. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure

Jerome Cahuzac, May 2012. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure

“What bothers me is that I still have an account open with UBS… The only way to close it is to go there? With an account open there I’m fucked, since UBS is not necessarily the most hidden of banks. It stinks. Is any sort of proxy possible?…Above all, so that the holdings somehow stay at UBS and can be managed from here. It’s a word game pure and simple.”

Jerome Cahuzac was, until March 19, Budget Minister in François Hollande’s socialist government, in charge of the enforcement of tax laws during a time of fiscal crisis and high unemployment.

Regarded as one of the more effective ministers in the new government, Cahuzac lost little time before lowering the boom. He grilled members of the new administration about their finances, pointedly asking Marylise Lebranchu if there wasn’t a zero missing from her husband’s tax declaration, and in September 2012, announced a 19.6% levy on plastic surgery, an industry with powerful clients which may have felt untouchable, not least because Cahuzac is a plastic surgeon.

On December 5, 2012, the Mediapart website published the recording transcribed above, claiming it was Cahuzac’s voice speaking to a third party about a secret Swiss bank account.1

Despite his ardent denials over the next three months – first that the voice was not his, and later that the account had been closed in 2010 – Cahuzac’s position became untenable. He resigned his post and made a public apology.

Such are the twists and turns of fate that, in November, 2012, Cahuzac announced a crackdown on tax fraud and on April 2 of this year appeared before anti-corruption judges Renaud Van Ruymbeke and Roger Le Loire to face charges of concealing his UBS account (« blanchiment de fraude fiscale »).

Undeclared income transferred to a second country – in this case, Switzerland – in order to avoid taxes in the person’s home country – in this case, France – was and is a crime. As such, the actions Cahuzac confessed to on the phone tape are but a miniscule yet revealing part of the worldwide tax avoidance game which was detailed in the Invisible Money series on this site. The scandal in France is still in its initial stages. Deniability has now been exhausted. More bankers will come under pressure from prosecutors and more information about other tax evaders will leak out.

Cahuzac was able to hold on for more than three months because of support from within the Hollande regime. Pierre Moscovici, Minister of the Economy, cleared Cahuzac of wrong doing on February 5 and publicly embraced him in the Assembly, while Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault stated he had “total confidence” in his Budget Secretary. The position taken by the Socialist government raises many questions about both the veracity of their public statements as well as their competence. People in France, from different parts of the political spectrum, find the assertion that they didn’t know about Cahuzac’s hidden holdings after early December to be stretching credulity past the breaking point.

Part of President François Hollande’s response was the swift passage of the bill requiring his ministers to register their holdings in the public record. They are now available on-line; the entire country can see how much each minister is worth. While not exactly a millionaire’s club, it comes close. Hollande has spent a good deal of his time since Cahuzac’s resignation on trade trips, to Morocco and last week, China.

On April 2, Cahuzac made a public statement to the effect that he had been “trapped in a spiral of lies and went astray,” and that his UBS account, some 600,000 Euros, had not been added to in a dozen years, was closed in 2010 and the monies would be returned to France. With his rugged good looks and forthright manner it was a splendid “modified, limited hang-out,” to steal a phrase from Richard Nixon.

Reality has continued to spiral out of control since then, with more information becoming public. There remain many problems with Cahuzac’s account.

This article, although it breaks no new ground, attempts to review important aspects of the story for English-speaking readers. L’Affaire Cahuzac is much more than the story of a fallen minister: it’s an x-ray of the French class system in which one can observe how one gets ahead these days. Cahuzac’s contacts and alliances among politicians and Important People are legion as are his friendships with those behind the scene.

Tax evasion has become a way of life for those in the upper strata of society, in France as in other countries. People do what they think they can get away with, and Cahuzac’s case provides but one example of how it’s done. French newspapers speak of the “scandals doubtless to come.”

“Shit, Jerome, you’ve got a few contradictions!”

Jerome Cahuzac, 60 years old, has used the rural department of Lot et Garonne as his political base for years. Until March of this year he represented it in the National Assembly. (French law allows politicians to hold multiple positions at the same time; for a few days after he resigned his ministry he publicly toyed with the idea of keeping his elected post.)

Trained as a surgeon, he began his medical career as a cardiologist before changing, in the early ’90s, to the lucrative profession of plastic surgery, where he specialized in hair transplants.

From 1988 to 1991, he worked for the government under Minister of Social Affairs Claude Evin, on policy relating to cigarettes and alcohol as well as pharmacology and medicines. In 1993, while maintaining his plastic surgery practice, he set up Conseil Cahuzac, where he acted as a “purely technical advisor” to the pharmaceutical laboratories. At the Conseil, he worked closely with Daniel Vial, the lobbyist’s lobbyist, the man who knows everyone in the “Paris that counts.”

A member of the Socialist Party since 1977, he first ran for the National Assembly in the Lot et Garonne in 1997, picking up other offices such as regional Counsellor General and Mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Lot along the way. A rebarbative critic of the Sarkozy government’s handling of finances and debt, he was also known as the “hairsplitter” in his position as the president of the Assembly’s Commission of Finances. (In short, make a lot of noise but do little, as Edouard Perrin learned when he tried to interest the Assembly in his findings on tax evasion.) He has, at various times, either worked for or taken Michel Rocard, Lionel Jospin, Dominique Strauss Kahn and François Hollande as his mentors.

He is known to frequent the Cercle de l’Union interalliée, and is a member of the Grand Orient de France, whose ruling counsel has now asked for his suspension.

In 2000, he made the now-fatal phone recording. In June of 2008, Remy Garnier, a pol from the Lot et Garonne, tried to interest Eric Woerth of the UMP (Sarkozy’s party) in allegations that Cahuzac had a Swiss bank account. No takers. Likewise, the far-right National Front has been suspiciously quiet throughout a debacle that should play to their benefit, saying only that they believe in the presumption of innocence. In 2007, Cahuzac was found guilty of paying a Filipina maid 250 Euros a month for 40 hours work off the books. He paid a fine and later helped the woman become legal in France.

So much for the Official Story, which raises a few questions of its own.2 Let’s look at a little more closely at Jerome Cahuzac’s other life.

Although he joined the Socialist Party in 1977, he has maintained long-standing connections to the right and far right through personal relationships. Jean-Pierre Emié is a close friend of thirty four years. Emié has ties to GUD, a far-right student union and was, until 2004, counsellor to the National Front for Paris and its suburbs. It was Emié who introduced Cahuzac to Philippe Peninque, the lawyer who opened Cahuzac’s UBS account. (Peninque and Emié share an office on Rue Marbeuf.) Peninque, a militant ideologue in GUD during his student days, is one of Marine le Pen’s “shadow advisors.”

Gilles August, Cahuzac’s lawyer until earlier this month (April, 2013), is a former member of UNI, a conservative student union. Manuel Valls, Minister of Security in the Hollande government, celebrated his 50th birthday at August’s house last summer, in company with Cahuzac and numerous stars from the firmament: singers Patrick Bruel and Nolwenn Leroy, the Marseille real estate mogul Marc Pietri, TV producer Michel Drucker… Cahuzac is a militant sportif, and one of his bike partners is (or was) Patrick Sayer of Eurazeo Investment Bank, a member of the CAC40, the upper crust of the French Bourse.

Among the many clients at Cahuzac’s plastic surgery practice were former GUD militants, Philippe Peninque, Stephane Fouks of Havas Worldwide Marketing, Socialist Party leader François Patriat, as well as, by Cahuzac’s admission, one Hervé Dreyfus.

Jerome Cahuzac’s younger brother, Antoine, worked at CCF (Crédit Commercial de France) from 1985 to 1988, and again from 1994 to 2000 in a variety of different capacities before taking a senior position at HSBC Bank France.

None of this is grist for the conspiracy mill but it does establish just how deep and wide ranging Cahuzac’s contacts are within French society. When Jean-Pierre Emié complained to Cahuzac that, “Shit, Jerome, you’ve got a lot of contradictions, you’ve got robbery and delinquence in Villeneuve and you support Socialist immigration and security policy!” Cahuzac did not seize on the particulars but replied, like the song says, on a whole other level: “Who doesn’t have contradictions? You, Jean-Pierre, you don’t have any contradictions?” Cahuzac once characterised himself as a “maquisard,” a resistance fighter; a man capable of many disguises and identities. In his case, the war being fought is entirely on behalf of the career of one Jerome Cahuzac.

Reyl & Co.

If Jerome Cahuzac is the fuse that lit the scandal, the dynamite – at least the first stick of dynamite to explode – is definitely the private investment bank Reyl & Co. Or as one of Mediapart’s sources put it, “If there’s one den of thieves that has as its clients French show biz personalities, captains of industry and politicians, it’s Reyl.” 3

The history of Reyl closely parallels what we might call The Golden Age of Tax Evasion, with an explosive growth of revenue in the first decade of this century when cheating on taxes reached the level of a national sport.

Reyl & Co. was founded by Dominique Reyl in 1978 as a private management company in Geneva. For twenty years or so it was indistinguishable from dozens of other financial “boutiques.” With increased pressure from the European Union on big banks like UBS, the unregulated, extremely discreet Reyl & Co. came into its own, converting into a full-fledged bank in 2010. Its modus operandi is to advise clients how they might conceal their money behind unnamed accounts or fictive organizations, giving them the ability to disavow holdings at one of the large banks.

A massive sum of money left Switzerland in 2010, the year Jerome Cahuzac “closed” his account. New regulations had come into effect: the Swiss had agreed to furnish information about certain kinds of accounts to the EU. His money did not come back to France; it moved to Singapore, where along with Hong Kong, Reyl had established subsidiaries. From Singapore it moved “off-shore,” to fiscal paradises with names like Wind Charm Corporation, Fame Eagle Corporation, Oceania City International Inc., Sunny Ridge Group Limited, Jade Green Investments Limited, Moonlite Overseas LTD. in the Seychelles – all Reyl subsidiaries. To add yet another layer of secrecy, these transaction are carried out by middlemen like Swiss-Asia Holding Ltd., so that nothing can be traced back to Reyl or its clients.4

Further questions regarding Cahuzac’s accounts are raised by my sources in the banking industry. In his confession the ex-Budget Minister employed the figure of 600,000 Euros to describe his holdings in Switzerland. This is obviously a very strict definition. 600,000 – barely enough, as one joker commented, to buy a modest apartment in Paris – is the kind of figure held in a individual’s name, while a significantly larger amount is hidden behind the bank’s firewall. Is Jerome Cahuzac the beneficiary, either directly or indirectly, of other non-declared accounts in Switzerland? Did he only confess to the one account that could be traced back to him?

Second, Singapore law makes it impossible for non-residents to transfer money into their banks in amounts less than 1,000,000 Euros. If Cahuzac’s Swiss account was closed in 2010, and the money transferred to Singapore, as he has confessed, exactly how much was transferred? This second line of inquiry obviously casts doubt on the veracity of Cahuzac’s “confession” as to just how much money he had in Switzerland in the first place.

Who is the man on the other end of the phone line in that call from 2000? Who was Cahuzac speaking to? Obviously an intimate, at least financially. We may never know for certain but one thing we do know: undeclared money traveling from France to Switzerland does not travel by check or wire or any other traceable route. It crosses the border by suitcase or van. And for that the services of a porter are required. A discreet porter who knows how to keep quiet.

Enter Hervé Dreyfus, according to Le Temps Dominque Reyl’s half-brother, a man who is a senior partner at both Reyl & Co. and Raymond James Asset Management International (“managers for private clientele”) in Paris – an off-shore specialist. A man with a myriad of contacts, who knows how to lay low: there are few photos of him in circulation. A man Jerome Cahuzac claims he met only once – in his office, for a “transplant consultation.” They must have had a lot to talk about: Dreyfus is, or was, as bald as an egg.

If what Cahuzac says is true, Dreyfus, who has advised Nicholas Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cecilia among many others, is one of the few important people in France he doesn’t know.

Dreyfus and Cahuzac’s younger brother Antoine both worked at Credit Commercial de France in the 1990s, where Dreyfus was responsible for “portfolio management for non-resident private citizens” (according to his biography on the Raymond James site) and both men worked in European markets. It’s hard to imagine the two men not knowing each other.

Mediapart and Antoine Peillon, author of The 600 Billion Missing in France, have named Dreyfus as Reyl’s “delivery man for French affairs.” Mediapart went further: on December 10, 2012 the site flatly stated that Dreyfus is Cahuzac’s money manager. Neither Dreyfus nor the younger Cahuzac have spoken publicly since the scandal broke.

This is just the beginning. More names with secret accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere are sure to follow. The French are incensed: Gerard Depardieu at least had the grace to leave the country rather than pay. The other rich stay home, complain endlessly about taxes and hide the loot elsewhere. Cahuzac’s slow motion striptease, a little bit of truth at a time, gave them three extra months to move the money around. It will be interesting to see who flees across the border or to the prosecutor first, Jerome Cahuzac or Hervé Dreyfus. Or, to use a homely metaphor, who serves whom on a platter.

Iddhis Bing

Paris

April 30, 2013

Footnotes

1 The phone conversation was inadvertantly recorded in 2000 by Michel Gonelle, Cahuzac’s rival in the 2001 municipal elections in Villeneuve-sur-Lot (Lot-et-Garonne), on his phone machine. Cahuzac, having spoken to Gonelle, believed he had terminated the call when he began a second conversation about his private finances. Gonelle, for whom the tape was a “heavy weight” he carried for 12 years, furnished the recording to Mediapart in 2012.

2 Questions are now being asked about his privileged relationship with the pharmaceutical companies and whether it affected his work for the government in 1988-1991 and, given his access to health officials, afterward; what exactly was the nature of the “purely technical advice” he gave to Big Pharma at his consulting agency – did it amount to government access?; whether it’s true that many of his hair transplants were done off the books. Finally, what is the real extent of his wealth, and how was it acquired?

3 « S’il y a bien une officine qui avait comme clients français des personnalités du show-biz, des grands capitaines d’industrie, et des hommes politiques, c’est Reyl. » Unnamed sources can say whatever they like. Unlike the average rumor mongers, Mediapart’s sources in L’Affaire Cahuzac have been proven right. Believe what you like.

4 Swiss-Asia is a “booking platform” operating between banks and financial management companies in different countries. Its on-line prospectus says, “Swiss-Asia Holding Pte. Ltd. operates from the core of its investment universe, where proximity and access to investment opportunities make it possible to produce superior returns with a pro-active and efficient risk monitoring. While Swiss-Asia’s mission is to build a sustainable “East meets West” style of Asset Management out of Singapore and Hong Kong, its dedicated team strives itself to provide High Net Worth Individuals, Financial Institutions and Corporate clients with the best-in-class asset-management, advisory and execution services.” Which reads like it was written on Ecstasy on the sundeck of a yacht passing through the Straits of Malacca.

Plenty more Bing here: