All entries for May 2011

May 31, 2011

Veni Voti Vici – 24h of a Milanese

May the 30th 2011.

3:40am. Puerta del Sol, Madrid, Monday. The #spanishrevolution sleeps.

Sol, 3:40 am

I don’t. I am walking past fast, on the way to Plaza de Cibeles, to catch the airport bus and the 6:00 Ryanair flight to Milan. I don’t like Ryanair but, two weeks ago, it offered a day return for 39 Euros. Ooops, plus 12 Euros card fee (31%).

8:30am. I land in Bergamo and one hour bus later I am in Milan. A short bar stop for what an Italian needs first when repatriating: a proper coffee. Plus a very unmilanese cannolo siciliano(my other half) and a look at the morning papers, focussing on the reason of my very quick visit: the local elections.


10am. I am in my polling station (no picture, sorry – in Italian polling stations cameras are banned because, unlike in the UK where ballot papers are numbered, vote secrecy is a serious affair). Well ahead of the time limit of 3pm. Spare time for a few flying coffees and aperitivos with friends and for a family lunch.

Italians registered abroad keep the right to vote in the local elections of their place of origin. This time in Milan the stake is special and there has been an internet campaign to mobilise the thousands Milanese on exile like me (see the youtube video – jump the first 1'20" of speech if political Italian is not your thing).

Milan has always been the main Italian political laboratory, for good (Turati’s socialist reformism in the early XX Century, the 1968 movement, feminism, the New Left...) and for evil (fascism in 1919, integralist catholicism, Craxi’s corrupt socialism in the 1980s, the Northern League, Berlusconi). Back in my childhood it was a leftwing industrial city with a progressive cultural scene: Italy's main theatres, newspapers and publishers are all based here. Then the factories closed, replaced by such ‘bullshit economy’ to shame Dubai and London. The popular quarters were gentrified and the poor were forced into the suburbs. Milan became the fiefdom of Berlusconi: he built the new residential quarters, started the TVs, dominates the insurance and advertising industries and bought publishers, football clubs and theatres. Since the early 1990s the Right won all elections in Milan by very large margins.

Two weeks ago, in the first round, the surprise: the leftwing candidate Pisapia was ahead with 48%, the rightwing incumbent behind with 41%. Today, it’s the second round.

3:30pm. Piazza del Duomo. The first projections arrive. Pisapia is well ahead. Within an hour, the margin is clear: 55%-45%. Not only: the Left gains large majorities across the country: Naples (65%-35%!), Cagliari (never ruled by the Left before!), Trieste, even small northern towns usually dominated by the Northern League.

6:15pm. Pisapia arrives to the crowded central square for his first speech as mayor.

6:15: Pisapia appears as new Milanese Mayor

I had written Milan off: the dominant social bloc seemed only interested in paying as little tax as possible, being free to drive their cars around, and blaming immigrants. Due to extreme privatisation, they seemed not to care about the quality of the city or any public service. Milan at week-ends is telling: while all other Italian cities are crowded with passeggiata rituals, the Milanese escape to nearby lakes, mountains and sea. Only poor and immigrants stay behind.

However, deep inside, some traditional Milanese decency has survived and finally there is a reaction. This has little to do with the main opposition Democratic Party: Pisapia is an independent, leftist candidate that defeated the PD one in the primaries (a bit like Ken Livingstone in London's 2000 elections). The same happened in Cagliari, and in Naples the PD candidate was defeated in the first round by anti-corruption judge De Magistris. Like elsewhere in Europe, progressive developments happen outside the traditional parties and in new forms, with new languages. After 20 years of pointless chasing an imaginary 'centre' with moderate, ever blander candidates, the Italian Left has found new radical voices able to inspire and mobilise - and proving that you can proclaim solidarity with Gypsies and Muslims AND still win the elections. Pisapia won with an unprecedented mix of values, irony, calm, against a horrible Milanese Right spending ten times more money and using racism, fear, threat and calumny. The peak was reached in the last televised debate, when the rightwing incumbent at the last minute, knowing that Pisapia had no time for reply left, accused the opponent of being a car thief and a terrorist. It spectacularly backfired: Milanese culture and intellect, even if asleep for 20 years, had not died completely.

The result is not important just for Milan. Milan was the symbol of Berlusconism: the dream he sold to Italians was making all of Italy as rich and flashy as Milan. In reality, Berlusconi was, like a monstrous parasite, asphyxiating Milan by using up all its resources: culture, work, nature. Now that, in a last survival instinct, the Milanese spectacularly rejected him, the dream evaporates. The bluff has been read.

6:25pm. As soon as Pisapia finishes his speech I run back to Central Station (that fascist monument so incongruent with the city today) to catch the bus back to the airport: I will miss the huge evening fest.

9pm. The Ryanair flight to Madrid is due to take off. But it is delayed by 2 hours. One more glass of celebratory prosecco to kill the wait. The waitress asks: 'Why is everybody drinking prosecco today?'

2:15am. I cross Puerta del Sol again. The #spanishrevolution is awake.


May 26, 2011

24 hours in Orbanistan

A very short trip to Budapest and Warsaw. In Budapest, not enough time for the best things, music and the Turkish baths - but the whole city was a sort of Turkish bath of humid heat. Just the time to check that the food and wine are as good as they used to be in 2004, when I spent two months in the city – but not enough time, fortunately, to suffer from what was arguably also the unhealthiest of world cuisines until McDonald’s was founded. I am not sure how many other countries have recipes including fat cuts of meat, oil, butter and lard – and then accompany the dish with generous helpings of cream.

Unhealthy and spicy are also Hungarian politics, with prime minister Viktor Orbán, who in 2002 had modelled his electoral campaign on Berlusconi’s, outdoing his model and achieving unprecedented peaks of authoritarian populism. Thanks to a 2/3 majority in Parliament he could steamroll a new Constitution and new laws allowing the government to control the media and the other state’s institutions, and awarding citizenship to millions Hungarians abroad – at risk of destabilising Romania and Slovakia. Now, he abandoned his social populism (in the past he conceded 50% wage increases and contested healthcare privatisation) to start with tough austerity measures (the country is nearly bankrupt after years of right- and leftwing populism). There are some protests, in particular by police and firefighters against the removal of their early retirement, but the political orientation of them is at least ambiguous (a Israeli flag was burnt in the last demo). Interestingly, among Orbán's targets there are multinational companies. The Hungarian love story with foreign investors may be reaching the end: the 1990s’ nickname of ‘GE-Country’ has been replaced by ‘Orbanistan’.Danube

After Budapest, a short stop in Warsaw was a relief not just because the heat was milder and drier. Poland has avoided the worst of financiarisation and skipped the recession and already moved on from the worst of national populism (the Kaczynski brothers’ rule of 2005-07). Politics is bland but getting ‘normal’: on Wednesday Solidarity organised a national protest against the anti-social policy of the liberal government. Tens of thousands took parts. Not so many in comparison with the West, but at least no Israeli flag was burnt.

Now I am back to Madrid. The #spanishrevolution, which after the end of the ban has no immediate goal left, is nearly over, and it is now the Right to make its voice heard, after a clear victory in the local elections (it reminds of De Gaulle's electoral victory after May 1968, and Fanfani's after the Italian autunno caldo). But the #spanishrevolution has spread a lot of seeds over the internet – even in Budapest and Warsaw they were talking about it, with a bit of envy.

May 21, 2011

We're all illegal now

Follow-up to Puerta del Sol is not Tahrir Square – yet from Around Europe 2010-12

The Supreme Court has confirmed the decision of the junctaSol: Midnight electoral (election authority): from midnight on Friday, the demonstrations are illegal, because of the obligation of political silence (day of reflection) on the vote’s eve. Were it because of some Franquist legacy or just because the law profession is still dominated by conservative upper classes, legal authorities in Spain have a strong inclination for provocative intransigence: whether by banning Basque parties on mere suspicion of links to ETA, by rejecting the Catalan Statute approved by 90% in a referendum, or by banning demonstrations on technicalities, their effect is always radicalising the mobilisation. In a way we have to thank them.

So on Friday evening the crowd is bigger than ever. At least 40,000 people jammed in the square, and more in the adjacent streets – the transition between demonstration and Madrid’s movida nightlife is far from clear cut. At Midnight, when the big watch of the Town hall marks Midnight (something Madrid people celebrate on the 31 December, usually) a minute of silence, with a tape on the mouth, waving hands. And then a huge cheers: somos todos ilegales, ‘we are all illegal’. Which is an appropriate inclusive motto, as one of the emerging demands of this movement is rights for undocumented immigrants. Their vulnerability has been highlighted by the earthquake in Lorca last week: 80% of those left without home are immigrants, mostly undocumented.

The police is so aware of the impossibility of clearing Puerta del Sol, and the other 50 occupied squares across Spain, that it has virtually disappeared, after having kept a visible presence until yesterday. And there’s no point waiting for late night: on week-ends Puerta del Sol does not go to sleep anyway, even without demonstrations. The disappearance of the state is so striking that it even raises the question of whether they hope in some trouble: the overcrowding of a square with just few narrow streets as way outs is a safety hazard.

Even if the movement may decide to stop after having reached the goal of lasting until Sunday, the indignation of a large part of Spanish population is now a fact. For over two years, here and elsewhere, governments have thought that they could smoothly manage the crisis in a socially regressive way: it looked just too technical for people to understand and protest, except the ‘usual suspect’ Portuguese and Greek leftist groups. It is no longer true. Trichet, Bernanke, Cameron, Merkel: take note.

May 18, 2011

Puerta del Sol is not Tahrir Square – yet

Follow-up to On Tahrir Square from Around Europe 2010-12

M-15Since Sunday the 15th of May, Puerta del Sol, and other central squares in Spain, are taken over by demonstrators – mostly, if not exclusively, young.

There had been a timid attempt on the 7th of April. Since then, no talk about it in the open – all happened on the social networks. The Sunday demonstrations, for ‘Real Democracy Now’, were called by a loose network of hundreds of micro-associations. Participation (nearly 20,000 in Madrid, and thousands more across the country) was not huge but it was still surprising: it is impossible not to notice that attendance was larger than at the political parties’ rallies in the run-up to next Sunday local elections.

In Madrid demonstrators decided to stay on the Puerta del Sol central square, a bit like in Tahir Square. They erected tents, as demonstrators started to do in the Ukranian Organge Revolution of 2004, and an Egyptian flag turned up. The camp was declared illegal and the next morning dispersed by the police, with 24 arrests. In other words, what is tolerated in Kiev, Beirut, Cairo, London (Democracy Camp on Parliament Square, May-July 2010) – is not in Madrid. The effect was that since then, demonstration take place every day. Today, the demonstration was forbidden overall: it was not “serious” (?!) and it perturbed the election campaign. So, today even more people were in the Square and the police could only look at it – and eventually withdraw among the cheers. If demonstrators originally did not have a clear objective, the ban has given it to them: defend the right to demonstrate, at least until next Sunday (the forecasted rain is the bigger fear now).

What has changed? Spain has 40% youth unemployment and is going through some of the toughest public expenditure cuts in Europe, but until now there had been no protests like those of Greece and Portugal, nor even Ireland and UK.

Let’s admit that up to half of the young unemployed are actually in some sort of education or informal activity: that leaves still a big chunk of people out. Spain is also a country where it is particularly difficult to get housing – rents are twice as high as in Germany, while wages are a half, and with the majority of the employed youth in temporary contracts, mortgages are out of the question. Until recently, tellingly, the only large youth demonstration in Spain were not against lack of jobs and housing: they were against the Ley antibotellón, the regional laws banning parties with alcoholic drinks in public spaces – things that youth without their own place and with little money, but with a friendly climate, liked to indulge in. In other words, youth did not protest against the roots of their condition – lack of housing and of jobs – but just in favour of a little escape – having where to go to drink affordably.

The movement is growing and if not huge it is politically very sensitive. Unlike the Arab revolutions, in this case the role of the social networks is really evident. The majority looks like being already politically aware, but no organised group is visible. The movement is antisystem, with a strong anarchist tone (Spain has the strongest anarchist traditions in Europe). For an anarchist movement, it is quite organised: the occupied square is clean; no violence nor vandalism; no alcohol, to avoid the Ley antibotellón; assemblies and working groups take place in a relaxed athmosphere. Apart from opposition to nearly everything (privatisation; banks; politicians; the Church; employers; trade unions), among the few concrete proposals that I could hear is electoral reform – the current PR system with very small constituencies is actually very damaging to small parties, perpetuating a quasi-duopoly of socialists and conservatives.

Such anti-system, anti-Parliament protest scares the Left most. These are people who would never vote for the Right, which actually can benefit from popular fears of extremism. Today I had lunch in a popular-class bar: the TV was on giving the news of the demonstration, and people were watching with a puzzled look, asking each other what this strange demonstration was about. Nobody knew. Eventually one customer (the one who knows all: he exists in all pubs) explained: ‘they are protesting against bullfighting’. All was suddenly clear, people shrugged their shoulders and went back to their cervezas and football banter.

By contrast, in their rejection of parliament as a political caste, the protests are likely to increase abstention and reduce the electorate of the socialist PSOE, but also of the leftwing, postcommunist United Left (Izquierda Unida), which is particularly alarmed by the anti-union tones.

This is something which happens in other countries too. In Italy, a network of local movements has found a hero in a comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose anti-system party has reached nearly 10% in Bologna and 4-5% in other big cities – mostly votes taken away from the Left and in this sense, a net help for the Right. The traditional Left is increasingly struggling to connect with new, young movements. Only the Greens, where they are strong, have some success.

The wind from the Sahara is at last reaching the North Mediterranean, starting from the nearest country. While Egyptians and Tunisians wanted free elections tout court, this movement wants somehow different elections. It is mostly expressive: when told that they are not concrete, protesters react angrily that the demonstration is concrete. Immediate objectives and revendications such as in Tunesia or Egypt do not exist here - the demonstration itself is the goal (it reminds of Arthur Scargill).

Youth is emerging as a political subject – in North Africa it is the largest, driving class. In demographically old Southern Europe, youth looks more like a minority fighting for existence in the public sphere.

May 16, 2011

On DSK – USA vs France?

Follow-up to Madrid celebrates San Isidro from Around Europe 2010-12

The San Isidro day, even in Madrid, despite the fest and the sunny day, despite a demonstration against youth unemployment (at last!), despite the heat of the local elections campaign (next week), and despite Contador taking the lead in the Giro on the spectacular Etna stage, has been dominated by the news from New York - as even in my comments on yesterday's blog. By the way, the Spaniards, on the brink of sinking as they are, are scared by anything that can shake the market and make waves.

Comparing US and French media reports, I am impressed by some deep divides on this.

(1) On the 'présomption d'innocence' which is invoked in France, and the guilotine attitude in the US. Remembering that DSK has already been the object of heavy charges, later proved unfounded, three times, on this I side with France.

(2) On sexual harassment. US and France being rather extreme opposites (puritan repression vs male-chauvinist je-m'en-foutisme), the choice between the two is tough, but in doubt, I prefer to side with who has less power, i.e. the victims, so I am with the US. In particular because the French (and their other Latin cousins) are excessively tolerant of affairs involving abuse of hierarchical power. DSK has a bad record on this and whatever happens to the Sofitel case, his career is over - and rightly so. I also remember that on this, societies themselves shift and swing over time, so let's hope it is a good development for France... 

(3)... which leads to the third point: DSK is not charged of sexual harassment, but of rape, a very different magnitude of crime in most legal systems (including the US, which actually has a particularly technical definition of rape, different from most European ones). Yesterday I tended, like the French, to be innocentist: come on, someone focussed on winning presidential elections just does not hang around naked jumping on cleaning ladies - not even Bill Clinton, not even Berlusconi behave like that (as far as we know).

Today more details emerge that suggest culpability, though, so I suspend any judgment. Even the French websites, tonight, are suddenly less indignant about US persecution. On rape, I would hope, there should be no French/US difference, and tolerance should be nil. But I am obviously wrong, as proved by the similar French-US confrontation on Polanski. And even today, the French are appalled by the 70-year jail sentence the Americans are threatening. I can't side with the French if they show any tolerance of rape, while still siding with them on legal culture (point 1). So today I prefer the more aware US. The only point the French have, remembering what said above (that countries change over time), is that you can't ahistorically backtrack and apply the puritan morality of the 2000s to the liberal 1970s. But Polanski was guilty - the issue is just whether he has already paid enough or not -, and if DSK is guilty, he should pay a big deal - whether 70 years or not. [I declare an interest: I am a fan of Polanski's first Polish film, Nóz w wodzie, and very much like The Pianist. But artists do not have a licence to commit crimes.]

(4) Finally, there is the economy, stupid. Even without believing conspiracy theories that are popular with the French, DSK was (simple past tense) the best IMF Director ever. On the crisis, the banks and the bail-outs of indebted countries, the IMF proved to have more of a social conscience than the EU - a reversal of roles since twenty years ago, when the IMF followed the neoliberal 'Washington consensus' and the EU was led by Jacques Delors - another French socialist and the father of DSK friend/enemy Martine Aubry.

Only a couple of days ago I admired DSK's performance in the movie Inside Job, by Charles Ferguson, a much better attempt than Micheal Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story at putting the financial crisis on the big screen. Well, on this, between the French and the US, even between Sarkozy's Finance Minister and Obama's, not to speak of between French economic thought and US economists (and business schools), I still side with the French.

To conclude, there are still some things I like of France, even if they should learn a few others from the Americans. To paraphrase François I, rien n'est perdu, fors l'honneur.

May 15, 2011

Madrid celebrates San Isidro

Rio Manzanares

It's Madrid main fest today, San Isidro. The city celebrates for the fifth time in a month: after the Semana Santa, the Copa del Rey, Labor Day, the Dos de Mayo (uprising against the French, 1808), it's now the round of the patron saint. For the occasion, the river (euphemism for what is no more than a little stream - but at least it has been beautifully, if very expensively, landscaped in the last couple of years) is lit by the fires of the French Compagnie Carabosse. Next week, the local elections are held. If crisis-struck Madrid people have seen little panem recently, at least they are offered plenty of circenses.

San Isidro night

May 06, 2011

National questions, 2011

While in Québec two years ago, I watched the documentary movie Questions Nationales, comparing three ‘failed’ independent nations: Québec, Cataluña and Scotland (I confess sympathy for all three – and my wife is half-Scottish). It was clear in the public and among my Quebecer friends that the odd one among the three was Scotland: it was not serious enough. Scotland, unlike Québec and Cataluña, is not distinguished by that most important social divide that is language. It hasn’t been independent, nor fought for it, for centuries (now: Québec has never been independent, but at least it was separate 250 years ago – and it had space for some terrorist independentists in the 1970s; Cataluña was virtually independent at some stage in the violent 1930s). Paradoxically, Scotland was the only one with quite clear a constitutional right to independence – but that just proved that it was not serious: they are allowed to split because everybody knows they would never do it.

Robert The BruceFast forward to 2011. Last month, in an informal referendum on independence, just 21% of Catalans bothered to vote (91% voted yes). A couple of months earlier, in the Cataluña elections, the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya had seen its vote halved, to the advantage of the more moderate CiU and of fringe parties. Last Monday, the separatist Bloc Québécois was all but wiped out in the Canadian Federal elections: down from 47 to 4 seats. By contrast, yesterday, the Scottish National Party, won a surprising absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. This opens the way for them to call a referendum, for 2014 or 2015, on independence. So Scotland is actually proving more serious on the independence route than the other two.

In truth, Scottish independence sounds less dramatic and attracts more smiles than anger, mostly because, economically, they are the poorer bit (the oil is running out and it is even disputed whether it will fall into the Scottish national waters once a border is drawn). It reminds of Slovakia, whose independence was fomented by the Czechs more than by the Slovaks themselves.

What is striking in all these cases is the volatility of separatist vote. OK, vote for separatist parties is not the same as vote in an actual independence referendum (in the last Québec one, in 1995, the Yes reached 49%). But still, only two months ago the SNP was seen as secure loser: after all, its main message for years had been that independence would allow Scotland to achieve the same economic results as Ireland and Iceland – not a clever thing to say right now. Two months later, people voted for them, just in order to protest against all Westminster parties. If on separatism people can change opinion with the weather (particularly changeable in Scotland...), then this is clearly no longer the serious, life or death issue it was for Garibaldi – or for Croats and Slovenians a couple of years ago. In today’s world, and especially in the EU, national independence matters little and it can depend on the mood. People can switch between multiple allegiances. The best example was Barcelona, last 11th of July. In the morning a million people demonstrated for independence. In the evening, a million people (who knows if the same or not) celebrated Spain’s World Cup victory. Which actually could suggest a good compromise: a time-share independence - Catalans during the day, and Spaniards at night.Pick your own

In such a state, the real fomenters of separatism are those who take it too seriously and provoke it, such as the conservative Constitutional Court of Spain rejecting parts of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, otherwise approved by 95% of Catalans in a referendum. Yesterday, the same Court very narrowly (a 5-6 vote split) resisted the temptation of banning from local elections the Basque independentist Bildu, a decision which would have only radicalised independentists there and closed the political channels (it would be similar tooutlawing Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland).

As proof of how unserious independence has become, there is the debate on what name the UK should take if Scotland left (Canada and Spain have the same problem: their current names would make no sense anymore, and there are no easy substitutes). “Disunited Kingdom” and “Little Britain” look like the best options...

May 01, 2011

El Clásico and Spanish priorities

Follow-up to Marathon vs Palm Sunday procession in Madrid from Around Europe 2010-12

Bernabeu in the rain

The unfolding of el Clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona provides more information of the state of Spanish society. It’s not extravagant to extrapolate from this football match: intellectuals and serious media are busy at it, with particularly animated debate on an article by José María Izquierdo in El País (a daily from Madrid, nota bene), drawing an original comparison between Real’s defender Arbeloa, Real’s manager Morinho, horror character Hannibal Lecter and the hawk of the conservative Partido Popular Mayor Oreja.

While the Semana Santa procession took priority over the Marathon on Palm Sunday, the following Wednesday the Semana Santa celebrations schedule had to be revised to make space to the Copa del Rey final and following celebrations. And a week later, the long planned Night of the Books – an evening of book markets and events in libraries and bookshops – was nearly silenced by the concomitant Champions League semifinal. If we add that today’s John Paul II’s beatification is heavily shadowed by a fresh academic book (La Confesión, by J. Rodriguez, 2011) on the Legion de Cristo scandals, we can draw a tentative table of Spanish priorities in 2011: (1) football, (2) books, (3) God, (4) other sports (than football, not God).

I had a direct look myself by going to the Santiago Bernabeu stadium yesterday. Still mainly in the shape of the 1982 World Cup, it would do with some modernisation, but it is uniquely spectacular for its near-vertical stalls. And, for me, it is forever associated to the memory of a Summer evening at the age of 12: the Italy-Germany 3-1 final of that World Cup, as well to a number of other good memories involving Milan winning or Inter losing. Shame that today this is the theatre of Mourinho’s speculative antifútbol – yesterday punished 3-2 by Zaragoza. Under a heavy storm - God's revenge?

May 2011

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