All entries for November 2011
November 30, 2011
- Les neiges du Kilimandjaro
I am back to the UK, just in time for today's national strike in defence of pension entitlements (I was at the big rally in Birmingham), which makes it the appropriate day to review a movie I saw last week in Paris. The economic crisis has already been the opportunity for a few good movies, documentaries and not, but this is the first, to my knowledge, with a trade unionist as hero.
Michel, a grandfather in his fifties, is a CGT délégué syndical in Marseille docks, a romantic speaker who likes to quote Jaurés and speak at length. The limits of his working class solidarity ideals are put to the test twice when the crisis hits, and he negotiates a redundancy deal. First, when the names of the twenty redundant workers are to be drawn, should he add his own name in the draw, despite being protected from dismissal on the ground of his union function? He does, and he draws his own name, landing into unemployment. But the bigger test comes when he and his wife are violently burgled – the thieves are after the collection made for them by work colleagues, which would have made their life dream possible, a holiday at the Kilimandjaro (Les neiges du Kilimandjaro is a 1970s French pop song). Michel discovers soon that the burglar is a young workmate, made himself redundant, only carer of his two younger siblings. Should he tell the police? Or would that make him a petit bourgeois and a class traitor?
The movie is beautifully acted and is carefully directed by Robert Guédiguian, who knows Marseille intimately. He may not know, or pretend not to know, the French social system equally well: the draw as a system to select redundant workers is unheard of; social benefits do not work that way in France, not to speak of the care system for children. But it does not matter: I have to accept that this is not a movie on the regulation of employment relations, but a movie on trade union emotions. The inspiration of it is not a real story, but a poem by Victor Hugo, Les pauvres gens.
As researchers we often forget the poetry of unionism and its emotional side. There are some exceptions, like a few studies on solidarity (e.g. Rick Fantasia) and the studies of the ‘politics of anger’ (see the excellent analysis of Solidarity by David Ost). Indeed, today in Birmingham anger was the dominant feeling: how else to react when pensions of cleaners, nurses and teachers are cut, while bankers’ bonuses taxes are removed and business jets taxes postponed? But I would say that an increasingly broader range of emotions are at play nowadays. In fact, the social movement of 2011 in the western world, the one I had witnessed emerging in Madrid, is even defined by a feeling: indignation. Indignation is different from anger: it is not a reaction to a personal affront, but (according to Spinoza’s Ethics) ‘hatred towards one that has injured the other’ (not me!). It is a disinterested feeling, not easily explainable rationally, as in the case of 93-year old Stéphane Hessel.
The movie by Guédiguain is a poetic and touching portrayal of a whole range of emotions that affect a worker's and a unionist’s life. At times it reminds even of Ladri di biciclette. Maybe a bit sentimentalist: le Monde has written that the grace of Guédiguian's cinema is 'tirer de la fracture du monde ouvrier un outil qui fracture le cœur des bourgeois'. But there is art in this way of breaking middle class hearts with the broken working class. The movie won this year’s edition of the LUX prize, on which I commented last year and which is one of the few things the EU does well right now.
November 27, 2011
I saw this beautiful German film in Paris, at the opening of the German film festival, which requires two preliminary notes.
Paris, while having a very strong (not necessarily positive) self-identity, has more open eyes on the rest of the world than any other city. Berlin is more European, but with very little attention to other continents. London may be more cosmopolitan, but you struggle to find any movie, books or music that is not Angloamerican.
In Paris, they are everywhere. Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Théatre d’Europe at the Odéon, with a rotating direction by different directors from different countries (the first was the unforgettable Milanese Giorgio Strehler). At the Odéon, a beautiful monument that was occupied for years after 1968, and which by the way is just out of my window, two years ago I saw an exhilarating German Swiss Hamlet directed by Mathias Langhoff, half in French and half in English, and this year I saw a reading of Toni Negri’s last play, Prometeo (a rant on alienation and multitude, as you would expect, but at least with some humour). Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Bouffes du Nord, directed for decades by Peter Brook (he just left and I was lucky to see a few of his shows recently) in an amazing essential setting and offering the most universally cosmopolitan programs. Some of this may be due to the large expatriate population in Paris, like the Americans romanticised by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and to the millions of tourists, which explains the unbelievable success of a stand-up comedy like ‘How to become Parisian in an hour’ by Olivier Giraud at the Theatre de la Main D’Or (very funny, but very basic - or in other words, for Americans). But it goes a bit deeper than just expatriates and tourists. My experience of Paris may be biased towards the Quartier Latin, but I have the feeling that nowhere else people know about other places as much as here.
In particular, there is a deep mutual understanding with Germany, which has historical reasons and should be remembered when assessing the current Merkozy phenomenon. French and Germans do not often agree - but they understand each other. See the interest in the last issue of Esprit, ‘La France vue de Berlin’ (which is actually more a ‘Berlin vu de France’). Or the success, every year, of the festival of German cinema, at the Arlequin cinema. It is sad that very little more than the most commercial German films (e.g. Goodbye Lenin, Downfall, Baader Meinhof Complex) nowadays make it to foreign cinemas, and fortunately here in Paris they have a stronger following – not just by the many Germans in Paris.
Westwind, by Robert Thalheim, opened this year’s festival and it is an appropriate German celebration. It tells the story of two sisters from the DDR (specifically, from a small unknown town near Leipzig) on a summer camp on the Hungarian Balaton lake in 1988, meeting (something absolutely forbidden) boys from Western Germany (Hamburg, for maximum contrast), one falling in love, and facing the crucial dilemma of whether to escape to the West with them... 1988 was the last summer the two Germanies were clearly split: the following summer, the human flow to the West via Hungary will have started, and by the autumn the wall will have fallen. I spent in Eastern Europe (Poland, with a stop in divided Berlin) the 1989 summer, and this film catches very well the atmosphere of the end of an era, with good irony on DDR absurdities but also on western mentality. It does not work much as a romantic comedy: the west German boys look so stupid that one wonders what the girls could see in them – but maybe this actually strengthens the topic of the ‘wind from the west’, which was stronger than the attractiveness or not of individual westerners. The film is more successful as a classic ‘escape’ film – even though it seems to underestimate the consequences of escape for eastern Germans. German ‘Ostalgia’, besides some trite celebration and tourist exploitation, continues to be artistically productive.
November 21, 2011
Polish football “chuligani” (I love Polish spelling and declination of English words, one of my favourite being “hot dogi”, reminiscent of Venetian history) scored one more political own goal on the 11th of November, Polish national day (Independence). They took part in an extreme right demonstration, turned it into a major guerrilla with the police who stood between them and antifascist demonstrators... and maybe, hopefully, from next year these traditional 11th of November neo-fascist marchs will be banned. The Polish Right still defends them, including the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, which used to be very serious... and their crisis goes on.
Extreme right’s affairs with football fans are not a Polish prerogative, though. A special case in this landscape are the supporters of Paris Saint-Germain: I went yesterday to check out at the Parc des Princes, but they do defy any easy interpretation and would require more extensive research (there is quite some literature on it actually, e.g. D. Bodinas et al., “Racisme, xénophobie et ideologies politiques dans les stades de football”, Raisons politiques, 1, 2008; N. Hourcade "Supporters extrêmes, violences et expressions politiques en France", in T. Busset et al. (eds.), Le football à l’épreuve de la violence et de l’extrémisme, Antipodes, 2008).
The Boulogne end of the Parc des Princes took the name of Kop of Boulogne in the 1970s, imitating Liverpool’s fans, and it became increasingly infiltrated with neo-nazi skin-heads. But the weird stuff started in the 1990s, when Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) actively promoted its matches to wider groups (sounds like educational “widening participation” policies...), by handing out discounted tickets to the other end, Auteuil. The Auteuil end became popular with ethnic minorities... ooohps, you can’t use such racial wording in France: youth of African and especially North African descent. Tough rivalry between the Kop of Boulogne and the Virage Auteuil quickly developed. Since then, the intriguing specificity of PSG’s fans is that they spend more time fighting against each other, than fighting against other teams’ counterparts.
Things went increasingly nasty during the last ten years, with major accidents such as during PSG-Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2006, with anti-semite aggressions and one Kop Of Boulogne fan killed by a police bullet. After further violence in 2008 Sarkozy even threatened to dissolve the club. Recent years saw major ‘security plans’ being introduced. While, unlike in Italy and Poland, no compulsory ‘fan ID card’ has been introduced, photographic identification is required to attend the two ends. Fans obviously protested against the changes, Auteuil's even going on strike for a while. Many fans moved away from the two ends, to the Paris stand. A part of Auteuil fans have moved to the H blue stand, where I watched first-of-the-league PSG against second-from-bottom Nancy. Nancy won 1-0, and in the H stand they were not happy, although still mostly busy with chanting the name of popular manager Kambouaré, threatened with sacking, and replacement with Ancelotti, by the new owners (from Qatar) and new director Leonardo. Auteuil's defence of Kambouaré looks like resistance against new foreign plutocrats, by the best of black France... ooops, you can’t use this word in France: a citoyen from Nouvelle Calédonie. I must say that in no football stadium in Europe I have seen such a melting pot as in the Parc des Princes, nicely contrasting with the frightening whiteness of many British stadia.
And the extreme right? The Front National was directly accused of involvement in the 2006 accidents during PSG-Hapoel Tel Aviv, but nowadays, it tries hard to present a more respectable face: unlike the Polish right, it avoids being mixed with nazi-skins and hooligans, although it keeps a paramilitary ‘security service’. The problem is that this strategy seems to be rewarding. Opinion polls put the new leader Marine Le Pen at 15-20% ahead of April’s presidential election. This could allow her to improve the record result of her father: 17% in 2002 and a surprising qualification to the second round. Ahead of that election, polls put Jean-Marie Le Pen at only 8-10%, because half of his voters were too ashamed to confess voting for him. Marine Le Pen appears as more ‘respectable’, so one hopes this 15-20% corresponds to all actual support and she will not double the forecast on voting day. But this respectability makes her more dangerous: in fact she is miming very well Sarkozy 2007, and the differences between the two are more and more blurred...
November 13, 2011
Italian people could not restrain from celebrating despite the not-so-rosy prospects. And in the occasion they confirmed some national stereotypes: musical creativity through a performance of Händel's Hallelujah in front of the presidential palace, and not so much sportmanship towards the defeated...
It is worth watching a full Hallelujah performance:
...although it is the last words of a very different Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen's, from a different but not totally off the topic context (sex), that come to my mind:
And even though it all went wrong
I will stand before the Lord of Songs
With nothing on my tongue than Hallelujah
November 12, 2011
I have noticed that Saint-Denis is not even mentioned in the majority of foreign tourist guides of Paris – despite being the nearest of all out-of-town destinations, on the way to the airport, and hosting one of the most important monuments of the whole of the France, the Basilique - and the Stade de France. The Basilique de Saint-Denis, formerly Abbey, now Cathedral, is a gothic masterpiece. Maybe not as monumental as Notre Dame de Paris, not as charming as Chartes Cathedral, not as precious as the Sainte-Chapelle; but a masterpiece nonetheless and built before them, by the visionary Abbé Suger, and therefore, in a way, more important for architectural history; only a couple of decades earlier, the style was Romanesque: see Saint-Germain-des-Prés for contrast. So , unlike in central Paris or Versailles, no tourist crowds, and the visitors are in large majority French – on the 11th of November, bank holiday, mostly families with children needing to revise their history lessons.
And what a place for revising history. Besides architectural history, the Basilica is an open book of sculpture history, and above all of French history. Here are the tombs of all but three French kings, covered by statues that show the evolution of sculpture from the Middle Ages to the neoclassic. The most beautiful are the Gothic ones, surprisingly realistic and human. Then, when French kings took the bad habit of invading Italy, there are the renaissance ones, including classic architectural elements. The Bourbons stopped the habit of monumental tombs, but after the 1815 Restauration Louis XVIII recovered the bodies of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and with ostentatious pump erected a monument to them too – with still their heads on. The cathedral currently hosts also the photographic portraits of the tombs by Antoine Schneck, which highlight the human dimension of the works, and also their human-like sensitivity to time and their perishable elements, starting from the noses.
The reason why Saint-Denis is not popular is outside the Basilique. This is a poor banlieu, strongly working class. The Plaine Saint-Denis was in the 1960s one of the largest industrial areas in the world (here they say the largest, but I don’t believe such hyperbolic statements). In the 1950s it hosted slums of Portuguese and North-African immigrants, of the kind portrayed in the recent, much disputed movie Hors-la-loi. Nowadays a very large part of the population is of African (North or West) descent. Politically, Saint-Denis has been uninterruptedly communist since 1944 – and to give an idea of how hegemonic the Left is, the city council opposition is... socialist. Saint-Denis even hosted the offices of the communist newspaper L’Humanité, an impressive building by Niemeyer, which the newspaper, in dire financial straits, had to sell last year.
Despite its poverty and its bad reputation (highest crime rate in the Paris region, riots in 2005), Sant-Denis is not unpleasant, though, with the largest market in the whole region and, unsurprisingly a wide range of ethnic shops and ethnic food outlets.
Where one the factories were, since the World Cup 1998 there is the Stade de France, now surrounded with office buildings. It hosted a Football World Cup Final as well as a Rugby World Cup Final, but also riots in the occasion of a France- Algeria friendly in 2001. I went to see the friendly match between two mediocre football nations, France – USA, a boring 1-0. The stadium was nearly full. The first two terraces were full of white fans and tricouleur flags, but where I was, up in the third, cheapest (10€) terrace, the large majority were of black and Arab descent. At the minute of silence for WWI Remembrance, only the first two terraces stood up. But also the last one was silent, except very isolated whistles. And during the match all supported the bleus, even the fans carrying out-of-place Algerian flags, although maybe with a preference for the players of foreign descent, who are anyway the majority. An acceptable degree of intégration républicaine, I would say, despite the economic inequality.
November 08, 2011
Sixteen months ago, with the majority of Italians, I celebrated Berlusconi’s loss of control over a parliamentary majority - but with a bitter aftertaste. Since then, he has further weakened by more scandals, more economic difficulties, more international pressure, more electoral defeats and more defections. Yet he managed to scramble through a number of confidence votes and instead of his end we have witnessed a long agony, a revolting process of rotting and regurgitating parliamentary defectors on either side.
Today he has finally announced his intention to resign soon, immediately after the new budget law. It cannot be excluded that, after having survived all possible political near-death one can imagine, he might survive again. Over the next weeks he will certainly not spare efforts or money in order to re-buy some MPs, for a further extension of his rotting process in government, whether still as prime minister personally, or (no substantial difference) through his formal replacement by the loyal Angelino Alfano.
But whether he ends within weeks or a bit later, the bitter aftertaste of last year has become stronger, and nobody really is celebrating in Italy today – despite a multitude having waited for years for this day. The end of Berlusconi is not necessarily a move to something better, even if it is difficult to imagine something worse. It looks more and more, in Italian history’s terms, like a 25th of July rather than a 25th April. The reference is to the 25th of July 1943, when Mussolini was forced to resign by his own party’s Council and was arrested – but while millions of Italians celebrated the apparent end of the war and fascism, there were more almost two years of further, and more horrific, war, fascism and Nazi occupation, and Mussolini, having been liberated by the Germans, only ended on the 25th April 1945 (the Italian national day, which part of the Right wants to cancel).
Just as fascism could go on after the 25th of July, thanks to German troops, it looks like Berlusconi might be replaced not by a democratic turn, but by a technical government supported by large part of his party and of the opposition, under direct control from EU institutions, and possibly led by Mario Monti, former Internal Market Commissioner. I listened to Monti at a Conference in Warsaw three weeks ago, when he said that, ‘in a way’ what is happening to Greece and Italy is actually ‘the biggest success of the Euro’. By this point the Polish audience was checking whether their simultaneous translation headphones were working properly, but Monti went on explaining his original idea of ‘success’: without Euro, it could not be imagined that Greece and Italy would ever undertake the difficult, long-needed reforms they are undertaking now...
After many governments (starting from Bush, and until Slovenian Pahor last September, but still counting) have been taken down by the crisis, Berlusconi’s would be the third taken down specifically by the Euro crisis, in just a month. The Slovak government fell on the Euro-rescue, but as Slovakia is not itself in a debt crisis, Slovak democracy is proceeding on its course and Radičová will be likely replaced by Fico, who with all his limits is probably the best the weak Central Eastern European left has produced in many years. The problem is what is happening to Greece and Italy, and to a lesser extent Spain.
The fact that the ‘markets’ and the EU could not accept the idea of a referendum in Greece and forced, after the approval of new austerity measures, a new coalition government to be led by, surprise, the former deputy president of the European Central Bank says it all about the degree of democratic governance. Sure, a referendum on fiscal issues is inherently absurd (because taxes are not a binary matter of YES-NO) and it is even unconstitutional in Greece (and in Italy), but a general address referendum on the Euro is useful if reforms are to be carried out with the people and not against them. As Chatzistefanou and Kitidi have put it, the birth country of democracy has now shifted to debtocracy. Politically, Italy is following exactly the same path, even if economically it is still not in the same mess.
Over the Summer, the European Central Bank sent two confidential letters to the Spanish and Italian governments, stating the conditions for its intervention in defence of their sovereign bonds. Now, creditors do have the right to set conditions, but those letters went much further than anything creditors can ask. They even included the requirement of constitutional reforms, violating this core of democratic sovereignty. And they included labour market liberalisation measures with no link to public debt and with no evidence of economic benefits – in fact, if Italy liberalises dismissals, Fiat will save a lot of money when shutting its factories down, but unemployment and public expenditure will go up. In Bruno Amable’s words in today’s Libération, this is new European absolutism: replacing elected democracy with neoliberal bureaucracy.
Last Friday, it was the round of the European Commission to send a letter to the Italian government, setting up, with an insultingly arrogant tone that I would never be allowed in my feedback to even the worst students, 39 corrections or additions to the plan Berlusconi presented in Brussels last week. I am not defending Berlusconi: he really made a fool of himself denying that Italy is in any crisis (given that ‘restaurants are full’) and even recycling measures already passed or promised in the past. I am not defending any national honour – that has been destroyed by Berlusconi before the EU. But the tone of the letter, asking for full responses within a week (!) and thereby factually keeping him in power for longer shows who has the power now. It is not Berlusconi, in advanced state of decomposition. The Italian centre-left, which is pleased by the EU’s and the markets’ treatment of Berlusconi, has nothing to be pleased about. It may have to deal, soon, with a much more difficult opponent than Silvio – maybe, we will miss the times when we had such an easy opponent as him.
Not all is lost. As Philippe Schmitter said at last week’s conference on the public realm in honour of Colin Crouch, there are still elections, and governments still lose them. Italy and Greece (and Slovakia) will have elections soon. But unless we rebalance, globally, the powers between creditors and debtors (in the old language, between rich and poor), and European institutions remain unelected, those elections will not matter much.
November 01, 2011
Javier Cercas, Anatomía de un instante (Random House Mondadori 2009)
El 23-F, film directed by Chema de la Peña (2011)
World’s literature is full of historical novels as well as of literary historical accounts – Herodotus, Caesar, Dumas, Tolstoy, Orwell, Lussu, etc etc. Yet Anatomía de un instante (English translation The Anatomy of a Moment, Blumsbury 2011), rewarded with the premio Nacional de Narrativa of 2010 is unique. It represents a genre of its own, a novel/essay/reportage hybrid that seems to have been invented to match my taste with perfection: literary skill, historical rigour, journalist inquisitiveness, political sensitivity and human depth. All in 450 pages which were a fantastic companion during my summer holiday, and to which I get back now having watched its cinema counterpart, El 23-F (17 Hours).
Anatomia de un instante is about the failed golpe of the 23rd February 1981. It is a very detailed historical account, but instead of starting from a historical problem (such as the origins of the golpe, the emergence of Spanish democracy...), it starts from a literary question on a specific instant, known to all Spanish people from the TV footage of the military storming of the Parliament: why did prime minister Adolfo Suárez stay seated at his place, while the soldiers shouted ‘to the floor’ and their bullets whistled around him? Was it a heroic act, mere political posturing, a form of atonement? Historians may be good at answering the big questions, but only an accomplished novelist can answer such intimate ones.
The book is built around six characters. The event of the golpe is described each time again, from the eyes, and the mind, of a different protagonist. The six characters are on one side the three members of parliament who did not obey the golpist orders: Suárez, the deputy Prime Minister General Gutiérrez Mellado, who had himself taken part in Franco’s golpe forty-five years earlier, and communist leader Santiago Carrillo. And on the other side the three protagonists on the golpe: the lieutenant colonel Tejero, whom Cercas, importantly, refuses to treat as an isolated nutter as popular accounts do, and the generals Milans del Bosch and Armada. Of the six characters, though, the one Cercas is most interested in is Suárez, and with good reason: it is an ideal type of the ‘pure politician’ and therefore a universal character for a novelist, but also the core protagonist of Spanish democratisation, and therefore a prime object for historical inquiry. And if you read the book until the end, you will discover a much more personal, intimate reason why Cercas, who in his youth politically despised Suárez, came to be so fascinated by his figure... and why understanding Suárez is so important in order to understand today’s Spain.
The attention to characters comes at the cost of neglect for the context: both the international one (the roles of the USA and the Vatican, for instance) and the social ones (we are repeatedly told of social unrest, but what was it about?). This would be a problem academically, but it isn’t literarily. The description is in incredible detail and with such skill, that even if you obviously know the end, you get stuck in the suspense of the events, six times over (in fact, some recent research shows that books are more gripping when you know the ending: spoilers do not exist). Moreover, the style is beautiful, in particular through the multi-level discussion, in single long sentences, of multiple counterfactuals when investigating different possible interpretations of the event. It makes you love the most difficult bit of Spanish grammar, the intensive use of the subjunctive, much more precise than in Italian and especially French, and more faithful to Latin. I wonder how the English translator could cope with such multiple 'if', 'if only', ‘as if’, 'even if’ with different subjective degrees of probability...
The movie El 23-F tells the same story, but rather than in 450 pages of novel/essay, in 90 minutes of political thriller. The context which is just in the background in Cercas’ novel, here totally disappears, except short opening sequences of historical footage on the Spanish transition. The set is great: real tanks on the streets, and action in the real building of the Congreso de los Diputados (where the bullets holes are still visible). The movie is just on the 17 hours of the golpe, from Tejero’s storming in the Congress at 6pm to his surrender at 1pm the day after. And the focus is just on three characters: Tejero, Armada, and the king. The first two are fantastic Shakesperean characters, combinations of Richard III and Macbeth, evil conspirators but also tragically tormented by internal conflicts and occasionally ridiculous. By contrast, the king is here presented in a hagiographic way: he just does the right thing defending democracy, and he appears at the same time a hero and as a nice bloke. Shame that, as Cercas convincingly shows in his book, the behaviour of the king was actually unsteady, with major faults and if eventually crucially redeeming, only because of his secretary Fernandéz Campo’s interposition. At the Warsaw Film Festival, director de la Peña said that he showed the events ‘simply as they happened in reality’. I could not resist asking him why then we can’t see General Cortina (the head of the intelligence, whose ambiguous role is discussed from all angles by Cercas, and is still disputed in Spain). He answered ‘buena pregunta’, before making the point that the role of Cortina, if there was any, was before the golpe, and therefore outside the time frame of the movie. A good answer cinematographically, but a bad one historically. I don't trust who pretends to tell history ‘just as it happened in reality’.
The thirtieth anniversary of Tejero’s exploit has shown how literarily and cinematographically inspiring the drama of a failed coup can be. 2011 is also the thirtieth anniversary of the ‘self-golpe’ by Jaruzelski in Poland and the twentieth anniversary of the failed coup in the Soviet Union, while next year will be the tenth anniversary of the failed golpe against Chavez in Venezuela. I am looking forward to Polish, Russian and Venezuelan writers and directors taking up this tremendous genre.