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July 22, 2012

Vive le Tour (even a dull one)

It was one of the dullest Tours I can remember: with an indistinct, unspectuacular route, hardly anything happened in the mountains, and one team was too strong, killing off competition. It was also one of the least deserving winner: 45 competitors removed by falls, and indeed Froome deserved more, but it was hampered by bad luck and iron hierarchy. It was a bit like track cycling invading the roads (100km of time stages is too much), and erasing poetry, scenery and tradition. This year, the Giro d'Italia was much more fun.

Still, well done Wiggins. First of all he looks like a clean win, and if dull means no drug scandals, long live a dull Tour. And the good luck this year balances the bad one last year. But mostly, thanks to him, there is some reporting and attention in the UK, although still nothing in comparison to Italy and France where cycling is the most watched sport. When I arrived to the UK twelve years ago, one of the cultural shocks was that there was no Tour de France on TV. But since the triumphs in the 2004 Olympics and 2007 Track Cycling Championship, the sport is more and more popular. This comes with some disadvantage (some silly consumerism), but (together with the crisis and oil prices) it increases the numbers of bikes on the road. Contrary to the number of cars, the more bikes on the road, the better: it gets safer if everybody gets used to bikes, and the political pressure for more cycling paths increases. The sporty nature of the new rediscovery of cycling in the UK, however, also limits its potential expansion: it is so sporty-looking, that everyday, casual city cycling, without helmet and lycra outfits, like on continental Europe, looks actually rarer. As if cycling were only for athletes: my grandaunt in the Po valley cycled until into her 80s.

In fact, cycling is become a flagship for environmental policies all around Europe, and interestingly, especially on the Right side: it is rightwing mayors like Boris Johnson and Letizia Moratti who have introduced cycleshare schemes in London and Milan. You can easily tell why: more space for bikes is a relatively cheap policy, as far as environmental measures go (especially if like in London they come with sponsorships from morally disputable institutions...), and who benefits most, is the middle classes, in an interesting social reverse from 50 years ago.

I have enjoying cycling a bit everywhere, from Peru to Canada and China. This year around Europe, unfortunately, I did not always have a bike at my disposal, but everywhere I could, I tried out the public cycle schemes and gathered information from local cyclists. And here are my notes.

The worst city for cycling is Madrid - strangely enough, the capital of a proper cycling nation. Only some 1% of the inhabitants cycles to work, and basically the only bikes you see are mountain bikes in the Casa del campo park. The reasons are largely understandable (climate, hills, excellent affordable public transport), but really the Spanish Right is well behind the other European ones and is not doing anything for cyclists.

From TibidaboThe best improvement is in Paris. When I was a student there in the mid-1990s, cycling was even worse than in my native town Milan: I remember the unique madness of placing some cycling lanes in the middle of the roads (the reason was to avoid the most frequent of city cycling accidents, i.e. crashes into opening doors of parked cars - but surely the solution is to remove the cars, not to place the bikes in the middle of fast traffic). Now, the vélib scheme is by far the best I have experienced, for number of bikes, ease of use, cost, and coverage of the whole city. It maybe an expensive scheme (a lot of bikes are lost to vandalism) but it is very well spent money: the whole city is much more livable and many more people take up cycling. But vélib is not the only reason for the cyling surge in Paris. The December 1995 month-long strike of public transport forced so many onto the two wheels, that a good share of them were hooked - and strikes in the Parisian public transports are everyday a possibility. Also, Paris has one of the best attended 'critical mass' traditions, anarchist group cycling and roller-skating to reclaim the streets from car traffic (popular also elsewhere, from Milan to Warsaw).

Clear improvements in comparison to the 1990s can be noticed also in London and in Warsaw, once very cyclist-hostile cities. But the best place among those I have been in the last two years (Copenhagen and Amsterdam did not enter the competition) is still, by far, Berlin - even though I am not a fan of cycling paths on pavements.


May 07, 2012

Thoughts on a normal president in not–so normal times

Musée Rodin

If François Hollande wanted to remind of the François Mitterrand moment of 31 years ago, despite his best efforts and nearly exactly the same score of 51.7%, the common background only underline the striking differences. The square itself has changed, after Mitterrand himself built the immense Opéra, in my view a symbol of his ambitious, often spectacular but ultimately failed attempt to democratise French culture. The quartier Bastille has changed too, largely sanitised and gentrified. But zoom into the crowds. As huge and as conscious of the grandeur of its revolutionary tradition as in 1981, the 2012 one is different. While in 1981 it sung L‘internationale, this time a very timid attempt at it in a corner of the square was bottled by La marseillaise and the stage sound system. But while in 1981 the flags were red and tricouleurs, in 2012 a number of disaparate ones have appeared, with the Algerian ones in particular (like in the Stade de France when France plays). Whether they like it or not, the République may have become less internationalist, but it has also become quite multicultural.

The 1981 victory was a real climax, as the opinion polls were too close to call. This time, the defeat of Sarkozy has been expected for so long, that the only surprising thing was the narrowness of the gap. And Mitterrand’s charisma was so strong that he actually did not need to go to Bastille. Hollande’s best asset, instead, has been to look and act normal. In other words, Mitterrand was bigger than the stage – but yesterday the disproportion was between the grandeur of the setting, and the normalcy of the performer.normal

Indeed, his opponent was not normal. I started disliking him already in 1995, when I was in Paris during that presidential campaign, the one Jospin lost with honour (unlike 7 years later). In 1995, the young Nicolas stabbed his mentor Chirac in the back to support the other righting candidate Balladur, who was ahead in the polls – the only good thing of Chirac then winning was the subsequent punishment of Sarkozy. Who was once more opportunistic in 2005, exploiting the No referendum to the European Constitution against Balladur and, again, Chirac. And as a president he has been neurotic in acting and inconclusive in ruling: he will be probably the only V Republic president not to leave a mark. Despite this, I must say that in the last televised debate Sarkozy was more impressive than Hollande: he even managed to look convincing when saying that German success is a success of his ideas (shame that the Germans actually respect trade unions and collective bargaining).

The results of the first round add to the feeling of anticlimax. The high score of Le Pen, and the good but not as high as hoped score of leftist Mélenchon may have strong consequences for French politics. If results are similar in the parliamentary elections of June (which is far from unavoidable), the Left Party will have a very small representation and the Socialist Party may have a comfortable majority alone. This may open the doors to a very moderate government. I keep hoping in two women, Martine Aubry as prime minister and Marisol Touraine as social affairs minister, but there is the risk that, to appease the markets, more moderate socialists will get the posts. And the consequences may be deep for the Right too: for the first time, a large number of Front National candidates might reach 12.5% and qualify for the second round. This will be a disaster for Sarkozy’s party UMP, which would face a disaster in the second round... unless it comes to an agreement with the FN. It sounds absurd, and both Fillon and Raffarin seem opposed to it, but other rightwingers have started saying that Marin Le Pen is not her father, and 70% of UMP and FN voters are in favour of an alliance (Ipsos opinio poll, yesterday)... In any case, this is the historic opportunity for the French extreme right to be ‘legitimised’ – what the Italian one achieved in 1993, with Berlusconi’s compliments.

Talking of extreme Right, one mention of the worst of all, the Greek neonazi Golden Dawn, who entered parliament with 7%. Xenophobia in Greece had up top now more a funnythan scary aspect, but it is turning really nasty. The Greek election night was much more thrilling than the French one. Early results indicated a narrow seat majority for the ‘pro-bailout’ parties (PASOK and ND), but a closer look at the Ministry of Interior website’s data (every now and then, having studied ancient Greek turns useful) revealed that cities were well behind in vote counting. And in cities these two parties scored particularly badly – eventually, ND and PASOK only reached 149 seats out of 300. I expect that external pressure will force at least some MPs of the ND break-away Independent Greeks to join the government, but in any case it will not be an easy time for Greece, and for Europe, if the bailout agreement is not renegotiated soon. So-called anti-politics is ripe, as seen in Germany and Italy in this same intensive electoral week-end. The Piratenpartei has entered the Parliament of Schleswig-Holstein, and the comedian “5 Star Movement” has overtaken Berlusconi’s party (itself a comedian party, if you think about it) in many Italian large cities, while, once again, leftist candidates overtake the mainstream Democratic Party. I don’t fancy either the Piratenpartei or Beppe Grillo, but maybe these kinds of populism are a better temporary safety valve than the extreme Right. It is up to people like Hollande, now, not to waste time.


April 04, 2012

On "our" terrorists

Two weeks ago, I was in the centre of Oslo, very close to the government district where last July Breivik’s bomb killed 8 people and injured 92, following the news of another terrorist killing children in a different corner of Europe – Mohamed Merah in Toulouse – and reflecting about our perception of terrorism. Last summer, a barbarian act was originally blamed on Al Qaida, and the perception changed when it occurred it was a white supremacist. In France, the opposite happened.

I grew up in Milan in the 1970s and 1980s, infested by the terrorism from extreme Left and extreme Right. Some of the worst terrorist killings happened in my central neighbourhood , and I sometimes heard the shots and the ambulances and the screams. A lesson I learned very early when starting political activism in the 1980s was that there is a sentence you cannot say: “I disagree with the methods of the terrorists, but...”. By saying that, you give them the oxygen they need to grow. Terrorists NEVER have a political point, you cannot extrapolate any of their sentences to say that they make sense. Saying that they have a point when they write, say, that “workers are exploited” is as unacceptable as saying that Hitler had a point when he wrote that World War I was atrocious. Because in terrorism (like in genocide) you cannot split the meaning from the means, the words from the context: the means are the total denial of the democratic process and of humanity, and therefore the words have to stay outside.

Oslo newcomersThe way Breivik was treated highlighted initially a strident difference in the way terrorists are perceived. When the nature and motive of the crime emerged, some populist politicians (e.g. from the Northern League in Italy) said exactly the unspeakable: that they disagreed with the means, but “he had a point”. Imagine saying that of 9/11 or of the Red Brigades. But OPK, these may be just people outside democratic civilisation. More striking was the immediate humanisation of the terrorist: we learned that he had a difficult relationship with his father and various other problems, and soon he was diagnosed with psychosis, which might avoid him a sentence. When young men set bombs or blow themselves up in Israel, Iraq, Madrid, London, we never hear that they had difficult relations with their fathers or that they suffer from psychosis: they are just “the evil”, “the enemy”, completely dehumanised. When however the terrorist comes from among ourselves, we immediately feel the need to medicalise him, to treat him, not to take him seriously. Soon rightwingers from all countries started explaining that Breivik had nothing to do with the Right, with anti-immigrant discourse, with Christian integralism, that he was just a nutter, that it would be instrumental to qualify him politically. Strangely enough, Islamic terrorists keep being called Islamic terrorists. The whole of Islam, the whole of Palestine may be associated to the crimes of a handful terrorists – but western civilisation cannot. Oklahoma and Utøya are just criminal events, but 9/11 and 7/7 are the product of certain cultures. Double standards of the worst kind.

Now, with Merah, a symmetric thing happened. As soon as the identity of the killer emerged, the humanisation happened from the Left, although I have not heard anybody saying that “he had a point”. We learnt that he grew up in demonised communities and reacted to exclusion from French society...

This attitude, rightly, upset many, and a good example is writer Olivier Rolin in Le Monde des livres of the 31st March, expressing his outrage at the “banaliser derrière des prêts-à-porter sociologiques”: yes, Merah was a young misfit – but then so were many of the Einsatzgruppen massacring Jews during the war: would we extend this kind of humanisation to them?

Quite strikingly, le monde published Rolin’s angry piece to the side of one by writer Salim Bachi titled ““Moi, Mophamed Merah”: a literary attempt to enter the mind of Merah (Bachi had written a book titled “Moi, Khaled Kelkal”, on the terrorist whose bombs terrorised Paris in September 1995, and “Tuez-les tous!” on 9/11). What a mess.

Is it too much to ask for a bit of clarity, for the sake of human coexistence? There are three very distinguished levels of judgement here. One is at the level of psychology and criminology: in that context, “humanisation” is the obvious thing. At the other opposite, there is the study of the context, and again there is nothing inherently wrong with historical and political studies of factors that tend to promote terrorism (just like, to use again the extreme comparator, one can study the context of Nazi rise and of the Shoah). Yet the specific remits of these levels of analysis should be always made clear. Because the third and most important level is the political and moral judgment of terrorism: and at that level, if we are to be human, there can be no “I am against terrorism, but...


December 13, 2011

4 countries, 4 views of the Eurocrisis

The taz title on Saturday was brilliant, as usual: Merkel rettet Euro-krize taz_2011_12_10s1.pdf(Merkel saves Eurocrisis). Like a soap opera, it never ends, and it should not. To be precise, what started in 2008 does not deserve the definition of “crisis” in the κρίσις sense of moment of decision, because so far there has been so far little choice and little rupture: we actually have more of the same (more power for financial institutions, more inequality, more neglect of democracy, in short more privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses). It would be better defined as ‘shock’ perpetuation in Naomi Klein of Shock therapy, whereby every month or two we are faced to a new disaster, delivered with good timing by rating agencies, wits a There Is No Alternative message – the opposite of a crisis.

Yet at the EU-level we have now reached a sort of crisis, not so much on socio-economic issues (the agreement solves nothing and more austerity will only dig us into a deeper hole), but on UK-Europe relations. I had the luck to observe the last three weeks, building up to the agreement of last Friday, from the four largest EU countries, while travelling between Paris, Coventry, Milan and Hamburg. Despite information being increasingly transnational, reports are quite different country by country. In the UK (except for FT and Guardian) the summit was a British victory (!!!), in France and Italy, a German victory, and in Germany, a German half-defeat, because already in January Italians and Spaniards will come asking for more cash and Germany has gained no new excuses to say no. These differences of perception make a Euro-polity still difficult to imagine, but at least shows that national political spheres still matter, and at least at that level some debate could take place.

In European politics it happens what I always tell my English students when I try to raise in them at least some interest in international issues and foreign languages: Europeans know much more about Britain than Britain about Europe, which is a competitive disadvantage for the Brits, for instance in the hierarchy of multinational companies. This fact has perhaps a more flattering side for the British: Europe is fascinated by the extravagant British, while Britain's interest in Europe is limited to sunshine and little else. In any case, reports of British politics in European newspapers are much deeper and better-informed than British newspapers’ reports of European affairs, except perhaps for The Economist and FT, which are more global than British. Le monde, die Welt, die FAZ have published detailed analyses of Cameron’s stance, although opinions differ: for Le monde and die Welt Cameron is authentically anti-European and will eventually bring the UK out of the EU (you can see the happy smile of the journalist through the lines at this point), for der Spiegel he is just an opportunistic tactician, who embraced anti-Europeanism only to get elected as Tory leader in 2005 and now simply avoids at any cost any treaty renegotiation, which would break up his government and his own party. By contrast, British medias’ analyses don’t go beyond stereotypical portraits of Merkel and Sarkozy, failing to spot that within a year or two both Germany and France will be much less Anglophile than today. At the SPD congress last week-end many spoke up to wish a British exit, to finish off with free riders and with obstruction. Le monde has regularly wished the same for very long (I suspect, since 1973). Italians have to keep a low, penitent profile nowadays, but Repubblica still hopes that Clegg will one day grow up, leave the coalition and send Cameron, rather than the whole country, out of the UK. By the way, even in the new member states, its natural allies, Cameron finds few sympathetic voices except in Hungary and the Czech Republic, due to his decision to combine with nutty populist righting parties from Central eastern Europe in the European Parliament.

The funniest reports are certainly the British rightwing press triumphal reports of a ‘victory’ and a ‘veto’: according to them, 26 countries have remained isolated. Indeed the agreement of last Friday does not change much. Read for instance the interesting interview with Sarkozy in Le monde, where a new 85%-majority voting system on the European Solidarity Mechanism is mentioned, which would give the UK, France, Italy (and if they were there, the UK!) a veto power. In the short term, the new EU-26 financial regulations cannot go against the single market and punish the UK for its non co-operation, especially on a possible Tobin Tax. But over-time, excluding the UK from all new ‘enabling’ financial regulations may isolate and damage the City of London, that 28th, non democratic EU country (see the analysis by George Monbiot in the Guardian). Maybe the next UK elections would be a moment of crisis for British voters: the time to choose between staying with the EU-26 or with that 28th country (by then 29th: welcome Croatia).


December 04, 2011

A bientôt Paris

I owe to say something about Paris – not easy, given the tons of ink that the city attracts, and the fact that Paris, unlike Berlin and Warsaw, does not change too quickly. The time of the grands projets is gone, due to shorter presidential terms (from seven to five years: not enough to leave an inprint on time to be re-elected) and to budget restrictions. De Gaulle, Pompidou, Mitterrand left important marks; Chirac less, but still he managed to leave the Musée du Quai Branly (the ‘arts primitives’ rebaptised ‘arts primaires’) and the quite unique Citée de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Sarkozy – luckily – has left near-nothing besides anger in the banlieues.

To add to the feeling of immobility, these weeks, Paris was uncharacteristically mild, climatically and politically: paradoxically for the city of revolutions, it was just about the only capital where nobody was occupying anything (a timid attempt at La Défence failed, demonstrators were so few that they got lost in the huge Esplanade). Maybe because the French would never imitate what Americans do. Or more because after the traumatic experience of 1968-69, the French have chosen to always keep quiet before the elections (the next are in April-May 2012), to explode thereafter in what they call troisième tour social.

Quartier LatinEspecially little changes in the area I was staying, the Quartier Latin. Adieu imagination au pouvoir. Of course, it has changed socio-demographically since the times of Sartre or even Foucault, but much less so since the times of Meardi (the influential social theorist of mid-1990s Paris). The Quartier Latin, especially on the 6th arrondissement side towards Saint-Germain, is extremely gentrified now. It is according to the thought-and-foot provoking Paris: Quinze promenades sociologiques by Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, the area with the highest number of professionals, and the lowest number of manual workers. High-fashion shops have long replaced bars and artisans. Fortunately, bookshops resist, but there have been some painful disappearances since the times I was studying here in 1994-95.

This is arguably the place in the world with the highest concentration of books, great food, and art. In comparison to my student years I can afford, at least for three weeks, the extortionate prices of local shops. This is now the most expensive area in Paris except a few streets near the Champs-Elisées, at over 12,000€/m2 to buy and over €25/m2 to rent. Shops cater for people who can afford living here and for tourists. But at least the quality is exceptional. Round the corner, I had one of the best bakeries in the world, Gérard Mulot (Rue de Seines Quatres Vents), and a few steps further, the best in the world, Kayser (rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, or rue Monge) and of course Poilâne (rue de Cherche-Midi). Some produce is extremely expensive, but remember that the price of baguettes is politically regulated in France (like espresso's in Italy), so do buy them in the very best places, and you'll get much more for the same money. Also very close, the covered market of Saint-Germain with fantastic fish, meat and cheese, and just a bit further, even better produce at the little market and shops of Maubert-Mutualité. And on Sunday morning, the mother of all posh organic markets, on Bd Raspail. In the middle, my favourite chocolatier, the leftist-for-millionaires (a bit like the trotckist patissier of Moretti’s movies) Christian Constant (rue Assas): he spends half of the year exploring Latin America in search of the best beans, but if he is in the shop, he will be happy to engage in conversations about all aspects of cocoa, including the socio-economic ones.

With such fantastic food on sale, you can eat well at home even if you can't cook (c'est pas mon cas, bien entendu). But if you want to eat out? I was staying in front of the Palais du Luxembourg, hosting the Senate (which just swung to the Left, for the first time ever). Given that law makers, unluckily for the tax-payers, like to eat well, this has the effect of providing some very good and reliable places, not necessarily at extreme high prices. Actually, two years ago, when the government had reduced the VAT on restaurants, on condition that the owners would reduce prices, this was about the only place where they complied, advertising the lower prices clearly: the effect of being watched closely. In particular, I love the bistrot La Ferrandaise (rue de Vaugirard), according to many the best in the city, appreciate the traditional and quiet Au Bon Saint-Pourçain (rue Servandoni), and when missing the Med on a grey day, of course, there’s nothing better than La Méditerranée (place de l’Odéon), a bit old-fashion but with excellent seafood in a historical setting.

Walking a bit further, this is an area with an extreme concentration of Michelin stars, and with inflated prices. But there are a handful of honest places (L'Epigramme, rue de l'Eperon, or Le lutin dans le jardin, rue Gît-le-Coeur), and it is possible to try famous chefs’ dishes at much lower prices, especially at lunch time, by going to their second restaurants or brasseries, such as La rotisserie d’en face (rue Christine) of Jacques Cagna (his main restaurant has actually just closed) or Les bouquinistes (Quai des Grands Augustins) of Guy Savoy. And if you like them and want more, only a bit further, already in the 7th arrondissement, there is L’atelier de Joël Robuchon, where you wait and pay not so much for the food eaten at the counter, but for the privilege of having a view of the kitchen and of a new generation of chefs learning from the most precise master in the world (for instance, the Roca brothers went through here).

Plenty of places where to drink a glass too, of course, like the alternative-looking Bar Dix on Rue de l’Odeon, or the intimate La crémerie (Rue Quatre Vents), with its very idiosyncratic, but interesting, owner.

And the famous cafés? I do not like Parisian cafés particularly, unless they come with intellectually stimulating encounters. Bad coffee, limited food choice, appaling service, exaggerated prices, cramped tables - and you meet more Italian tourists than philosophers. Also, since the crisis and quality collapse of Libération, there is hardly any newspaper worth reading in the morning in Paris and therefore little reason to stop in a café (Le monde, also in crisis but still oustanding, comes out in the afternoon: better read in a brasserie). For cafés, not only central Europe, but even Madrid and Lisbon are better than Paris. Although nowhere matches Italy on this front. Time to go to Milan!


December 02, 2011

Mont Blanc, by Fabio Viscogliosi

Follow-up to Geneva, Mt Blanc and European borders from Around Europe 2010-12

Mont Blanc

Review of: Fabio Viscogliosi, Mont Blanc, Paris: Stock, 2011

Last September, coming back from the Mont Blanc, I commented on the tunnel tragedy of 1999. In the same month Fabio Viscogliosi, French artist, musician and writer son of Italian immigrants, published a book on exactly that: it was the first book I bought once I arrived to Paris and I read it within a few days.

It is not an informative book, but a very personal one. Viscogliosi’s parents were driving to Italy on that 24th March 1999, and they died with other 37 people (or more? as with 9/11, the number does not include possible unclaimed dead, such as undocumented migrants, and the bodies disintegrated) in the middle of the tunnel, under 3,000 meters of rock, exactly at the border between their country of origin and their country of adoption. As the fire started, they managed to leave their car and walk some 500 meters towards the exit - but the smoke prevailed when they had another 8km to go.

The book is in the form of sparse intimate notes, like a diary. Only the first twenty pages describe the fire, with very human details on the victims. The book is more about a personal itinerary to come to terms with the unbelievable news of his parents burnt in the Mont Blanc, which he got that night from an estranged aunt, and to grieve the unexpected and strange loss. It also reports the trial (which ended with condemns for manslaughter), but with little detail, because the author could not concentrate during it, as well as the erratic reporting by the media (at that time, more interested in the NATO bombing of Serbia). Most entries are about the connections he keeps making whenever he hears about tunnels or about the Mont Blanc. It is a very different contribution to the literature on the Mont Blanc. And a touching reminder than when crossing the Alps, we should take our time.


November 30, 2011

A movie on trade union emotions (on a strike day)

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

Westwind: on two Germanies, twentytwo years later

Movie image
Title:
Westwind
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

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

PSG & the rise of the French far right

Follow-up to Polish fans' political own goal from Around Europe 2010-12

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.

Fiers de nos couleurs... oui, mais quels couleurs?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 12, 2011

Saint–Denis, between kings and stade de France

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.Cathedrale

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.

Stade de France: France-USADespite 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.


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