Friday, 25 May 2012

Dieudonné, France's wannabe Antisemite hero

Dieudonné, showing off his well-aligned bottom teeth
Notorious French antisemite, 'comedian' and activist Dieudonné is not well known outside of France, but he is quite the star in countries such as Iran, which share his view that Israel should be destroyed. His latest attention-grabbing stunt was intended to get an antisemitic film to which he had contributed shown at the ongoing Cannes Film Festival, but the screening has been refused by the festival's organising bodies.

The film, Yahod Setiz, or 'Antisemite', as Shafi Agha Mohammadian, President of the Iranian production company DEFC (Documentary and Experimental Film Centre) put it, features a central character who plays a violent alcoholic who wears a Nazi uniform and hates every Jew alive. Shot in Iran, 'Antisemite' begins with a sequence which attempts to ridiculise the events which took place at Auschwitz.

All this explains why Dieudonné was so keen to offer production and marketing help to the DEFC. The decision to select him to help with the film's promotion was surely facilitated by an old French friend of his, the conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan, who has already co-produced two films for the DEFC and who runs the viciously antisemitic clearing house Réseau Voltaire.

And, of course, the film's content also explains why it was refused at Cannes, with a spokesman declaring that "Our general conditions forbid the presence of any film which may constitute a risk to public order or offend the public or those with religious convictions, as well as any film containing pornography or which is an incitation to violence." 'Antisemite' has also been banned from French cinemas.

Dieudonné (real name Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala) used to work in a a stage duo with the Jewish comedian Elie Semoun, but they separated in 1997 because of their increasingly divergent views. After this split Dieudonné began a prolific career as an antisemitic satirist which has continued to this day, and his latest stage production, Mahmoud (for Ahmadinejad), is a revisionist and antisemitic requisitory aimed at Jews, slavery, and the 'official' version of historical events. Violence is common both inside and outside those few venues which continue to accept him, and his theatre dates are often cancelled by local authorities due to the risk of violence, antisemitic content, or both. Many venues and towns refuse to accept his presence on stage.

Originally a left-wing antiracist, Dieudonné's political stance has radically changed over the years and he is now an avid supporter of the far-right National Front party, whose president in 2008, Jean-Marie le Pen, accepted to be named as the godfather of Dieudonné's third child in 2008.

His activities have not gone unnoticed however, and he has been physically attacked in public on several occasions. Also, he has been condemned in French courts on numerous occasions for defamation, the public insult of people of Jewish faith or origin, revisionism, and accusations that the Jews are slave traders.

But, in the name of free speech, should his film have been banned and, more widely, should he be banned from expressing his antisemitic views in French theatres and elsewhere? The answer is yes. France has laws which proscribe cultural events which may lead to public disorder, and it also has laws which condemn holocaust denial and racial insult. In other words, Dieudonné has given the authorities no choice.

So why does he continue to plan tours and public appearances which fall foul of the law and complain bitterly afterwards about 'censorship' after every banning? Is he really as indignant as that or is this the only way that he can continue to get funding for his propaganda efforts and productions in order to subsidise his rather privileged lifestyle, even though they are refused a wide audience?

I suspect the latter. After all, he may hog the limelight every now and again with his sad antics, but the fact is that he has an extremely limited following, even amongst France's Muslim population.

Dieudonné will go down in the infamous history book of destructive antisemitic thought as a two-bit rabble-rouser who made a lot of noise but achieved nothing, and that is exactly how it should be.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

France's shameful treatment of its First Ladies

Screengrab from the Dail Mail (where else?)
Whatever else can be said about the petty and spiteful campaign which is grinding into gear against Valérie Trierweiler, François Hollande's girlfriend, it is surely safe to assume that she must have been expecting it. After all, the whole world and its dog knows that being a first lady in France these days automatically means having to put up with a permanent onslaught of snickering remarks, juvenile jibes and gratuitous slurs, and this first lady, like all of her recent predecessors, shall not be spared from them either.

You'd have to go back to the early Nineties and Danielle Mitterand to find a first lady who was not subjected to ridicule and insult, and this was partially due to the fact that her husband had an illegitimate child with another woman, so when the story came out one would have had to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with her. She was also the first president's wife under the Fifth Republic to refuse to remain anonymously in the shadow of her husband and her hard work for those in need won the admiration of many.

But although France's love affair with her was the first of its kind, it would also prove to be the last, as Jacques Chirac's wife found out to her cost.

Q. What does Bernadette Chirac do with her old dresses?
A. She wears them.

That well worn French bar joke may not have been excessively insulting compared to what happens today, but it does demonstrate that France had decided not to give her an easy ride. Why this was so is difficult to understand, and despite her rather traditional manner of dressing, she, like Mitterand, worked hard to make herself useful to her country instead of swanning around the Elysée like a wannabe queen.

She was elected as a public official for the first time in 1971, and has been an elected representative of the Corrèze region ever since. An active member of several associations formed to help young people even before her husband was elected president, she was also a founder member of the 'Pièces Jaunes' charity, which collected small change and used it to provide children in hospitals with better facilities. The charity is still active today.

So what went wrong? Theories abound of course, but the fact is that she quickly became the butt of many harsh remarks which were for the most part centered upon what was perceived as her old-fashioned style. The TV satire show 'Les Guignols' gave her a merciless drubbing, depicting her as a nagging old bore who spent all day sat in an armchair clutching her handbag, and her small change charity was ridiculed. Although none of this was truly nasty, it certainly installed a climate in which first ladies were accepted as being fair game for undeserved criticism, and the trend took a vicious turn for the worse in 2007.

Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz bacame Nicolas Sarkozy's second wife in 1996, and she was heavily involved in the successful campaign which ensured that he became president in 2007. This seemingly-idyllic situation didn't last long however and she was crucified by France's highly macho press and society when it was revealed that she had had an affair in 2005, although, and by way of contrast, having an affair - and an illegitimate child - did nothing to harm François Mitterand's reputation, on the contrary. 'Whore', 'slut', 'bitch', nothing was too unkind, and she was constantly pilloried from then on.

She tried to battle on however, and must have thought she would be at least partially exonerated for her past 'crime' when, in July 2007, she almost single-handedly secured the release of 5 Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been sentenced to death in Libya for allegedly infecting babies with HIV deliberately. But she had not counted upon the cowardly willingness of the Socialists, who, uniquely to get at Sarkozy, demanded a parliamentary inquiry into what she had done, accusing her of not respecting 'protocols.' The press and public followed suit, and she was roundly condemned for her 'arrogance' and 'wanting to hog the limelight.' To France's eternal shame, almost nobody tried to defend her by pointing out that she had, after all, most probably saved these people's lives and that her doing so depended precisely upon her having the courage to step outside of dusty diplomatic protocol, roll her sleeves up, and get the job done. But all that was to no avail, it was time for her to go, and go she did when she and Sarkozy divorced later that year.

Next up to the plate, of course, was Carla Bruni, who was doomed from the start thanks to a combination of her intelligence, good looks, and Sarkozy's massive unpopularity. Many males in this male-dominated country were soon showing their schizophrenic approach to women by secretly wishing they could sleep with her on one hand, and calling her a 'pop star's hooker' and a 'nymphomaniac' on the other. Women joined in the chorus of course, doubtless seething at the fact that a woman could do what they never managed to do, which was to be an independent person.

I remember watching one of the many anti-Sarkozy demonstrations by schoolchildren and students which occured here in Lyon during Sarkozy's presidency, and hearing them chant "Carla Carla, we're just like you, we too get fucked by the president." A new low. Her impeccable performance at a state ceremony in the presence of the Queen of England, which was largely praised by the British press, resulted in a chorus of "well if the British love her so much they can have her." Like her predecessors, Bruni too was (still is) highly committed to causes such as children in need, HIV research and others, and she was an ambassador to the U.N. on these issues. However, that didn't stop the stream of vitriol which followed the publication of a nude shot of her taken back in her modelling days, and nor did it stop a French company selling a range of bags with that image on them. Bruni successfully sued the company concerned. Bruni's treatment at the hands of France was petty, shoddy, and rather seedy in character.

But we have a new president now, and that means a new first lady, Valérie Treirweiler. A Sorbonne political science graduate, she was well known for years as a pugnacious TV political talk-show host with no particular enemies. But that was before she met and began a relationship with François Hollande, and her sin was to have begun her affair at the tail end of Hollande's relationship with Ségolène Royal, in 2006, although their relationship with Hollande wasn't made official until October 2010.

The first sign that she was not liked in some circles came in October 2011 when French weekly L'Express published a story which alleged that her past life was the object of a secret investigation by the Intelligence branch of the Paris police. She sued 'a person or persons unknown' for illegally collecting information on her, and the ensuing investigation concluded that the file on her past life was a forgery. Investigations are ongoing as of today, but the ball was already rolling.

Various rumours and insults began turning up on blogs and in the press, and the spotlight on her became even harsher in intensity as the presidential elections approached. Her no-nonsense approach to her support of Hollande's campaign irked many of the male campaign team, and she soon became known as 'The Rottweiler.' Relatively benign it may have been as criticism, but a hapless sports journalist who used that epithet in a sexist tweet about her soon found out that she could indeed bite, and hard. Phone calls were made, things were said, and the journalist was fired.

Trierweiler got herself in the news again just after Hollande's election, when well-known socialist Deputé Julien Drey turned up at campaign headquarters to congratulate Hollande on his victory. He didn't even manage to get past the door because she, upon seeing him, booted him out in unceremonious fashion. His error had been to invite DSK to his birthday bash between the two rounds of voting, thereby embarrassing Hollande just at the moment when Sarkozy was catching up in the polls. She went from Rottweiller to bitch and dragon in a blink of the press and Internet's eye.

All this media exposure finally came to the attention of Samantha Brick, who gave her a roasting in the Daily Mail. Accusing Trierweiler (and all French women along with her, but that's by-the-by) of being a brazen man-stealer who sees "nothing wrong in long-term and persistant infidelity", Brick amply demonstrated that it's not just men who dislike French first ladies. This story was picked up by French left-wing online daily RUE89, who published a rather forgiving if vaguely ironic article about Brick's piece under the headline "In praise of French women - sluts", thus throwing more fuel and innuendo onto the flames.

So here we are, less than two weeks after the election, and the French tradition of slagging off first ladies seems set to continue.Treirweiler has all the ingredients to ensure that a long-lasting campaign of denigration and insult will be aimed at her, and she hasn't seen anything yet. France's treatment of its first ladies is no credit to French society and it highlights the more machist and sexist attitudes that persist even today in this Catholic and Latin country, which, while pardoning men for their infidelities, violently dislikes any woman who even has the temerity to assert herself in public, never mind change partners.

One last thought. Not only has nothing been written about the fact that it takes two to tango, which means that Hollande too was guilty of 'infidelity', the French, whilst disliking her, actually respect him enough to vote him in as president. But he's a man of course.....

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Hollande's choice of Ayrault for PM was a 'normal' one

'We are the Champions my (normal) Friend"
Few people outside of France had heard of Jean-Marc Ayrault before he was appointed as Prime minister by the newly-elected and self-styled 'normal' president, François Hollande. Indeed, he was hardly a household name even here in France. So how and why did this relatively discreet socialist end up as the second most powerful man in France?

Ayrault was born to working-class parents 61 years ago and was educated in the state school system before obtaining a degree in German and becoming a German teacher. Politics soon beckoned however, and he joined the Socialist party in 1971. Being elected as Mayor of Saint-Herblain in 1977 meant that he was the youngest mayor, at 27, of any town with a population of over 30,000, and it was was onwards and upwards from then on.

His work as mayor and as a regional councillor for the Loire-Atlantique region was well appreciated and that made it inevitable that he would eventually be selected as a parliamentary candidate. And so it was that he became the Deputé for Loire-Atlantique in 1986 before going on to be re-elected four times. He was also elected four times as Mayor of Nantes, starting in 1989. Perhaps his biggest achievement however was being chosen as President of the Socialist parliamentary group in 1997, and he remained in this post until Hollande appointed him as Prime minister two days ago.

Although Ayrault's career path had always followed a steady and upwards trajectory, he was hardly a political meteorite, and the French public were largely unaware of his activities. This is because he always remained faithful to his region and city, never actively looking to get himself parachuted into, say, a seat in Paris, where he would have been more exposed to the media. Nor did he ever push noisily for the party leadership. At the same time his relative discretion in a party which has always been characterised by noisy and nasty internecine spats ensured that he remained largely hidden from public scrutiny.

All of which explains why Ayrault's name was almost never to be seen in political popularity polls, and it's also why he never figured in polls which asked the public to choose a Socialist prime minister in the event that Holland would win the election. And even after Hollande's election, when Holland aides began leaking Ayrault's name as a possible contender, he was far from being the public's choice, probably because so little was known about him compared to the favourites - Martine Aubry, Manuel Valls and Laurent Fabius.

What the public and the press were unaware of however, was that Hollande was not looking for a popular figure to become Prime minister. He wanted a centre-leftist like himself, a man capable of a consensual approach, and Ayrault is exactly that, a hard-working party workhorse who has adopted a docile centre-left line since he was elected mayor for the first time. He also supported Hollande unfailingly during the campaign. All three favourites were eliminated because none of them are naturally consensual, Valls being to far to the right, Aubry too far to the left, and Fabius too much of a maverick, and none of them could be trusted to implement Hollande's wishes down to the last letter.

In choosing Jean-Marc Ayrault, Hollande has chosen a reassuring and uncontroversial figure, and that is essential to the policy line he will adopt for the upcoming legislative elections. It is no means a given that the Socialists will win, but Ayrault, as well as being someone who will not rock the boat or cause controversy, is also someone who could appeal to centrists such as Bayrou supporters. His relative modesty will be needed to persuade voters that the tandem he represents with Hollande shall be a 'normal' one which is capable of getting down to work without being distracted by petty squabbles or controversial outbursts.

After five years of Sarkozy's bling-bling wrecking-ball style, Hollande is striving to come across as a 'normal' president, with a 'normal' Prime minister, and that, after all, is not only quite 'normal', it could also prove to be very effective.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sarkozy and Hollande share the same fears

Wrecking-ball vs Normal man
Much of what has been written about tomorrow's election has focused on the idea that France is set to veer to the left if François Hollande wins or - much less likely - confirm its allegiance to right-of-centre politics if Nicolas Sarkozy is re-elected. And although that will effectively be the case in terms of the party political allegiance of the candidates, there is one overarching and fundamental theme which unites their manifestos, that of France's fear of the outside world.

One characteristic of these elections has been the anti-Sarkozy sentiment which is leading people not so much to support Hollande (Sarkozy is still considered to be a safer bet for the economy) but to rid the country of a leader who has imposed strict belt-tightening measures. 

This has been mirrored by election results across Europe since the economic crisis began to bite in 2009 which have seen governments of both left and right unseated or rejigged in Spain, Italy, Britain, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Denmark and Finland. In other words, many leaders who have had to bear the brunt of the crisis have gone, whatever their political colours, which means that elections have been more about hoping for change than an ideological shift. That is also the case in France today.

Rue89 has posted an article (in French, here) which points out that if Hollande wins it will in some ways be thanks to the crisis, which has left many people very worried about what's happening in the markets and with world finance in general. This is why he can count on the help of unlikely allies such as centrist voters and some disgruntled left-wingers who voted Le Pen in round one and not because the country is slipping to the left. 

Another failed candidate whose voters Hollande can count upon is Jean-Juc Mélenchon, the left-wing firebrand whose intense dislike of all things money and markets has not gone unnoticed by Hollande. Although not as far left as Mélenchon, Hollande has nevertheless developed policies which point the finger squarely at the rich, bankers, the markets and the European fiscal pact. In other words, his bogeymen and not so much to be found in France, but abroad, where globalised financial interests, he says, are threatening France and the French way of life.

Sarkozy, like Hollande, has also identified globalisation as a threat and has often expressed his wish to reform the markets and the banks and roll back what he sees are threats to France's national identity. In fact he even supports the idea of a Tobin Tax as long as he gets support from other heavyweight countries. Moreover, Bayrou, Mélenchon and Le Pen have all expressed similar views. At the same time though Sarkozy has found another scapegoat - immigration, which represents yet another foreign-based threat in his eyes. Hollande has been very reticent to venture onto this terrain, although a clue to his future policies was to be found in his refusal to say that he would substantially change the country's current approach to 'dealing' with illegal immigration.

In one way or another, all the major candidates in this election have expressed their disapproval of foreign phenomena, and this is why domestic issues have not received enough attention according to many voters, a sizeable number of whom are disappointed in politics and politicians in general. Voters are being asked to choose between candidates whose central themes are those of being besieged by either immigration, the Anglo-Saxon business model, or both.

This election is not about left and right, it is about fear. France is a country which is struggling to come to terms with major changes in the world, changes which it can do nothing about. And meanwhile, the issues which really matter to voters are being pushed onto the back-burner. For now.