France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

June 1, 2009

The Chevalier de la Barre: La suite

It’s amazing how certain traits of a society never change. About 230 years ago, a young man refused to take off his hat for and hurled impudent ditties at a passing parade of nobles and notables in Paris; for this they cut off the hands that refused to to take of the hat and the tongue that sang the ditties, and then they burned him at the stake. Later they put up a statue of and monument to the young man who became known as the Chevalier de la Barre in a park in the shadow of Sacre Coeur and named the street that encircles this church — itself a symbol of repentance imposed on the losers of the Paris Commune by the federal authorities — after him.

60 years ago, in “The Stranger,” Albert Camus wrote of a nondescript civil servant who is persecuted not because he kills an Arab (to stick with Camus’s nomenclature), but because he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral — in other words, not for the criminal act he actually committed against society, but for not conforming to societal norms.

Six months ago, frustrated by her department’s inability to capture those responsible for a series of rail sabotages and threats of sabotage, the French interior minister ordered the arrestation of an anarchist activist, Julien Coupat, his girlfriend, and a few members of their coterie, all of whom lived in a collective in rural southwest France reading and writing about anarchist theory. Absent sufficient proof linking them to the rail sabotage (Coupat and his girlfriend, Yiddune Levy, had allegedly been seen in the vicinity of one of the rail targets) the interior minister accused them of belonging to an ultra-left organization with links to terrorism.

The thinness of the evidentiary trail became clear to me when French authorities said they’d started tailing Coupat on the basis of a tip from the FBI, which consisted of saying he’d been seen at a meeting of alleged anarchists in the States.

In other words, for the past six months, Julien Coupat has been kept in prison not for any crime which, at this point anyway, is provable, but for what he thinks, writes, and reads — and, to be fair, for being at two meetings and taking part in two demonstrations. And, by implication, for being and thinking different.

On Thursday, the French parquet finally realized they had no choice but to release Coupat, albeit keeping him under ‘control judiciary,’ meaning he has to report in every day, post a 16,000 Euro bond, has to stay in the Paris area where his parents live and can’t associate with any other members of the supposed cell (all of whom had been previously released).

As for the not so extreme Left, it has been typically slow to respond to the government’s extreme treatment of Coupat; only now, after the damage has been done — and, conveniently, a week before the European parliamentary elections — are prominent leaders coming forth and denouncing a ‘judicial fiasco,’ with one, Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg, going so far as to demand the resignation of interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie, and the Greens, meanwhile (finally), demanding a parliamentary investigation. The French daily Liberation, which reported these belated gestures in its Friday editions, appropriately made Coupat’s liberation its cover, with the fitting headlines: ‘Coupat freed; Investigation into a fiasco.’ “One has the right, in a Democracy,” the paper’s editor Laurent Joffrin wrote, “to deliver a radical critique of democratic society, to denounce the State, to lambast a system of power that one judges oppressive. It’s even one of the conditions of the existence of a democratic society.”

The question, then, isn’t whether one supports anarchy — I don’t, because under the guise of threatening just the government, it ultimately attacks the security of us all, a contempt for civil society underlying all the fancy rhetoric — but whether one supports plurality of thought. (Where anarchy moves beyond thought into acts of violence, there’s a solution: You prosecute for the criminal acts, adding ‘conspiracy’ to the charges where that applies.) One of the many things I love about France is that it ultimately does encourage multiplicity of political thought, much more than my own country. At the primary school down the street from me — as at the schools throughout Paris which will also serve as voting places next Sunday — 27 metal panels with messages from 27 different political parties with candidates for the European parliamentary elections are on display, the Socialists falling about in the middle. (When I was the student member of the San Francisco Board of Education 30 years ago, supposedly apolitical school system authorities accused me of being a ‘radical Socialist’ just for denouncing planned program cuts.) In the last French presidential election, 11 parties presented candidates in the first of two rounds. In the last U.S. presidential election and in U.S. elections in general, there are essentially two parties, one marginally to the Left and one extremely to the Right of the political center. Yes, there’s a Green Party and there’s even now a Socialist member of the Senate, but unlike in France, there aren’t any rules assuring equal advertising time for and thus equal exposure to the Greens and other ‘minor’ party candidates — indeed, the Democrats, Republicans, and major television networks have repeatedly colluded to exclude candidates from any other parties from the presidential debates. So the question isn’t whether, absent actual proof of illegal acts, one agrees with anarchists like Julien Coupat, the question is whether one wants a society that prizes freedom of ideas.

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January 30, 2009

Laurent Joffrin’s Media Condescension

Here’s the thing about conspiracy theories: Even if at the end of the day they’re proven to have little factual basis, they don’t come out of nowhere but often start with a suspicion based in reason. Let’s take, for example, one of the most apparently extreme of recent times: The so-called 9/11 Truth Movement. If you look at it from the factual perspective, the idea that the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were not the work of terrorist fanatics but the government is ludicrous. *But*, if you look at how the Bush-Cheney administration immediately went to work to exploit these attacks for own agenda of hegemony and abuse of human rights abroad and suppression of civil rights at home, well then, it becomes at least more understandable that some citizens might think that they went so far as to create the incident that created the opportunity. In effect, by simply dismissing the conspiracy theorists as lunies and not probing further into their motivations, one misses an opportunity to look at the genuine concerns that might have lead them to this improbable place.

But let’s apply this lesson closer to home.

Across the world, the public doubts the mainstream media, whether it be corporate- or state-owned. And they have reason. At least in the U.S., if not Europe, the corp. and state media went along, for the most part, with the Bush lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that justified an offensive attack. (Because for anyone who read or listened to alternative media or the rare lonely voice in corp. medfia, it was no surprise that the weapons weren’t there.) But let’s look at a more recent event, here in France. Listening to France Culture radio this morning, we’re supposed to believe that the same reporters and anchors who joined yesterday’s general strike — regular radio emissions were replaced with canned music — can report credibly and objectively on that same event. Surprise surprise, we’re told that the strike was a grand success. Sure, passing glance is given to the lower police estimates of march participants, but no one — no one — poses the question of whether the strike was justified. Of whether in a time where unemployment is mounting — even here in France — workers who at least have jobs aren’t being a little bit offensive to complain about their work conditions. Of whether the unions’ claim that they were also protesting the loss in purchase power wasn’t a cynical attempt to engage more of the public than the meager eight percent who actually belong to unions.

In between the mostly glowing reports on yesterday’s strike, the France Culture morning program featured Laurent Joffrin, the editor in chief of the French daily Liberation, who’s been making the rounds (of various state-run radio stations) to hawk his new screed, “Media Paranoia.” According to Joffrin, apparently (haven’t read the book), for the most part, all that media mistrust and criticism cannot possibly have any basis in fact, but is a result of public paranoia about the media. To hear people talk, he says, you’d think he calls the (Liberation principal stock-holders) Rothschilds every day to find out what should be in the paper tomorrow.

It’s a nice try, Laurent, but it isn’t so much that we think that just because the Rothschilds own your paper that means you call them every day for marching orders. Rather, what concerns many in the public is that you all live, work, go to school with, party with, interact with and thus rarely question the basis of the thought and actions of your own rarified circle made up mostly of, if not government officials, at least politicians, commentators, and fellow journalists. *You rarely question establishment thinking.* In the United States that might mean that the New York Times is never going to really seriously question the official version, until it’s too late. (As the brilliant veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk once said, the Times might as well change its name to “Officials say.”) In France, for an historically traditional Left-leaning journal like Liberation, the Establishment is the unions and the Socialist party, and you’re never going to question whether they’re right to go call and support a strike. (And, when the Establishment Left and Right back the European Constitution, you’re going to distort and mock the legitimate fears of those who oppose it.)

Instead of roundly dismissing roundly held public concerns as ‘paranoia,’ Joffrin might have looked at his own and his colleagues’ responsibility: How did we get here? What have journalists been doing, or not doing, to provoke such widespread public mistrust — and belief that they’ve advocated their founding principle of true independence? Instead, he’s content to cynically dismiss their concerns; those who criticize the media, as he said on France Culure this morning, “Are often extremists who blame the media” for not paying attention to their ideas “when the problem is their ideas.” Then when the public reacts by buying less newspapers, he has the temerity to warn, “If there are less journalists, there are going to be less people to challenge power.” Ou ca?

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