France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

May 11, 2009

Behind Harlem’s Désir: ‘Une gauche bo-bo qui n’a rien compris’

Traversing the packed marché along the rue Convention on my way to re-live one of my favorite multi-sensual Paris experiences at the parc Georges Brassens Sunday (the park’s old book market for the brain, its greenery and fountain for the eye, and the end of market 5-smelly-cheeses for 10 Euro platter for the palette, not to mention the imagined strains of Brassens for the ear), I ran smack up against Harlem Désir. And by Harlem Désir I don’t mean a sudden yearning for chicken and waffles at Wells in uptown Manhattan, but the member of the French Socialist party directorate who goes by that name. “Behind, Harlem Désir,” said a middle-class looking 40ish lady inclining her head towards the guy behind her, who nodded bonjour as he squeezed past me. Unfortunately, it’s the Socialist party whose list Désir is leading in the European elections which is fast being left behind by events.

The Socialists seem to think that if they keep repeating ‘pour une Europe social’ the electorate will forget about all the problems the E.U. directorate in Brussels has wrought, chiefly in depriving many French people of control over their ability to make a living. It might be a rancher in Burgundy who kills himself because he doesn’t have the 100,000 Euros Brussels wants him to spend to ensure his cows don’t poop in the creek, it might be a fisherman in the North who would like to sell all the cod he’s caught so he can pay for the gas he used for the boat but who has to throw much of the fish back because he’s surpassed the quota set by the suits in Brussels, or it might be the rosé producer in Bergerac or Provence who sees all his efforts to elevate rosé-making into a real art wasted because the E.U. commission now says anyone can mix red and white and sell it as rosé.

To these producers, who might be called the heart of the bread-basket of France, the Socialist Party pledge to work to guarantee the SMIC or minimum monthly income means nothing. To these custodians of a once-treasured and now vanishing rural way of life — in my village of 997 in the Dordogne department of Southwest France, just four farmers remain — the Socialists’ desire to create 10 million new jobs as part of a European strategy for ecologic growth is irrelevant. And what does the fisherman who Europe forces to throw cod he’s caught and could sure use back in the ocean care if Europe develops a plan to re-launch the economy in favor of consummation and investment?

Speaking on France Culture radio tonight, the politico-social activist Nicolas Dupont complained that as regards views on Europe there is nothing between a French Socilaist party which is largely “a Left Bo-bo (bourgeoisie-Bohemian; Montmartre in particular has been over-run by them) which has not understood anything” and, on the Right, the UMP of President Sarkozy which places the Market before everything.

Even more amazing, there’s nothing on the so-called Far Left. In the screed an activist from Olivier Besancenot’s New Party Anti-capitalist handed me at the marché yesterday, there are lots of fightin’ words, but not one addresses the crises faced by the farmers and the fishermen. In Besancenot’s world-view, there are only workers and their Capitalist bosses; no one else counts.

Enter François Bayrou.

Liberal wags like to sneer that Bayrou has his head in the clouds, but once again it is only Bayrou’s Movement Democratic which seems to have its ear to the ground when it comes to being aware of real problems the E.U. is causing for real people in France, in its campaign literature promising to work “in favor of a maritime politics that maintains a durable economic activity, at the same time preserving this resource.”


January 27, 2009

Ralph Nader, meet Olivier Besancenot

Okay, so maybe the day has not yet arrived in France where a young black boy, or girl, can dream of growing up to be president of the republic, even if the Socialist Party’s most visible representative these days is a politician of African origin whose name really is Harlem Desir. But a young radical communist tyke faces no such obstacles, thanks to a political — and more important, media — French democracy that beats the American model hands down. Contrast, if you will, the fate of Ralph Nader, whose 50-year track record winning battles for a very mainstream constituency, namely consumers, hasn’t stopped the U.S. corporate media from excluding him from every presidential debate, with the result that he’s never tallied more than two percent of the vote, with that of Olivier Besancenot, a.k.a. the postman from Neuilly, the leader of the League of Communist Revolutionaries (soon to become the New Anti-capitalist Party) who got nearly 5 percent of the vote in the crowded first round of the 2007 presidential election here (where he was competing with four other candidates on the far left alone), more than the Communists and the party of Jose Bové combined.

What accounts for the disparity between Nader’s and Besancenot’s results? Especially when you consider that the latter’s agenda is far more radical — including, still, a redistribution of wealth — than the former’s? (Remember that where Besancenot advocates for the under-privileged and workers, Nader made his name championing the rights of… consumers.) Simply put, for all its vaunting of Democratic values, corporate-owned mainstream media and, essentially, money ensure that the U.S. remains more a duocracy than a plutocracy. Money guarantees that the campaigns of the Democrats and Republicans drown out any other voices, often with fatal results: Obama has yet to condemn Israel’s war crimes in Gaza, ludicrously maintaining an equivalence of suffering in the face of statistics that say otherwise. (At last count, 1300+ Palestinians killed by Israel, most of them civilians; 14 Israelis dead, including three civilians and four soldiers downed by ‘friendly fire’.) Nader, who has always firmly condemned Israeli excesses, in its recent invasion but also in its equally deadly 2006 invasion of Lebanon, was excluded from the official 2008 presidential debates (as were, by the way, the Green and Libertarian candidates, never mind that the latter, Bob Barr, made his name as the conservative Republican congressman who championed the impeachment of President Clinton).

Contrast this insularity with French presidential campaigns:

Any candidate who gets 500 elected officials to support him or her gets a place in the first presidential round; last time, that made for 11 candidates, ranging from Besancenot on the far left to Le Pen on the far right. (My favorite: the representative of the party of hunting, fishing, and nature.) Each candidate got 90 minutes of free television time, to be dispersed as he or she liked. There’s even a rule decreeing that the news can’t give more time to one or the other. Each also has his or her own placard among the 11 displayed in front of voting places (like schools) before the election. Result: Almost five percent for the then 33-year-old postman from Neuilly. Continuing result: In a poll conducted this fall, only the mayor of Paris ranked higher as the most visible opponent of President Sarkozy; more than 50 percent of those polled gave Besancenot that designation. Never mind that compared to Olivier Besancenot Ralph Nader is Hilary Clinton, a parallel result could never happen in the United States. Not because Americans are inherently opposed to his views — remember, having made his name as a champion of consumers, Ralph Nader is hardly a flaming radical — but because the corporate-owned and establishment-inclined media would never expose his ideas to the general public on a regular basis. To them, Nader’s become a clown. They use their mockery of him as the perennial fringe candidate to try to drown out his ideas.

Contrast the treatment accorded Besancenot. During the last municipal elections, all the main television chains included him in their round-table of commentators.

This morning on France Culture, Besancenot and party philosopher Daniel Ben-Said were the featured guests and — a real change — neither the host nor any of the regular commentators mocked him. They may not agree with his ideas, they may even be skeptical of his motives, but in France, they — we (tear, tear) — understand that real freedom means freedom of ideas, that freedom to decide *requires* exposure to all ideas, that true Democracy also means Democracy on the table of thought.

This is why I want to raise my children in France where, no matter what their ideas, they can be heard.

PS: To read more about Olivier Besancenot — I realize I’ve left out many of the details on his platform — check this NY Times article, a bit less condescending than is the norm for the Times, even if the treatment is more along the lines of ‘those-wacky-Frenchies’ than my own focus of ‘why this couldn’t happen here,’ which of course would inherently criticize the reporter’s own journal.

PPS: I take it back about ‘less condescending.’ Note the Times headline (emphasis added): “Light on the Left Guides His *Comrades* Toward France’s Mainstream.” Notwithstanding the overall fair treatment his story gives to his subject, the reporter, or maybe it was the editor, attempts to set off reader bias with the use of the word ‘comrades.’

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