Dunkirk: They don’t make them like that any more.

I remember being mildly amused at the reception given to Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, where critics fell over each other to praise the “realism” of the opening scenes. How, I wondered, could they tell? Had they been there? Had they served in the military at some point? In fact, Spielberg does seem to have made an attempt to portray the landings reasonably realistically, but that’s not the issue. “Realism” in this context means that those scenes coincided exactly with the common perception of war at the time (large scale senseless massacres) which critics who had never handled anything more lethal than a cooking knife had grown up with, and so expected. And as any literary critic will tell you, “realism” is one of the most artificial of all artistic modes.

Watching Dunkirk, or rather Dunkerque, in a cinema in France (where the film has been well received) made me understand why even the critics who praised the film extravagantly had trouble with its lack of “realism”. Not enough soldiers, not enough aircraft, too much emphasis on the “little boats” and so forth. This is fair enough (and partly reflects Nolan’s conscious decision not to use CGI effects) but ignores the fact that the film is a symbolic treatment of a myth. the symbolism is centered around the elements (earth, water, air and fire) and starts with earth (the sandbag barricade) and ends with fire (the destruction of the aircraft, not coincidentally a Spitfire). It moves, obviously, and cyclically, through these four elements, all in their own way dangerous and treacherous. (Here we recall that the name of the boat featured in the film is the Moonfleet, the name of a popular novel about smuggling and shipwreck which I read at school in the 1960s).

In some mundane ways, you could argue that the film is realistic enough: death is random and omnipresent, people are frightened, selfish, cold and soaked to the skin, pilots worry about how much fuel they have left. But the film works best if we understand that it is cast in a mode that we have little experience of today: the heroic. By heroic, I don’t mean Brad Pitt gunning down fifty terrorists with a single machine-gun burst. I mean the attitude of heroism, of ordinary people rising to extraordinary heights, and doing what has to be done. Hardly any of the British characters in the film fire a shot, apart from the pilots, all three of whom eventually fall from the air onto the elements of water and earth, accompanied each time by fire. Many of the characters (including the nurses who die in the hospital ship) are civilians. Mark Rylance, as the weekend sailor, calm and assured, taking his unarmed boat where it’s most needed, is a mythical figure of everyday heroism, probably unimaginable in today’s society drenched in cynicism and consumerism, and the kind of man that probably every boy born in the 1950s would have wanted as a father. Indeed, in its stoicism and quiet heroism, as well as its lack of special effects, the film is partly a homage to the black and white films of the 1950s on which I grew up.

In a whole lot of ways, they don’t make them like that any more.

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France: Apocalypse in about a month.

With only three weeks to go before the first round of the French Presidential election, the media are in full politics-as-horse-race frenzy. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out, which grinning face will give the victory speech after the second round, and that’s pretty much it.

Lost in all this is the terrible, lamentable, really not very good, performance of the two major parties. Hamon (Socialist of a sort) and Fillon (official candidate of the Right) can barely muster thirty per cent of the vote between them. Can you imagine it, what has become of the two major parties of one of the most powerful nations in the world? Think Labour and the Conservatives, or Republicans and Democrats, with thirty per cent of the votes between them.

Now of course these are not the parliamentary elections: they come a few weeks later, and the party machines should be capable of turning out a higher vote. But we’re looking here not just at a rough patch politically, but at the end of an entire political system. It’s going to get a lot rougher between now and May, and even rougher thereafter. This is big news, probably the end of the Fifth Republic as we know it, and the media and the political class have no idea how short a time the current system has to live.

 

My franglais is not efficient

You may have seen that Paris is bidding for the Olympic Games again, this time for 2024. You may also have seen that they’ve chosen a slogan in English – franglais, really. It’s Made for Sharing.

Think about that for a minute. Does it mean anything? Did whoever made it up think it meant anything? Cities aren’t “made” for a purpose, after all, any more than the Olympic Games are. Is the assumption that all of the visitors return home with a small piece of Paris? For the benighted who don’t speak English, there’s also a slogan in French, Venez, Partarger, which does at least mean something. A decent English translation would be “come and join in” or “come and share the experience”

Joking (mostly) aside, this is important because it reflects a much wider problem in France, and especially among French elites who are going through one of their periodic obsessions with copying other countries – in this case the Anglo-Saxon ones. This extends to the wholesale, and often clumsy, importation of English words into French political and media discourse, as well as into advertising. The problem is that the French aren’t actually very good at foreign languages. They are not as bad as the British (and certainly they are more willing to try) but they still aren’t that good. The standard of English teaching in France is, well, variable, and you very rarely encounter the kind of fluency in English, even among the well educated that you find in Germany or the Netherlands. Few large organisations have specialist translators. This doesn’t prevent the widespread and often inelegant use of English as a status symbol by a certain category of aspirational French individual, often with hideous results, or the clumsy and misleading presentation of the world’s favourite tourist destination in information for visitors. Ironically, this is even having an effect on English itself, where the language of Shakespeare is turning in a globish pseudo-language. For example, the confusion between translating efficace as “efficient” (i.e. cost-effective) and “effective” was lost many years ago: “this medicine is efficient” anybody? Most non-native English speakers have now totally confused the two.

The obsession with the slavish imitation of others, is, of course, a symptom of the lack of confidence in their own country, its culture and its language, which is now pretty much universal among French elites. Indeed these elites, independent of their political views, share a sense of embarrassment at being French, and some go so far as to criticise those who take pride in their history and culture as racists or xenophobes. So when Presidential contender Emmanuel Macron asserted recently that there was “no French culture” no one was surprised, and nobody important was offended. Macron, the symbol of the French elite’s aching desire to be un-French, speaks (bad) English at every opportunity and seems proud to do so.

So as World History replaces French History in schools, and the language of Moliere is increasingly replaced by the language of Trump, you have to wonder where, if anywhere, this is all going to end. Would a President Macron make Franglais the official language of the country? Until recently that would have seemed a joke. Now I’m not so sure.

Fillon: Schadenfreude à la française.

The German word schadenfreude –  usually translated as something like “a malicious delight in the unhappiness of others” – refers to a concept that’s not especially nice, and by and large it’s something that we shouldn’t cultivate. But there are exceptions.

Most of us like seeing the hypocritical, the arrogant and the corrupt cut down to size, and no matter how many charitable feelings we manage to conjure up, there will be occasions when we think that somebody’s misfortunes are richly deserved: karma, if you like, with added moral sauce. In a world where the rich, powerful, arrogant and hypocritical seem to get away with everything all the time, it’s hard not to see the humbling of one of them as the limited and temporary reinstatement of a bit of moral order in the universe.

So after a year which featured, among other things, the humiliation of David Cameron and Hilary Clinton, and the apparent banishment from politics of Nicholas Sarkozy (but watch it, the slimy bastard may yet be back), we start 2017 with the hilariously entertaining crucifixion of François Fillon. There’s a kind of mad narrative purity in the Fillon story, almost as if he was setting himself up for a fall for twenty years, deliberately cultivating a false and hypocritical image and then making it easy for people to find out what he had done. Whatever the final result, the Fillon story will go down as an archetype of how to destroy a political career through stupidity and arrogance.

Consider. Here’s a man whose Presidential programme involves forcing people to wait longer for their pensions, and getting rid of half a million public sector workers, while wielding the lash of austerity with evident relish. Here’s a man who mentions his own honesty, his own integrity and the need for an “irreproachable” President in every speech, and takes the whole family off to church on Sunday. Here is a man who won the primary elections of the main right-wing party by contrasting himself with Juppé (who had served a suspended prison sentence for corruption) and Sarkozy, about whom nothing else need be said. Here’s a man who even his detractors thought was basically honest in a deeply corrupt political system.

But here’s a man who was employing his wife, or arranging for her to be employed, as his parliamentary assistant on and off for nearly twenty years. He somehow never got around to mentioning that fact, and indeed both he and she denied that she was working, and nobody ever seems to have seen her in her alleged place of employment. So he (or she or both) pocketed nearly a million Euros, more than most French people ever earn in a lifetime, at the taxpayer’s expense, and for doing no obvious work. Oh, and there was her non-existent but well-paid media job, the use of his children as assistants when they were both students, the mysterious consultancy with unidentified clients, and whatever new revelation will have surfaced by the time I finish typing this.

So here’s a man, one is tempted to say, who either has a political death-wish, or is so arrogant that he thinks the law and the rules don’t apply to him. Here’s a man who lied, with the complicity of his wife, over the course of twenty years, about something where the truth could easily be demonstrated. Here’s a man who disobeyed Denis Healey’s first rule of politics – when you’re in a hole, stop digging – and has flailed around, offering excuses and explanations which blow up in his face almost as soon as they are uttered. Here’s a man who doesn’t seem to actually deny the accusations, but who presents himself as a the innocent victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Here’s the man who would probably have been President of France.

Here’s a man who richly deserves everything he’s currently undergone, and everything he’s about to get. I don’t feel sorry for him at all.

France: A Game of deckchairs

In France, the year does not begin in January but in September. This is when the schools go back, and when the fratricidal game of French politics begins again in earnest.

The game is more earnest this year, because 2017 will see  the next presidential elections. The two obvious leading contenders (François Hollande and Nicholas Sarkozy) are both about as popular as rabies among the general public, and each of them is being stalked by at least half a dozen impatient rivals, dagger at the ready.

For several months now, newspapers and magazines have been producing lists of who has so far declared themselves a candidate for 2017. There seem to be about 20 potential candidates, some directly challenging for the role of  standard-bearer of the Left or Right, others with the firm intention of running whatever happens. French elections are always a bit of a shambles, because of the history of personal jealousy and animosity in all of the major political formations. French politics is divided not so much into parties as into  “clans”,  where individuals gather supporters around themselves from an early stage in their career, and try to expand their networks of influence as the years pass, and reward their supporters. Particularly on the Right, this produces a situation where politicians  hate their ostensible political allies more than their apparent ideological enemies.

Of course this assumes that there are ideological differences between the candidates. But what this year’s bumper crop of  postulants  demonstrates very clearly is that such ideological differences really don’t exist any more. Pretty much the whole of the French political system has been colonized by liberal  and neoliberal ideology to different degrees, and so there is remarkably little to actually argue about. What Sigmund Freud called “the  narcissism  of minor differences” is on full display at the moment, especially on the Left, where being the anointed candidate means buying off as many special interest groups as you can, by using more extreme rhetoric than your competitor.  So here is Jean-Luc Melenchon , for example, making an obvious bid for the ISIS  vote, although  how much support there actually is for Saudi Arabian-style beachwear even among Muslims is doubtful. But I suppose you have to get your support where you can.

The end of the Communist Party, the destruction of the Socialist Party and its transformation into a rag-tag  bundle of identity issue groups  who hate each other, and the failure of the attempt to construct a single party of the  Right produced between them a deeply unstable political scene in France, whose endpoint is very unclear. It is always the case that the complexity and diversity of the French system is capable of producing almost any outcome, but I have a feeling that somehow we have seen nothing yet. But don’t expect “Game of Thrones”: it will be more like a game of deckchairs on the Titanic. 

France: Hello, is that the state?

Given the way the Internet is sagging already under the weight of posts about the Charlie Hebdo affair, I was going to avoid adding anything to the oversupply of instant analysis already on view. But there’s one dimension which I thought was interesting, and has not, as far as I know, been noted at all, so here goes.

On the whole, the French state system actually did OK in the aftermath of the attacks. Hollande actually sounded acceptably Presidential, and Valls sounded and acted like a real Prime Minister. Time alone will show whether that continues, and whether it affects the previously awful standing of the PS in the opinion polls, and whether Marine Le Pen has been able to extract any advantage from the situation.

But there’s a more important point. The services of the French state actually worked very well. The police and the gendarmerie did a quick and skilful job of tracking and taking down the killers, and the medical and emergency services did a good job as well. It’s hard to imagine any other country having done better .

So there’s at least one part of France that works very well. Not the private sector (for all that Manuel Valls loves it) and certainly not the catastrophic banking sector, or the very little that remains of French industry. So thank goodness there are some parts of the state that have not been sold off yet, or there would no doubt have been an assault by overweight retired US policemen with heavy machine guns and Rambo tattoos, under contract to G4S. Gulp.

This may – just may – be the beginning of a recognition, even by French elites, that you actually need a state when the chips are down. And if someone is going to protect the French people from the consequences of twenty years of catastrophic blundering around at home and in the Middle East, then it’s obviously not going to be some services company based in the Cayman islands and paying tax in Luxembourg. Maybe it’s this that has made Valls shut up, at least temporarily, about how the private sector can do everything. Maybe that’s why nothing has been heard from Emmanuel Macron, the teenage Budget Minister and former merchant banker, who must have suddenly realised that there are some problems in the world that even financial deregulation cannot solve. Maybe.

France: Pity the nation

I was looking for a short book to take on an aeroplane flight recently, and I picked up, more or less by chance, Catherine Graciet’s recent book Sarkozy/Khadafi. The book – well worth reading, by the way –  is a solid account of a whole range of alleged-but-likely scandals involving the Sarkozy “clan” with Libya over the last decade or so, culminating with a long discussion of the allegation that Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign was funded, in part, by Libya.

But it’s actually not so much that allegation in the book which is so dispiriting, although if true it would cause a political earthquake in France, as the constant succession of well-founded stories showing how various members of the “clan” enriched themselves, often through their government positions, and sometimes as the public expense It seems that everyone who has ever been involved with Sarkozy had their fingers in the Libyan pie, and almost all managed to pull out a few choice plums. As a portrait of a political class consumed by greed and opportunism, it’s hard to imagine anything more devastating or depressing.

But French politics was always corrupt, you may argue. Indeed, and individual corruption certainly did not begin with Sarkozy. But this is institutionalized, and so much more dangerous. It has its origins in two things. One was the laudable desire under Mitterrand to decentralize the French state. However well-meant, this created local baronies, ruled by politico-business cliques, who often used the resources of the area for personal gain, as well as political advancement. The other was the massive privatization programme of the last twenty years, which created an oligarchy that moves effortlessly between political office, government service and personal enrichment, often managing to do at least two of these at the same time. Indeed, the key figure in Catherine Graciet’s book in some ways is not Sarkozy himself, but the frog-like Claude Guéant, who began as a high-flying civil servant, took on a quasi-political role as Sarkozy’s trusted advisor, and finished as a Minister, apparently managing to combine that with the pursuit of Sarkozy’s (and his) private business interests.

No wonder people in France are so disgusted with their elites (you can’t even call them “political” elites any more, because the line between politics and personal enrichment has effectively disappeared). No wonder the National Front is doing so well.

“Pity the nation” wrote the Lebanese poet and novelist Kahil Gibran

… that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

… whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking”

He was thinking of Lebanon, of course. But he might just as well have been describing France.