Aux Armes, Etcetera…

Listen to Lillian Thuram

Looking at the political choices facing voters in France, today, I’m glad I’m not French — although I guess I would be if the Catholic Church hadn’t driven France’s Jews out in the 14th century, starting my family on its way to Poland where Caron became Karon to keep the pronunciation. Still a Francophile of sorts, and still have family there — my father’s cousin Adam, who survived the Holocaust in Poland being hidden by Catholics from the Nazis, ended up living in Paris in 1945, and still does. Ariel Sharon doesn’t think France’s Jews belong in France, and that’s always been the Zionist position (and, of course, that of the anti-Semites) since Theodore Herzl attended the Dreyfuss trial in 1895, and declared it “futile” to try and combat anti-Semitism.

Of course, I could never agree with this; Jews are historically part of France, as we are historically part of many parts of Europe, and anyone who denies that, whether anti-Semite or Zionist, can go… Well, okay, let’s not get rude. We’ll leave that to Monsieur ‘orrible.

And it’s in affirmation of this principle, and my sheer love of Jews who laugh in the face of and give the finger to anti-Semitism and associated right-wing pretensions, that I put the legendary Serge Gainsbourg on the list my 50 most influential rabbis:

Here’s the citation:
5. Serge Gainsbourg
No pop-cultural icon ever rattled France as much as Serge Gainsbourg did, from the moment he burst into notoriety in 1969 with the heavy breathing “Je T’Aime,” the favorite Barmitzvah party slowdance of my era. The French establishment, not exactly the most philo-Semitic bunch, loathed Gainsbourg for his chutzpah, a vaguely ugly Jew who didn’t give a crap about exposing their pretenses and hypocrisies. And why should he? He’d had to wear the yellow star during the Nazi occupation, and he saw just how “courageous” his neighbors had been in standing up to the Nazis (contra the Gaullist myth that all or most of France had been with the Resistance). And if they had a problem with his aesthetic provocations, he wasn’t about to make them feel comfortable. Gainsbourg cut and mixed and mashed, lampooning Frenchness and its denied but nonetheless palpable fascination with America, and committed the ultimate patriotic sin of recording a reggae version of Le Marseillaise (“Aux Armes, Etc.” — Click here to hear it — that’s Rita Marley doing backing vocals…) mocking French jingoism. Naturally, the French establishment plotzed. That was the idea. And let’s not even talk about the Whitney Houston encounter

On Sunday’s election, I know the choices are grim. But I was moved recently by the news reports of a black policeman in France putting his own life on the line to rescue a Jewish football fan being attacked by a neo-Nazi mob in Paris. And that’s why I’d urge all those justifiably impressed by Nicolas Sarkozy’s promises to loosen the bureaucratic stranglehold on France’s sclerotic economy to carefully consider the warnings by Lillian Thuram, hero of the 1998 World Cup winning French team, that Sarkozy is a racist who France cannot embrace.

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29 Responses to Aux Armes, Etcetera…

  1. John says:

    To say that France’s Jews are really Israel’s Jews is as much nonsense as it is to say the brave Algerian soldiers who decided to become a part of France after fighting in WW2 are just Algerian or part of the larger Muslim Ummah. People can and do hold identities that span across different borders and religions while still remaining at heart a member of the parent country to which they are committed.

  2. Bernard Chazelle says:

    I share Tony’s love of Gainsbourg. He was one of the few giants among the mediocrities who have long ruled the French pop scene. (Not to be confused with the French hip-hop scene, which is second only to the American one.)

    Having said that, it pains me to have to disagree with Tony (one of my favorite voices in journalism) about his characterization of SG as an “anti-Establishment” figure and his recycling of certain cliches about the French.

    SG became a leftwing Establishment cult figure. He was lionized by Mitterrand and his minister of culture Jack Lang. When SG died in 1991, Mitterrand ordered flags at half staff and delivered his own eulogy, comparing SG to Baudelaire and Apollinaire. Not even Clinton would do this for Barbra Streisand.

    Gainsbourg was no more anti-Establishment than Barbra Streisand. He was a iconoclast, but that’s an old, established poetic tradition in France. By the standards of Coluche, Brassens, Renaud, etc, SG was rather mild.

    His reggae cover of the French anthem was not intended to “mock jingoism.” It was not even intended to shock. First, the lyrics are authentic: SG bought the original lyrics at an auction!. Second, the imagery he intended was that of Delacroix’s “Liberty” with a topless Carribean woman leading the charge over dead bodies. It was meant as a homage to the anthem, in fact. Most French seemed to get it and that single shot up to number 1 in the charts!

    The controversy was stirred not by the “Establishment” as a whole but by rightwing antisemites like Michel Droit, a notorious reactionary, who vented his bilious anger in Le Figaro. Droit was a member of the Establishment — but so is Pat Buchanan whom no one would call as representative of the US Establishment.

    Excited by Droit’s screed, rightwing paratrooper associations dispatched their toughs to disrupt SG’s concert in Strasbourg (same place where the Marseillaise was composed). SG dismissed his Jamaican band for their protection and then sang his Marseillaise a cappella.

    And what happened? The macho brutes who came to beat the crap out of SG and his crew were so shocked to realize he meant his song as a show of respect that they saluted him while he sang. Later, the paratrooper Corps adopted SG’s son Lulu as their mascot!

    GS’s genius was to be a musical sponge: he adopted every possible style ahead of everyone else in France. He was rapping in the 60s! (OK, the guy had no sense of rhythm but no one’s perfect.)

    When I grew up (in Paris) one couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing SG in the company of the artistic and political elites. You can call SG anything you want, but anti-Establishment, no way!

    Similarly I don’t know what to make of this: “French establishment, not exactly the most philo-Semitic.”

    Antisemitism in France is old and all too real (though nothing what it used to be — sorry to disappoint, Sharon),. It’s traditionally a rightwing thing that cuts across classes (Le Pen and Droit are opposite on the class spectrum but similar in their antisemitism.)

    On the other hand, the leftwing Establishment is arguably the most philosemitic of its kind in Europe. France’s 3 Jewish prime ministers (Blum, Mendes-France, Fabius) were all leftwing (how many American Jewish presidents? Hmm, never mind). That establishment, I believe, has something to do with the fact that France has the largest Jewish population in Europe.

    Anyway, Tony’s implication that the French Establishment is not exactly fond of Jews is misguided. Even in the Dreyfus affair it’s the secular Establishment (Clemenceau, Zola, Poincare, the overwhelming majority of intellectuals) that fought tooth and nails for justice — and it’s the Catholic establishment that wallowed in antisemitism. Let me put it this way, if a large part of the French establishment had not been philosemitic, or at least unencumbered by prejudices, there would have never been an “affair” to begin. Dreyfus would have rotten till he died and that would have been it.

    Sorry to be on a fisking binge, but…
    France’s economy is indeed problematic but to call it “sclerotic” is straight out of Tom Friedman’s playbook.

    o GDP growth over last 10 years: 2% in france, 2.1% in the US, 2.3% in the UK.

    o France has the highest productivity in the world: 50% higher than in Japan!

    o Over last 10 years, there’s been higher job growth in France than in the UK. Furthermore, it’s been 85% in the private sector in France ; only 55% in the UK. (Why the UK has lower unemployment is that labor growth has been much lower.)

    Finally, as someone whose allegiance is on the left, and certainly not with Sarkozy’s friends, I must defend him against the charge of racism.

    It’s not because his father was a Hungarian immigrant and his maternal grandfather was Jewish that he is not a racist. In fact, he may well be a racist, but I haven’t seen evidence of it. With all due respect to Thuram his evidence (proposed minister of national identify) is BS.
    Similarly, Sarko’s use of words like racaille and Karcher was not racist, even though it was portrayed as such. I could explain why but I suspect people are already bored enough with this post.

    I’ll end by saying that the French could be worse off.

    Chirac was a likeable rogue and a terrible president. He did two great things: saying fuck off to Bush over Iraq and acknowledging French culpability in the holocaust, and I am deeply grateful to him for both things. But he did nothing else.

    Sarko is likely to win (not with my help) and he might turn out to be a divisive, angry leader who cannot do much.

    But for people who are concerned with immigration and integration issues, remember one thing: The French system is designed to serve the interests of 2/3rd of the population. This leaves out the young and the people of the banlieues. I wish Segolene had the courage to recognize that. She does not. But Sarko does. We’ll see what happens.

  3. Pat S. says:

    Wow, Bernard is a Sarko supporter? I’ve followed some of your posts on the site, and I gotta say that I’m quite surprised. I do think Sarkozy is a better option than Royale, but that might be because I’ve gotten most of my French election coverage from The Economist (not exactly a friend of socialism.) And yes, I think his Hungarian ancestry will potentially help him know better than to try and define “Frenchness”.

    Anyway, your intro made me want to jump in with some thoughts on my fellow Catholics, which is that the duality of the religion is maddening: with the one hand, the Church can behave very un-Christlike (Church-sanctioned old-school anti-Semitism, Pius XII during the Holocaust and the modern Church’s attitude toward homosexuals or life-saving condoms come to mind), while with the other it’s making some of the most noble efforts on the world stage (think of all the Catholic relief workers around the globe, the constant emphasis on the poor or the opposition to the Iraq war).

    Somehow you managed to hit the Church’s bad ying and good yang in only two sentences.

  4. John says:

    I thought there was an interesting contradiction in the (SA) Independent article: refering to “France’s multi-ethnic football team”. It is illegal for employers to record ethnic origin in France. It seems like a typical outsider’s view which doesn’t take account of the French assimilationist approach. This is an approach which may have failed the youth of the banlieus, but it is a poor student of history who has failed to see how the French adapt rapidly to problems in society. Regardless of who wins (and I am hoping it is Ségo) the problems won’t be swept under the carpet the way Katrina’s were in the USA.

  5. History bug says:

    Tony, I happen to know a bit about European history. The Catholic Church did not drive out France’s Jews in 1306. King Philip IV (“the Fair”, meaning certainly not “just”) did it in 1306 for strictly financial reasons. From

    “In the shorter term, Philip arrested Jews so he could seize their assets to accommodate the inflated costs of modern warfare: he expelled them from his French territories in 1306.”

    I add that Philip seized also their accounting books so that all money Christian Frenchmen owed to Jewish lenders became due to the Crown.

    In perspective, they got a far better deal than the Templars, who were brutally tortured and executed the following year for exactly the same reasons.

    Interestingly, Jews were never expelled from the territories governed by the Church itself in Central Italy. Sure enough, they were unable to obtain many desirable positions (such as cardenal 😉

  6. Cynthia says:

    Pat, Bernard said “Sarko is likely to win (not with my help)”.

    Bernard, how did you (the french people in US) vote?
    There were places to go or it was by Mail?

  7. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Pat S:

    Sego has my vote (I am a dual citizen) and I would never call myself a Sarko supporter. But attacks against him have been unfair. In particular, the charge of racism (a rather loaded one, you’ll admit) is unsubstantiated and unnecessary. There’s plenty to criticize about him as it is.

    You’re absolutely right about the Catholic Church. The worst and the best all wrapped into one.

  8. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Cynthia: I could vote in New York but I live in Princeton and, strangely enough, there’s a French consulate in town. So they had voting booths in…. the local Episcopalian church. (I didn’t know this was legal. Actually I doubt that it is. But who cares?)

    Re. Sarko, if I sounded confused it’s because I am confused. Sarko is the only one who’s mentioned affirmative action. France is understandably leery about affirmative action. It’s not just the ideology (so unFrench) but also France’s past (Tony mentioned the yellow stars…) The French don’t like having the government classify people by ethnicity.
    And yet… it’s hard to see what else would break the current system where racism (and other things) keep the nonwhites on the sidelines. It might be the worst thing to do except for all the other alternatives.

  9. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Tony saw grim choices in this election, but I see cause for celebration.

    1. A woman gets as many votes as Mitterrand did in ’81 (and he went on to win.) That’s very exciting.

    2. The winner of the 1st round is not a graduate of ENA.

    3. 85% turnout. (Bush was elected with a 55% turnout.)

  10. Bernard Chazelle says:

    4. Le Pen gets whacked in the face and sent packing.

  11. Ben P says:

    My sense of Sarko is that he is not properly understood by the English speaking press who take some his pronouncements at face value without understnding anything about his past, his political affiliations, or even doing the simple thing of actually reading his platform.

    I think he is going to disappoint the Economist type folks who think he will a thorough going free marketista and Atlanticist. I think he is much more deeply wedded to the Gaullist tradition thatn is typically recognized – he just realizes it needs to change in order to stay abreast of contemporary realities – globalization, technological change, the end of the Cold War, etc.. After all, his political hero is De Gaulle and his original mentor was Chirac (until an acrimonious split in ’95) In this sense, I see him trying to shake up French society through liberalizing its economies workings as a means of reestablishing French prestige and its credibility as a global leader. He is definetly not someone who does this as a means of sublimating France to some sort of American Atlanticist leadership in the way of a Tony Blair.

    My sense is he is to Gaullism as Vladimir Putin is/was to Soviet Communism. Thoughts?

  12. Alex Morgan says:

    Well, not the best from the usually excellent Tony. Terrible lack of subtlety wrt. the candidates, to put it charitably (or wrong, less charitably :)).

    As an American who is a huge Francophile, I’m torn wrt. to my sympathies and hopes in this election. Yet, I hasten to add, France has no monopoly on tough choices. I’m torn about the candidates so far in the American 08 race (I find it almost physically impossible to support Republicans, but I just don’t know what depths of despair would lead me to vote for a Hillary Clinton). Hard for an American to feel smug here.

    While my heart my go for Sego, my brain chooses Sarko. I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel that Sego has the raw ability, experience and power to make some much needed changes in France. Sarko does. Yes, he panders to the identity politics, which is regrettable, but note, he *panders* – I don’t think those are his actual views, and more importantly, I don’t think those will be his policies (other than lip service).

    In some ways, the fact that, Sarko is coming nominally from the right, will make it easier for him to do things like affirmative action, and try to address more seriously the issue of racial integration. His room to move is greater than Segos. And frankly, while I don’t buy into the pervasive “declinism” and dark pessimism that’s enveloping France, there are many needed structural changes to the economy – and I feel Sarko is the abler and smarter and stronger person to tackle them.

    Of course I do have my worries. His oft repeated admiration for various aspects of the American system are worrisome. In particular, fear that he has a simplistic understanding of the problems of agriculture in France. He doesn’t seem to understand, that indeed there is a certain French exceptionalism which must be preserved for the sake of our entire civilization, that this is not an area to be approached with simplistic market oriented solutions whose effects we’ve seen here, what with monocrops and toxic hog farms, the entire industrial approach to agriculture (and where the “culture” component of the “agri” is lost).

    So, nobody will get 100% satisfaction here. But France could do a lot worse than Sarko.

  13. Bernard Chazelle says:

    I think Ben P is right about Sarko being more “French” than the Economist would like him to be. (The Economist’s piece about the election was remarkable: I spotted 3 factual errors, which is quite astonishing for such a high quality publication.)

    I am not sure I get the “technological change” part. France is –and has always been — the most high-tech country in Europe. The only one that pushes for the development of supersonic airplanes, superfast trains, minitel (before the Internet), nuclear technology, etc. I am also not sure about the prestige part. There must be Frenchmen who lose sleep over the lost prestige of the Republic, but I’ve been unlucky and haven’t met any of them.

  14. Tony says:

    I must confess, I don’t claim any expertise in French politics (as must be obvious to those of you who do!), and I share a sense of the ambiguity of all of this — quite frankly, I’m enjoying the conversation among people far better informed on French politics than I am — it’s certainly better than my original post!

    And following Bernard’s treatise, I may have to consider Gainsbourg’s position on my list of “rabbis” — on the other hand, there has to be an element of levity there — right now, I still have Marc Bolan on the list! And obviously Lou Reed and Bob Dylan…

    Gainsbourg… Hmm… What do people think, as they old saying goes?

  15. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Tony: you mean “reconsider”? Oh no…

    But in my list of French “rabbis” I would definitely include Albert Cohen. I am mystified why he’s not more famous stateside. His masterpiece “Belle du Seigneur” is the most beautiful love story I’ve ever read. Shakespearean in its scope and richness. Hilarious, moving, heartbreaking… it’s got everything. And you get the full flavor of the “south.” An amazing writer. And soooo French southern-style (a Greek-born Swiss Jew! How more French can you get?)

  16. Danny says:

    Raymond Aron. (Not on Tony’s list, I know, but definitely on mine). The epitome of political wisdom.

    I don’t like the term Rabbi, by the way, much prefer the Sepharadic title of Hakham – Sage.

  17. Charles says:

    Bernard, do you come from Jews? I mean, there are Jews in your family?

  18. Francophile serpent says:

    Some things to notice:

    – Anglophones really, really hate France. Small wonder, France has been so much better for the last century and it’s not changing. “top-cool” the uniquely french adjective spells out how France plays a kind of super-ego role for the backward Anglo countries.

    – Anglophones are obsessed racists. People, every child is born fresh without this terrible racist afflictions that you people have: “jewish identity” and all that bullshit. Just cut this outdated crap out, your lives will only improve.

  19. cynthia says:

    Fashioned, Fashioned, the french are, and will always be!!
    That’s also explain the anglo envy.

  20. cynthia says:

    Fashioned == etre a la mode, en vogue.

  21. Paul C says:

    Well Francophile serpent, here’s one Anglophone who doesn’t hate France, and I think I’m in the majority in my country, Ireland. Of course there are some Irish who regard the Irish as the blacks of Europe, coming as we do from the wrong end of a colonial history. For most of us, that’s just a fading memory. We do however recall thenumerous times the French came to our aid against our ancient Anglophone enemy, now our best friend for life!

    I travel to France on holiday most years, and so do many of my compatriots. Ah, la belle France. Unique in it’s culture, and its ambiance. Vive la belle France.

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