Archive for January, 2009

2.5 Million Protest Government Response To Global Economic Crisis In France On ‘Black Thursday’

January 31, 2009

2.5 Million Protest Government Response To Global Economic Crisis In France On ‘Black Thursday’

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Old Things New Things, Part 2: Capitalism

January 29, 2009

Americanization as a controversial subject in the francophone world, granted, is not new.  Jean-Luc Godard was obsessed with the subject treating it heavily in his films in the 1960s.  The film ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Her,’ for example, revolves around criticism of the American capitalist invasion and its effect on the speed and color of life.  More directly, ‘Made in the U.S.A.,’ an early imitation of the American conspiratorial thriller that took off most notably after Watergate, creatively blurs the boundaries between the two societies showing an Americanized world in France where car horns, planes and gun shots interrupt actors; money, blood and politics are equated; American corporate labels and consumerist images are rife, relative to the period; and the death of liberty and the left are represented side by side with the hunting and killing of communists.  For Godard this was a combat against an imperialism waged by foreign corporations intending to spread their advertisements everywhere in the public space, denegrate ideas and access to them, box people up in cars on big highways, and separate the political from the everyday.

Nevertheless, he would be even more disappointed today.  Not that any such invasion is complete, far from it; rather, it has just made more headway.  Looking around today, one sees suburban-American ‘banlieus residentielles’ sprouting up just beyond the tower blocks of the communist influenced ‘banlieus rouges’ of the 1950s and 60s.  Even in militantly anti-assimilationist Corsica, the concept of the modern American suburb has taken hold as communities 15 minutes from the sea have turned to the to-each-his-own-pool model.  This being a structure fully at odds with public transport, cars have taken over.  In turn, highways expand, take over new fields and farms, and necessarily produce cultural and gastronomic monstrosities alongside them like the seemingly omnipresent chain of Buffalo Grills.


Outback à la française - Boo-fah-lo Gah-reel

Yet, changes to the landscape are only the beginning as new anglicisms are constantly entering the vocabulary.  A short list after jotting words down for the last few months or so would be: fun, timing, speed, fast-food, cool, shit (meaning hash), spliff, weed, trip (in the acid sense of the term), low-cost, discount, business, leader, meeting, merchandising, (stock) trader, planning, marketing, lobbying, jogging, gym, footing, shopping, parking, star, designer, people (but only used for the rich and famous ones), fashion, hype and look.  English is considered, in a bourgeois sense, what is modern, efficient, and fashionable; in other words, everything having to do with Hollywood fashion magazines, drugs, business school, or exercise routines in which you wear a special outfit and run through parks in urban areas and/or on treadmills. 

While there are certain strains of criticism that go back to critiques of America during the McCarthy period etc., the most searing reactions nonetheless stem from the political changes in the 1980s.  Two books on the political history of France from this period answered a lot of my questions as to why France doesn’t just seem more to the left but actually is more of a socialist – if not even communist in rare instances – society.  Coming out of the two oil crises in the early and late 1970s, the world was – as the story goes – in crisis.  America and Britain, both fearing the idea of society living or dying as a whole, voted for a new politics in the form of Margaret Thatcher (1979) and Ronald Reagan (1980).  The story is well-known now: the neoliberalization of the markets, increasing inequality of wealth, and not only an end to social services (with a decrease in funding of said departments by 80% in the US) but the death of the social: the idea that people live together in a society, that politics and philosophy have meaning, and that everyone can and should have a say in the direction of our collective destiny.*

However, on the other side of the Channel the French elected François Mitterrand, a socialist, in 1981.  To say that there were clashes between the three governments would be an understatement.  Mitterrand once stated that the only reason he even dealt with America was due to its undeniable geopolitical prowess.  Relations were tense.  One of the books shows dialogue from three meetings between Reagan and Mitterrand in 1981 and 1982 in which the two are at each other’s throats.  In 1982, Reagan even tried to force France to break relations with the USSR as he considered Mitterrand to be an agent for international communism during the beginning of his presidency.  While Mitterrand maintained relatively close relations with the Soviets, visiting Moscow often during the 15 years he was in power, he did not consider himself a Marxist.  He does however talk at one point about appreciating Marx, thus the inspiration for his campaign theme ‘socialisme à la française.’

Consider this profound difference though: during 15 years of socialist governance, France largely saved itself from the enormous physical, social, and economic destruction that the US underwent, and forced on large parts of the world.  Though the pressure on Mitterrand to crumble under the weight of immense neoliberal international forces, he largely held his ground.   The effects of this are palpable as people commonly use words like solidarity, the collectivity, strikes, unions, the left, anticapitalism, antiglobalization, Marxism, and even communism (in a positive light). 

Today this was all put into action as an estimated 2.5 million French people took to the streets in a national general strike demonstrating their disdain for the government’s reaction to the economic crisis, giving 360 billion euros to banks and large corporations, and pursuing their ‘reforms’ in the pillage of social services, most notably health and education.  In Toulouse there was an estimated 80,000 strikers – or a tenth of the population – filing together around the city for most of the afternoon and evening, carrying banners, shooting fire-crackers, distributing flyers, chanting, talking, and graffiti-ing the windows of the multi-nationals.  It was not only a day of action in which people confronted the right-wing Sarkozy government’s policies, but one in which people showed that solidarity with one another is more important than another day of pursuing one’s career and personal goals, and that our collective reaction to this crisis can affect the future course of the world.  If only more around the world would take notice of the French example, stop their daily routine, and take action against neoliberal government bail-outs giving billions in public funds to the prime capitalist offenders, we would actually be able to construct a new and better world in the ruins of an unjust and imperialist capitalist one.

*Ronald Reagan however did not give a shit as evidenced by such famous quotations as ‘There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families’ and ‘Government cannot solve our problems, government is the problem.’

On a tract distributed at the strike: “Two centuries of capitalism and business nihilism have left us at the extreme of absurdity, for oneself, for others, for the world.  The individual, this fiction, has decomposed at the same speed that he has come to be realized as such.”

How Can Your Life Go On As Normal When Gaza Burns?

January 26, 2009

How Can Your Life Go On As Normal When Gaza Burns?

Also posted in the Pakistan Daily,, and at

How can your life go on as normal when Gaza burns?

January 7, 2009


Madame Clit runs a small Lebanese restaurant on the outskirts of Toulouse in a working class neighborhood called Le Mirail (pictures shown in Françafrique).  Not only does she make the best felafel in town, but it only costs 2.50 euro for a sandwich, a great deal for the many students who attend the nearby university.  After first discovering this gem of private enterprise (she even hired an anarchist who helps her close in the evening) late in the summer, I started coming every Monday.  It became a habit to bike an hour across the entire city, hang out in the university library for the afternoon and then come and talk to her in the evening when there were no longer any students around and the shop was mostly empty.  First we talked about the felafel, cooking, good felafel shops in the city, etc.; however, there was always a certain distance she kept from me.  I was after all nothing more than a random young American, until politics came up on the fourth or fifth week.

Mme Clit understands the nuances of American (and by extension, Israeli) history and policy in the Middle East much better than me.  She should, she has lived it; she was there in southern Beirut during the Israel invasions of ’82, ’92, and ’94, witnessing Israeli bombings and so-called civil wars.  Even years after she moved to France in ’97, she still went back to Lebanon to be there with her grandchildren during the second half of the 33 day Israeli invasion in 2006.  “If I hadn’t gone back to be in Lebanon during the war I wouldn’t be able to look in the mirror.  It was a political statement to the Israelis, ‘I’m not letting you force me to flee.  I am not moving for you.’  If my grandchildren were going to die I would be with them.” 

The French government had barred people from going.  Undeterred, she took a plane to Turkey, then Syria, and then drove across the border into Lebanon, this at a time when the Israelis were consistently bombing main transportation axes, and in particular roads (thus preventing any rescue operations).  When I asked her what she did all day while bombs were going off all around her she says they just went about their business, only keeping in mind at all times that they might have to run out of the building at any moment in case of bombardment.  For this reason she had to sleep with her clothes on and wash by taking off one article at a time, as it would not be ok to run outside or be pulled from the rubble, naked.  Such an empirical understanding of daily life in a war zone, in terms of witnessing collapsed buildings and dead bodies of neighbors in the street as the outcome of politics, is something I’m not capable of wrapping my head around. 

When she is not tending her shop – “a 6am to 10pm job 6 days a week” – Mme. Clit reads, she discusses with people constantly, and is active in campaigns and non-profits that support the Palestinian cause.  There are constantly people coming and going with whom she has insanely lively debates on the policy of the French government or the actions of the Americans and Israelis in the Middle East.  Yet, despite her willingness to debate and argue on the latter, it is clear that the depth of her understanding of the situation causes her immense grief.  “When you are there in the middle of the bombs there is death all around you.”  Watching BBC footage of Israeli jets and helicopters hovering above the Gazan high-rises, shooting missiles down below and causing entire sections of neighborhoods to collapse made this evident for me.

After about 6 or 7 weeks, meaning 2 or 3 in which we discussed politics, she told me she no longer disliked me for being American.  I understood and felt oddly grateful.  The following week I decided to expose my intentions to go to Palestine this coming summer to work with a Palestinian group against the Israeli occupation ( and ask her to help me learn some Arabic beforehand.  She generously obliged.

Over the next few weeks I studied using a free Rosetta Stone program on computers in the public library and came to her shop every Monday to ask questions and discuss concepts.  She kept her distance at first, frequently telling me I wasn’t studying the right things or that I was going too fast, etc.  At the end of the first few sessions, I was determined to finish on an optimistic note by emptily telling her I thought there had been some progress.  We worked through November and December as I learned basic and useless ideas and phrases like, “The boy jumps” (al well-ahd yak-fizz) or “The girl runs after the man” (al bint tejeree khalfa a rrajohl). 

The thing about Arabic though is that it’s really fucking hard.  Mme Clit says it’s the 2nd hardest language in the world to learn after Mandarin Chinese, which I would believe.  For example, not only are there entirely different words for each color based on whether they are being used in conjunction with a masculine or feminine noun, but there are also different words for the numbers depending on whether you are talking about the digit, a quantity, or the time.  I’ve given up on numbers, not to mention the alphabet (though that I decided from the beginning). 

When I asked Mme Clit if she’d be around during the holiday break she looked at me, tugged lightly on her hijab and gave me a are-you-kidding-me stare, adding that she never takes a week off.  Yet, when I went to see her one Monday over the Christmas holiday, the metal shutter was down and all the lights were off.  The following week I asked her about the absence.  At first she tells me she was sick.  “Oh what did you have?” I asked.  Sick from the murder of Palestinian civilians by Israeli planes, tanks, soldiers, bombs, and guns is more or less the response.  She goes on to say that she stayed in bed virtually the entire week, waking up at noon for the first time in her life due to conflict-imposed grief.  I sniffed and meekly told her I went to one of the protests.  She seemed glad and asked about it.

The ensuing Arab lessons were more intense than ever lasting almost 2 hours, with her intensely concentrating and explaining concepts in detail – though I have to admit that I only understood what she was talking about 3/4 of the time.  Whether or not this is because she finally believed in my motivation, or the importance of people intending to go to Palestine at this moment I do not know.  I’d like to think that our interaction right now is a way of feeling like we’re doing something though.  Yet as Israeli bombardments continue, the US continues to block UN resolutions, and Palestinian casualties exceed a thousand with 4 times as many wounded, such passive acts of participation seem more and more superfluous.