Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Kennedy has come back"

The French seem to have suddenly fallen under the spell of the new president, Nicolas Sarkozy. This article in the International Herald Tribune talks about how after a contentious election, Sarkozy's approval ratings (at 65%) have already shot as high as any president this early in his election under the fifth republic.

How to describe the Sarkozy mania? The French magazine, Le Point, puts it this way:
Kennedy has come back. He's named Sarkozy. Never has a president shown such a relaxed nature, such an absence of complexes.
Such an absence of complexes was in display when Sarkozy met with one of his ministers, Alain Juppé, whom he addressed with an informal "tu" instead of the formal "vous." According to the Herald Tribune, Juppé, a former prime minister in the formal Chirac era, seemed so flummoxed by the informality that he replied in a convoluted formulation, avoiding both "vous" and "tu." forms.

He also has invited the media to accompany him and his new prime minister, François Fillon, on their regular jogs. A recent photo of Sarkozy in Nike training gear (a notion once unthinkable in French politics) hopping up the steps of L'Elysée set both tabloids and conventional media outlets aflutter.

But the evolution in exercise and grammar is only window-dressing compared to Sarkozy's radical changes at the ministerial level: He named seven women and a socialist to his fifteen-person cabinet, streamlining the organization to half the size of that found under Chirac's government.

Time will tell whether France has reason for its newfound optimism.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The revolution will no longer be televised

Last week, Venezuelan president and avowed socialist, Hugo Chavez, took another step in radicalizing his country's socialist revolution by shutting down the country's oldest private television station. The private station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) often led off its news broadcasts by announcing that Venezuela was in crisis. Here are some examples of typical lead stories by the station:
"Inflation is soaring...There are acute shortages of milk, eggs and meat...Violent crime is taking more than 100 lives every week...The government is in chaos...Corruption is draining the country's oil wealth."
The troublesome, anti-Chravez RCTV has been replaced with a new "public service" station run by Chavez appointees.

Chavez and RCTV have long endured a tempestuous relationship. Chavez has never forgiven the station's support of the 2002 coup attempt on his presidency. During the coup, the station openly supported the removal of Chavez from office, failing to maintain any semblance of journalistic integrity in its biased reporting on the event (including inexplicably failing to mention the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who manifested their support of the president), and blaming Chavez's government for the ensuing violence that racked the city when it was later proven to have been instigated by those responsible for the coup.

Chavez has never been shy about courting controversy. If you're not familiar with the man's story, you owe it to yourself to watch this video chronicling the aforementioned short-lived coup attempt on his presidency. In fact, the video highlights the roots of the row between Chavez and RCTV, pointing out how RCTV's biased media coverage helped lend credibility to a thinly guised coup possibly supported by the CIA.

The station's closure highlights a disturbing turn in the regime's politics. More than 70% of Venezuelans polled opposed the closure (and only 16% approved)—though most cited losing their favorite programs rather than erosion of free speech as the reason. Chavez's popularity in the country, however, remains high, at around than 65%. There were large protests in Caracas over the past few days by those both supportive and opposed to the decision. Chavez's soldiers have reportedly fired on RCTV supporters.

As this editorial in The Guardian points out, Chavez is resorting to dictatorial means in order to effect his high-minded political ideals, illustrating that the "Venezuelan people's will" is, in fact, nothing more than Chavez's own political agenda in which he stifles any opposition to his policies through increasingly authoritarian means.

Friday, May 18, 2007

"I expect that I will be talked about at the end of 1,000 years."

Far too many hours in Guinea were passed with fellow blogger, ñamaku, and me lounging on the stained cushions of the Labé regional house reading to each other excerpts from the modern day classic, Chinaman's Chance, a novel the New Yorker(!) claims holds "enough plot to overwhelm a trilogy, and the Washington Post(!) calls "A classic of the genre" by "master storyteller" (and possible spy) Ross Thomas.

Namaku and I would laugh ourselves silly with characters, such as "The man with the six greyhounds" and "The pretender to the imperial throne of China." If you at all doubt Thomas's mastery of the English language, just read the book's opening line: "It was while jogging along the beach just east of the Paradise Cove pier that Artie Wu tripped over a dead pelican, fell, and met the man with six greyhounds."

Despite appearances, the story is apparently intended as a serious thriller. Even today, the author has a small, almost polite following, none of whom, apparently, see any humor in the story's ridiculous set-up, nor in Thomas's over-the-top schlock. Their loss.

Thomas, of course, isn't the only purveyor of dime-store doozies, nor are ñamaku and I the first to poke fun at their expense: This article from The Telegraph describes how C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and Mark Twain, among other authors of the time, would, as a sort of joke, read out loud to each other the works of a certain Amanda McKittrick Ros, a woman so convinced of her greatness that she believed her works would "be talked about at the end of 1,000 years."

And what would we be talking about? Lines such as these, perhaps:
"The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthy future, and form to swell the retinue of retired rights, the righteous school of the invisible and the rebellious roar of the raging nothing."
Well played, McKittrick, but you've still got nothing on Thomas's economy of line.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Army of Darkness

Guinea appears once again on the brink of chaos as soldiers have taken to the streets in recent weeks demanding new uniforms, promotions, and long-promised wage increases by firing their weapons and marching on the presidential palace. According to the Guinean government, the nationwide demonstrations have resulted in the death of at least six Guineans, and the injuries of at least 70 others.

Conakry has turned into a ghost town since h
undreds of armed soldiers mutinous began marching from Camp Samory Touré, near the internationl airport, towards downtown, seeout of the control of government and senior military officials. This report from IRIN describes how even President Lansana Conté's personal Presidential Guard was forced to flee from the armed mutinous soldiers.

As Lansana Kouyaté explains in his public address to the citizens of Guinea, the government is attempting to meet the demands of the soldiers, but calls for soldiers to first cease their violent demonstrations.

Soldiers' protests in Guinea are held in haphazard, dangerous fashion, usually involving random rifle fire in the air; the stray bullets inadverently hit human targets as they fall back to earth.

Today, the ailing president Lansana Conté (a former army colonel, and self-appointed "general") has met one of the protesting soldiers' demands, purging three of the top ranking generals in the army. However, he has so-far refused to demission Kerfala Camara, the man responsible for the infamous martial law in Conakry during the second round of nationwide rioting in February; and neither the president nor the prime minister have given any response to salary demands. According to the BBC, Kouyaté's government may find it difficult to find a solution since the government lacks any obvious means of meeting demands outside of printing more money—a potentially dangerous move given Guinea's 30% annual inflation.

According to someone close to the U.S. Embassy in Guinea, U.S. personnel remian under a security watch and her personal opinion is that there may be another evacuation of Embassy personnel if the situation doesn't stabilize in the coming days.

Privately, foreign diplomats wonder how much longer Conté can cling to power in an increasingly unstable and volatile political environment where even his own military demands change. The ease with which the disgruntled soldiers reached the Presidential Palace demonstrates the fragility of the regime, and the ease with which a potential coup could be effected.

It appears that hopes for a new, calmer Guinea will have to be put on hold, once again.

Friday, May 4, 2007

May Day Mêlée

You may have heard about the nationwide May Day immigrant protests a few days ago.

While most were peaceful, in Los Angeles, things got ugly. The protests were interrupted by a police crackdown on McArthur Park which resulted in the reported beating of several protesters.

Now some video of the protests in L.A. have emerged and we can see for ourselves how the police conducted themselves as they cleared the park and then the streets block-by-block of protestors.
Watch it here.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Elections à la française, Part Deux

In a few days, France will choose its next president.

Last night, French citizens had their first opportunity to see the two opponents duke it out head-to-head, without pause, for more than two-and-a-half hours. You can watch it in many little parties on YouTube starting here. Sorry, no subtitles.

The New York Times
offers an even-handed review of the proceedings here suggesting that neither candidate came out on top. Another review disagrees, saying Royal came out on top. She has to as she still trails by four points in polls taken before the debate.

Royal needs to nab about 60% of the voters who chose Bayrou in the first series of elections in order to close the gap. Bayrou refuses to endorse either candidate, though he has reserved his strongest criticism for Sarkozy.

I didn't have such a balanced view of the proceedings; I watched this debate at my university in France with about 40 other students. From my vantage point, it seemed as though the room went from supporting Royal in the beginning, to laughing at her missteps and Sarkozy's continual jabs. I was surprised to hear loud clapping for Sarkozy at the end while only a muted response for Ségolène.

The major turning point in the debate seemed to be when Sarkozy baited Royal with an anecdote about the injustices faced by the disabled in France. Royal bit and lost her top claiming Sarkozy was lying about his efforts while in office and calling him immoral or something like that.

The exchange went a little bit like this:
Royal: "[Your words are] the height of political immorality....describing the plight of children with a tear in your eye.”

Sarkozy: “Calm down.”

Royal: “No, I will not calm down.”

Sarkozy: “Do not point at me with this finger, with this—"

Royal: “No. Yes.”

Sarkozy: “With this index finger pointed, because frankly—”

Royal: “No, I will not calm down. No, I will not calm down. I will not calm down.”

Sarkozy: “To be president of the republic, you have to be calm.”

Royal: “Not when there are injustices. There are angers that are perfectly healthy because they correspond to people’s suffering. There are angers I will have even when I am president of the republic.”

Sarkozy: “Madame Royal, would you allow me to say one word? ...I don’t know why the usually calm Madame Royal has lost her nerve.”

Many of the students in the room at the time seemed to echo this sentiment, clucking and sighing in exasperation, or laughing at the suddenly furious Royal who seemed to stumble right into the trap Sarkozy laid for her.

I support Royal in theory but I would feel like I'm in a tough spot if I was a French voter. During the debate, Sarkozy hammered his points with an often-bewildering array of facts and numbers while Royal couldn't respond but to say that Sarkozy was wrong, rarely specifiying how and drifting from the questions posed by the moderators; when pressed for precision, she fell back on vague promises of "we'll see how negociations go." Her propositions seem like they would only enhance the oppressive socialist structure (especially the 35-hour work week) that's already strangling France's economic development.

Sarkozy, on the other hand, appears to have some idea of what he wants to do, which carries with it some appeal when the country considers itself in the midst of a growing crisis. Royal failed to press on issues where Sarko is vulernable (such as immigration), and even though I don't really care for a lot of his policies. He seems vaguely self-obsessed and confident to the point of arrogant; however, I have to hand it to him: he stayed on point and remained calm throughout the debate.

My Verdict: Sarkozy led the debate from the one-hour mark to the conclusion; though he verged on bullying Royal, who withered and postured as the debate wore on—and then, most worrisome, lost her cool, he never came off as anything but confident in his politics, which he supported with facts, something Royal often failed to do.

French voters have a tough choice coming up this Sunday.