Not Always a Good Idea

Billy Wilder found it hard to be a young successful film director in Berlin in the thirties. He was Jewish. There was Hitler. He got the hell out of there. He headed for Hollywood, and here he became a wonder. There was Sunset Boulevard – an unflinching look at the rancid underbelly of the film industry. Souls are crushed. The good guy dies. Everyone in the industry hated it, and loved it – it was all true. The intersection of La Brea and Sunset Boulevard is now Billy Wilder Square. Someone stole the sign years ago. It figures – but everyone loved Some Like It Hot – Marilyn Monroe in all her fluid three-dimensional glory, but somehow shy and lovable, and funny as hell. Jack Kennedy was impressed. In between the two there was Sabrina – Audrey Hepburn as the original manic-pixie-dream-girl. She’s the honest and authentic wide-eyed waif that blows away the cobwebs. Late in the film she tells Humphrey Bogart – as the stuffy cutthroat businessman Linus Larrabee – that “Paris is always a good idea.”

His heart melts, or gets in touch with his inner child, or he discovers his true self that was hidden all along, or something. The two of them head for Paris. Fade to black. Roll the credits.

Billy Wilder should have known better:

Paris syndrome is a transient mental disorder exhibited by some individuals when visiting or vacationing to Paris, as a result of extreme shock resulting from their finding out that Paris is not what they had expected it to be. It is characterized by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and others, such as vomiting…

Japanese visitors are observed to be especially susceptible.

Paris isn’t always a good idea, even if you’re not Japanese. The culture is different. It’s a formal place. The French value elegance and restraint. There are things that just aren’t done. The bon élèves understand – they were raised right. And then there’s the language. One must speak French with precision. Learn the damned subjunctive.

Linus Larrabee was going to have a hard time there, but Billy Wilder didn’t make that film, and now things are even stranger. France has its own Donald Trump. Comment dit-on «America First» en francais?

One says that like this:

It has almost become routine in France: A terrorist attack shatters the rhythms of daily life, bringing bloodshed and anguish. The assailant turns out to be someone known to the authorities.

What is different now is the timing, as Paris is again on high alert, less than 36 hours before the country goes to the polls on Sunday in one of the most tumultuous and unpredictable presidential races in memory.

The brazen assault on Thursday by Karim Cheurfi, 39, a French national with a history of violence, left one police officer dead on the sidewalk of the Champs-Élysées.

It has also provided a potent opportunity for conservatives, primarily Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front, to use the violence to try to stoke hostility toward immigrants and Muslims, as well as fears about whether citizens can be protected from terrorism.

That can win an election, so she seized the moment:

Barely a week ago, with her poll numbers sagging, Ms. Le Pen tried to rally her base with a raw appeal against Muslims and immigrants. It was unclear if her gambit was resonating. Now she and other candidates are jockeying to position themselves as tough on terror, amid revelations that Mr. Cheurfi, like several attackers before him, had been on the authorities’ radar.

The Paris prosecutor’s office on Friday acknowledged having opened a preliminary terrorism investigation into Mr. Cheurfi as recently as March 9. He was arrested in February, only to be released for lack of evidence. After Thursday’s attack, the police found kitchen knives, a gun and a Quran in the trunk of the car he was driving, and also pieces of paper with scribbled allegiances to the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

Ms. Le Pen pounced, mocking the departing president, François Hollande, and vowing to be an unblinkingly tough leader.

“For 10 years, under the governments of left and right, everything has been done to make us losers,” she said, speaking from her party headquarters outside Paris on Friday. “There must be a president who acts and who protects.”

That was Trump, last year, talking about Obama, and all the other “losers” too. She knows how to win, no one else does. Only she can save France. Donald Trump kept saying that only he could save America, and then there’s the Hillary Clinton figure:

Some analysts predicted that the principal electoral beneficiary could be the embattled mainstream center-right candidate François Fillon, who produced a book last fall called “Defeating Islamic Totalitarianism,” and who also uses harsh rhetoric to depict the antiterrorism fight as a war of civilizations.

Mr. Fillon, a former prime minister, and once the presidential front-runner, had languished in polls after becoming entangled in a nepotism scandal that led to embezzlement charges against him. But he has been gaining ground in recent weeks, and the attack might provide a final push.

“You can imagine a movement toward one who has held power,” said Dominique Reynié, an expert on the far right who teaches at Sciences Po. “He’s written on terrorism. He’s been prime minister.”

Yeah, and Hillary Clinton talked tough, and she had been a senator and then secretary of state, for all the good it did her. One can imagine a movement toward one who has held power. One can also imagine elephants tap-dancing in spats. One can imagine lots of things, but this isn’t imaginary:

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Mr. Cheurfi’s neighbors in the Paris suburb of Chelles described him as quiet, and showing no obvious signs of radicalization. “Not very friendly. Fairly proud,” said Augusto Rodriguez, a neighbor.

Mr. Cheurfi was not among France’s notorious “S-Files,” the thousands suspected of extremism whom the state is officially surveilling, but does not have enough formal proof to arrest. The S-Files have acquired near-mythic boogeyman status in the French imagination. On Friday, Ms. Le Pen called for their expulsion from the country. At a campaign rally in Marseille earlier in the week, she called them an “immense army of the shadows that wants us to live in terror.”

That’s Trump’s Muslim ban taken a step further – toss them all out – and there’s this:

Emboldened after the Champs-Élysées attack, Ms. Le Pen sought, as she often does, to place the antiterrorism fight as a struggle for the French soul. The idea is at the heart of her nationalistic campaign, and even as her momentum has slowed she has still placed first in many polls before the Sunday vote. “France is targeted not for what it does, but for what it is, and the French, for the simple reason that they are French,” Ms. Le Pen said.

Comment dit-on «America First» en francais? That’s how one says “America First” in French, and this was predictable:

Ms. Le Pen “was seeking, like after every tragedy, to take advantage of it, in order to sow division,” said the prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve. “She’s seeking to shamelessly exploit fear and emotion for exclusively political ends.”

Of course she is. That works. She saw that work here. She’s not dumb, and Aaron Blake notes that she has a friend over here:

One of the dumbest games played in Washington is when politicians say nice things about other politicians but insist they aren’t “endorsing” them.

President Trump is now playing that game with the far-right candidate for French president, Marine Le Pen.

After French police officers were shot in Paris on Thursday, Trump quickly pointed the finger at terrorism – before the motive had been publicly determined. “That’s a very, very terrible thing that’s going on in the world today,” Trump said at a White House news conference with the Italian prime minister. “But it looks like another terrorist attack. And what can you say? It just never ends. We have to be strong, and we have to be vigilant.”

By Friday morning, Trump nodded subtly toward Le Pen’s candidacy, suggesting that the shooting would impact the election in a “big” way. And the implication was unmistakable.

He’s with her:

A Le Pen victory would clearly be cast as an extension of the nationalist sentiment characterizing both Brexit and Trump’s win.

And then Trump gave an interview to AP reporter Julie Pace, in which he said Le Pen was “the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”

“She’s the strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” Trump said. “Whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism, and whoever is the toughest at the borders will do well in the election.”

That wasn’t an endorsement, but it was:

Trump also just happened to underscore an issue that he feels is of the utmost importance – it was the subject of his first controversial executive action, the travel ban – and then pointed to Le Pen as clearly the best candidate on that issue. That’s no coincidence.

And it’s not like Trump spends lots of his time weighing in on foreign politics, if he even follows them. The one issue you could point to is Brexit. Like he just did with Le Pen, Trump suggested that the British referendum option to leave the European Union would win but said he wasn’t endorsing it.

That was bullshit:

After Brexit passed, Trump quickly made it his own, frequently pointing to his prediction that it would prevail.

When you combine all of this with the fact that Le Pen’s policies are so close to his own on issues of immigration and national sovereignty, it’s clear what’s going on here. And if Trump isn’t actually supporting Le Pen, the White House should probably take this opportunity to dispute that characterization. Because Trump is really making it sound that way.

It is what it is, but then there was this:

Former President Barack Obama gently waded back into international politics on Thursday, talking by phone with French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is the center-left candidate, and the leading contender to stop far-right Marine Le Pen from winning in either Sunday’s first round or the subsequent runoff.

Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said “an endorsement was not the purpose of the call, as President Obama is not making any formal endorsement.”

That’s not what Emmanuel Macron thought:

A source familiar said that Macron had sought the call. He’s hoping to preserve France’s pro-European Union bent, in line with Obama’s vision of global politics – and opposed to President Donald Trump’s. Le Pen had meetings in Trump Tower during the transition and has since traveled to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin.

Things are lining up. Marine Le Pen has Putin and Trump on her side – the extreme nationalists – and Emmanuel Macron has Obama:

Macron released video of his side of the call in a tweet reading in English, “Let’s keep defending our progressive values. Thank you for this discussion @BarackObama.”

And now add this:

Obama remains popular in Europe, but he’s yet to demonstrate any transferability of that into electoral wins, including when he came out heavily against Brexit in advance of last year’s vote, at the urging of then-Prime Minister David Cameron. Last November, traveling in Berlin the week after Trump won, Obama was asked whether he’d back Chancellor Angela Merkel in her own reelection this fall, and he said he’d support her.

“If I were here and I were German, and I had a vote, I might support her,” Obama said then. “But I don’t know whether that hurts or helps.”

But he’s scheduled to be back in Germany for another officially nonpolitical event with Merkel at the end of May.

Things are lining up. It’s Trump and Putin versus Obama and Merkel. Marine Le Pen is just a proxy. This is likely to produce acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and others, such as vomiting.

Vomiting may be appropriate, and Griff Witte explains why:

Of the four candidates with a realistic chance to become France’s next president, three oppose Western sanctions against Russia.

Two would take France out of NATO’s military command, or perhaps remove it from the alliance altogether.

And the one candidate who fits neither category would dramatically increase European defense cooperation to lessen dependence on what he regards as an unreliable United States.

This is not good:

When French voters make their choices Sunday in the first round of the country’s utterly unpredictable presidential race, the status quo for Western security won’t be on the ballot. Instead the election could become yet another convulsive moment for a decades-old international security order that is still wobbling from the turbulence of President Trump.

Victory for either the far right or the far left – candidates representing either extreme are among those locked in the four-way contest for a ticket to the second round – would mark an especially pronounced break for a country that is one of two nuclear-armed powers in Europe, with the world’s sixth-most-powerful military and a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

“It would be catastrophic – the undoing of 65 years of foreign and security policy,” said François Heisbourg, an analyst with the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research and a former defense ministry official. “This is big.”

That’s an understatement:

If there’s peril for the West, there’s opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia meddled in the U.S. election to help Trump, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. Whether Russia is interfering in the French vote is less clear. But analysts say the election undoubtedly offers another potentially disruptive moment for the West that Russia would relish – and likely seek to exploit.

“Putin would take advantage,” Heisbourg said. “The risk of war in and out of Europe would be quite high.”

And that risk may be certain:

“No matter who wins,” a recent analysis by the London-based European Leadership Network concluded, “France’s security and defense policy will not be the same, and some candidates would bring revolutionary changes.”

The most dramatic shift would come if either the far right’s Marine Le Pen or the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon manages to pull off a win – a prospect once dismissed as anything from unlikely to impossible, but now being seriously contemplated across Europe.

Despite coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both candidates are hostile toward NATO. Mélenchon has dismissed the alliance as a Cold War “anachronism” and an emblem of U.S. imperialism that he wants France to leave behind.

Le Pen also argues that NATO’s time has passed and that France should at least abandon the alliance’s integrated command structure, if not ditch the 28-member organization altogether.

She’s quite serious:

An admirer of Trump’s, she recently took rare issue with the U.S. president when he reversed course on his earlier criticism of NATO and approvingly described it as “no longer obsolete.”

“I am coherent,” Le Pen told France Info radio in a dig at Trump and a confirmation of her own anti-NATO views. “I don’t change my mind in a few days.”

She just said she’s better at being Donald Trump than Donald Trump is, and she won’t walk away from Putin either:

Le Pen, whose party received a 9-million-euro loan from a Moscow-based bank in 2014, has endorsed the Russian annexation of Crimea, called for a lifting of Western sanctions and proposed a new global power axis among Putin, Trump and, assuming she wins, herself.

“A new world has emerged in these past years,” she said during her Moscow visit. “It’s the world of Vladimir Putin, it’s the world of Donald Trump in the United States, it’s the world of [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi in India, and I think that probably I am the one who shares with these great nations a vision of cooperation and not a vision of submission.”

She does seem to worry about Donald Trump a bit, but also seems to assume he’ll grow a pair and reverse himself on NATO again. He just needs to listen Steve Bannon a bit more, not McMaster and Mattis and all those other submissive weaklings. And of course Putin wins no matter what:

If anyone other than independent candidate Emmanuel Macron wins the vote, Putin would, at the very least, have a more sympathetic counterpart in the Elysee Palace.

Mélenchon, for instance, has accused the West of provoking Russia with its missile-defense systems and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. He wants to lift sanctions and revive historically close Russian-French ties, while weakening links across the Atlantic to the United States.

Center-right candidate François Fillon, meanwhile, has also emerged as a sharp critic of sanctions, arguing that the measures intended to punish Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine end up hurting the French economy.

Fillon, the subject of often-approving coverage in the Russian media, has long-standing ties to Moscow and was paid tens of thousands of dollars to arrange a meeting between Putin and a Lebanese billionaire, according to reports in the French media. His campaign has denied the allegation.

And that’s why Obama made that phone call:

The only major candidate who does not favor a softer line on Russia is Macron. The 39-year-old goes out of his way in speeches to criticize Putin, knocking the leader’s well-documented reputation for political oppression and arguing that France, as the cradle of the Enlightenment, has a responsibility to speak out.

“Do not surrender to the siren call of those who argue that our principal ally will be Russia,” he told thousands of cheering supporters at a recent Paris rally. “We’ll have to talk to Russia. But shouldn’t we be outraged when human rights are violated?”

Well, the Enlightenment was a long time ago, when Paris probably was still a good idea. Things changed. Don’t believe the waif. That was just a movie.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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