Napoleon (2023): Ridley Scott’s Disdain for History
“France is home to the largest Jewish community outside Israel and the U.S., estimated at about 500,000, and one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe.”
“In Lyon, France, this weekend, a Jewish woman was stabbed in her home. The authorities said they found a swastika painted on her door. In Berlin last month, assailants threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue and Jewish community center. Someone set fire to the Jewish section of Vienna, Austria’s, largest cemetery last week, and a violent mob stormed an airfield and hotel looking for Jewish passengers when a flight arrived from Israel in Dagestan, a Russian republic that borders Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Reports of antisemitic incidents are soaring in countries across Europe, following Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in response to the Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7, which killed roughly 1,400 Israelis. Health authorities in Gaza say the bombing has killed 10,000 Palestinians so far, including more than 4,000 children, sparking outrage so intense that Jewish communities in Europe say they’re facing a level of hatred many of them haven’t seen before.
In the United Kingdom, these reports of antisemitic incidents more than quadrupled in the days immediately following the initial attacks, according to the Community Security Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting the British Jewish population. (The reports, it’s worth noting, often include a broad range of behavior, from physical assaults to tearing down posters of Israeli hostages.) In Germany, an organization that tracks antisemitism reported 70 incidents in the 11 days following the Hamas attacks, triple the number in the same period the year before. In France — home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, where Jews make up less than 1 percent of the population — interior minister Gérald Darmanin said there had been more than 1,000 incidents in the last month. “The number of antisemitic acts has exploded,” Darmanin told a French news network.
Stars of David have been spray painted on Jewish homes in Paris and Berlin — an ominous echo of the violence, forced displacement, and genocide European Jews experienced in these same places less than 100 years ago. “I am crying, because I am once again seeing the hate that we received when I was a child,” a elderly woman whose apartment was graffitied told a French television network.”
“European Jews aren’t the only minority group being targeted due to the violence in the Middle East. An organization dedicated to tracking Islamophobia found that reports of Islamophobic acts in the UK increased five-fold in the days after the Hamas attacks, according to the Financial Times. European Muslims are worried for their safety. “Muslims are really afraid of being stigmatised and blamed, and lumped together with Hamas supporters,” Lamya Kaddor, a German lawmaker of Syrian descent, told the paper. In the United States, too, both Muslim and Jewish communities are being singled out by acts of hatred.”
“Niger, a key U.S. ally in Western Africa, is undergoing a political crisis that has raised questions about the United States’ role in fostering foreign militaries in the name of fighting terrorism.
On July 26, Niger’s presidential guards, headed by Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, detained Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s democratically-elected president, and declared “an end to the regime that you know due to the deteriorating security situation and bad governance.” The new junta, officially titled the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, consolidated its control by suspending the constitution, dissolving all government institutions, and closing Niger’s borders.”
“The U.S. struck a similar tune as ECOWAS and the E.U., condemning Bazoum’s overthrow and calling for the restoration of Niger’s democracy while also suspending partnered activities with the Nigerien military. “We strongly condemn any effort to detain or subvert the functioning of Niger’s democratically elected government, led by President Bazoum,” said U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in a statement.
But unlike ECOWAS and the E.U., the U.S. has neglected to call the overthrow a “coup” to avoid the legal ramifications of that declaration. According to Section 7008 of the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, the U.S. is prohibited from sending foreign aid “to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree,” with an exception if the aid “is in the national security interest of the United States.””
“The Biden administration’s reluctance to label the overthrow a coup is unsurprising considering the United States’ significant security commitment to Niger. Presently, Niger hosts 1,100 U.S. troops, an increase of 900 percent since 2013. Those troops train and support Nigerien soldiers and run a $110 million drone base, which the Nigerien junta has restricted. The U.S. has invested $158 million in arms sales and $122 million in security assistance to Niger since the Trump administration began.
“The U.S. has wanted to have a role in West Africa largely because of great power competition. Because of that, Niger is one of a few countries that receive a lot of U.S. military assistance,” says Jordan Cohen, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “The U.S. is unlikely to call it a coup because once it does that, that assistance has to freeze.””
“”Maybe the new government tries to cozy up to China, in which case I think the U.S. probably does cut security aid, but if the military is going to continue working with the United States, everybody’s going to forget about this and the aid will continue,” suggests Cohen.
Egypt provides a model for a junta that remained in the good graces of the United States. After Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the military in 2013 (which the U.S. never officially called a coup), the Obama administration suspended “only a couple hundred million dollars in U.S. military aid” while still maintaining the majority of the aid. In 2015, the administration restored Egypt’s aid to fight the Islamic State.”
“It’s also not clear that U.S. security aid benefits regional security, given the tendency for the U.S. military to train future coup leaders. “The Niger coup marks yet another occasion in which U.S.-trained military personnel—the officers that we are educating and training—have sponsored or directly supported an antidemocratic coup,” noted Emma Ashford, a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, in an interview with Foreign Policy. “These aren’t just low-level troops who’ve been trained in combat techniques. These are often coup leaders, the cream of the crop of foreign militaries, trained here in the United States at our top service academies.”
“Part of what the U.S. spending on security assistance has done is fund hundreds of billions into the security forces, and that has contributed to this balance of powers in these governments,” adds Savell. “They have essentially given both military and security forces more power and more clout in comparison to other parts of the government.””
“It is extremely tempting to see the riots that spread across France recently as merely a sequel to the shocking events of 2005. Back then, 21 days of riots shook France’s “banlieues” (code for largely impoverished multi-racial communities) and made international headlines. And there are indeed long-term political, economic and social issues in France that explain why things have not improved since. Why there is more, or even worse, police violence against rebellious — but usually defenseless — young men of Arab or non-Western descent.
But the stunning disorder that’s plagued France in recent days is coming from a different place from what we’ve seen before. There is now a sense of humiliation and dispossession that crisscrosses French society, that transcends the banlieues, and transforms today’s riots into a display of shared and paroxysmic frustration. That should be deeply worrying, not just for President Emmanuel Macron, but for democratic leaders across the West.”
“This time, the riots followed the point-blank police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk after a car chase. The cost of the riots in a mere week — over $1 billion in damages to businesses — towers above that of 2005, but perhaps more notable is that the discussion of the banlieues has receded, or is mediated through, the lens of the police. (In fact, this echoes a different French film, Ladj Ly’s 2019 crime thriller Les Miserables; the last prophetic image is of a young boy beside himself with trauma and anger brandishing a Molotov cocktail in the face of a cop with a gun.) Today the majority of rioters don’t have an immigrant background, and most of them are minors, some as young as 12 — in other words only a few years younger than the victim. It is their extreme youth combined with what has been characterized as their hyper violence that makes headlines.”
“Regardless of the mindlessness of some of the destruction, the young people rampaging across French cities and towns are also expressing a deep anger rooted in humiliation that is felt across the country, not just in the banlieues. You could argue that for many French people, regardless of where they live, the nature of governance and decision-making in the past few years means that they all feel like “riff-raff” now.”
“From the often violent repression of the gilets jaunes (yellow vest movement) and Macron’s broken promises of a changed governing style, to the ramming through of pension reform (without a vote) in the face of massive, violent protests, the current government, despite its technocratic prowess, has given nearly every segment of French society, across all demographics and regions, cause to feel that they are governed sometimes competently but almost always with humiliating impunity. And too many have been injured or killed by police in the process; statistics show that French police kill four times more today than they did in 2010, fueling cycles of protest and repression.”
“Jérôme Piodi, a French Eurocrat who has spent more than a decade in public administration in the European Parliament and in related Parisian ministries, said the key factor in making progress in Europe is a common understanding of complex ideas. “Until very recently, access to instantaneous translation of speech and ideas was reserved to a certain kind of elite — the kind who could spend money to pay translators,” Piodi said.
Europe has more than 200 native languages and mutually incomprehensible dialects. All of its 24 official languages are highly developed, each with its own media, textbooks, movies and language academies. These languages, and their use in schools, workplaces and families, define a country’s identity.
But we’re now living, for the first time, in an era where everyone in Europe — from politicians to cab drivers — can understand one another. It’s true that previously, diplomats could communicate through translators and, typically, in English. Now, ordinary Europeans can understand one another, instantly and accurately, and because of the compulsive lure of social media — and Twitter’s decision to automatically translate every tweet — Europeans can and do talk to each other all day long. Talking to Ukrainians, and hearing directly from them, has hardened public support for sanctions and weapons transfers in the EU, despite Russian threats and soaring energy prices. Eurobarometer polling shows that 74 percent of EU citizens back the bloc’s support for Kyiv.”
“Google Translate isn’t the complete explanation for the newfound European unity, of course, but it’s an underappreciated part of the story.
“It’s had a huge effect on people and their ability to share ideas on social media,” Piodi says. “Twitter is a small window on the world; Google Translate made the window bigger.””
“Much of the European ire is directed at an IRA requirement that electric vehicles must have their final assembly in North America to qualify for a $7,500 tax credit. That has eliminated many European models that previously qualified, and even more could be excluded when additional domestic content provisions take effect, beginning in January.
The Treasury Department is currently developing guidance for how it will implement that tax provision, and Biden referred specifically to language that provides better treatment for countries that have a free trade agreement with the United States as one area where the law could be implemented in a flexible manner.
“That was added by a member of the United States Congress who acknowledges that he just meant allies. He didn’t mean literally free trade agreement. So there’s a lot we can work out,” Biden said.
That would solve some of the EU’s problems, since it doesn’t have a free trade pact with the United States. However, there is still the bigger problem that many of the cars that European companies sell in the United States are assembled in Europe, disqualifying them for credit because of the North American assembly requirement.
Biden did not say how that could be addressed, but U.S. lawmakers in recent days have said the administration is considering giving automakers more time to comply with the IRA provisions. That’s an issue that the France and other EU member states will continue to discuss with the United States through a recently established bilateral task force.”
“whether Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen is victorious, the election already offers more evidence of the challenges facing mainstream politics, with the collapse of the traditionally dominant parties and populist forces still rising across the West.”
“Whether this broad rejection of the status quo means we are headed toward a world dominated by illiberal politics or merely one of extreme and permanent volatility isn’t yet clear. And new crises, notably the consequences of climate change, may well fashion some hybrid version of our politics.
But ultimately, populism is probably a transition, not an end-state. The politics of the center are far from irrelevant, but our institutions — overwhelmed by the politics of accusation and resentment — no longer know how to provide voters with reasonable and legitimate means to address their grievances from a centrist vantage point. So populism, however destructive, may yet force Western politicians to craft new institutional paths to representation and to compromise — more in sync with what people experience in their everyday lives, and with what they value. More reactive, more local, and more flexible. But a painful and treacherous transition it is, something made quite clear in the French election.”
“Macron is no longer the exciting young maverick who stormed the Elysée, having siphoned support from a frustrated center-left and scandal-plagued center-right. He’s struggled to govern through crises like the Yellow Vests protests and pension reform strikes, while his “Jupiterian” approach and occasional sarcasm have all led to a deep resentment of his persona and some outright loathing in many quarters.
Post-pandemic, most French voters might have grudgingly agreed that Macron’s government has “done OK,” and as a result, Macron entered this election well ahead of other candidates in the polls, and slightly boosted by the Ukraine crisis. But a majority of voters are at best disillusioned and most often angry.
Meanwhile, in five short years, Le Pen has furthered her mission to appear more mainstream. Gone are the days when 80 percent of French voters thought she and her far-right party were a menace to democracy. Today, the number is barely 50 percent.
Le Pen’s strategy (since she took over the party from her Holocaust-denying father in 2011) has been to focus on lower income voters. Rather than simply woo those susceptible to a traditional populist right agenda on immigration and integration as her father had done, she made a play for working class voters who increasingly felt that the traditional left had deserted them and their interests. This story is a familiar one in advanced democracies where progressive or social democratic parties have struggled to reconcile representing the economically vulnerable while supporting inclusive visions of societies that lower income voters feel disproportionately benefit an (urban, cultural) elite. We saw this play out in the Brexit vote, but also in the Trump vote.”
“In 2017, Macron was elected by reducing the Socialists to rubble and putting the center-right on life support. This year, that trend accelerated, as the Socialists’ candidate came in below 2 percent (after holding the presidency a mere five years ago) and the leading candidate of the center-right came in under 5 percent. The result is that Macron aside, the candidates from the main institutional parties have been wiped out in this election.
Of the three candidates who came in over 20 percent, one is of the populist right (Le Pen) and one is of the populist left (Mélenchon); both advocate a distanced relationship with the EU and with the U.S., governance by popular referendum and pulling out of NATO or NATO’s integrated command. Add to this the 7 percent for extreme right Éric Zemmour and the 26 percent of voters who stayed home, and it shows the vast majority of French voters are refusing to engage with mainstream politics.”
“Part of the attraction of illiberal ideologies (sometimes imported from places such as Russia and China that have gone through more recent political and economic upheavals) is their rejection of the status quo. What is coming into focus is the fact that voters have a bone to pick not just with the choices they are being offered, but with the way they are being asked to choose.”