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TOURTOUR, France — At the annual village fête in Tourtour, a hilltop jewel in Provence, outdoor tables were awash in chilled rosé. An offkey but enthusiastic band made happy noise. At dark, kids carried candles in colored paper bags toward the church for spectacular fireworks.
Those rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, whether in France on July 14 or in America 10 days earlier, are meant to celebrate determined people shaking off authoritarian rule.
The next day on TV, after the usual show — jets trailing tricolor smoke over Paris and a parade down the Champs-Elysées — I watched a tribute to French Resistance members killed by Nazis that had nearly everyone, me included, dabbing at moist eyes.
Odile de Vasselot, 101, and Henri Becker, 98, explained why they braved a Gestapo that tortured to death anyone they caught. “At 17,” Becker said, “you don’t feel fear when your country is threatened. You do what you must.”
Emmanuel Macron touched their hands and exchanged private words. But so did his guest of honor, Narendra Modi, whose government one French analyst dubbed a democrature: a democratic dictatorship.
In living memory, Europeans saw a nutcase with a plan rise to power by manipulating elections and instigating Germans to demonize what he called inferior races. It took a devastating war to thwart his genocidal Thousand Year Reich.
Modi, though hardly Hitler, exemplifies how easily a demagogue with a ruling party can persecute minorities, muzzle speech, pervert the rule of law, harass news media and even limit women’s control over their own bodies.
France is India’s main arms purveyor — after Russia. It buys two-thirds of French military exports and may soon add 26 Rafale combat fighters, along with three diesel submarines. That requires cordial relations, not canonization as a saint.
America refused Modi entry for nine years back in 2005 after pogroms killed at least 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat province when he was chief minister. But in 2014, Barack Obama welcomed him as prime minister in the White House.
A joint statement said both countries “are rooted in the shared desire of our citizens for justice and equality.” And last month, Modi was back in Washington for a full-hoopla state visit. The leaders declared they were “among the closest partners in the world.”
Crises loom on every continent, but just look at the deeply troubled I’s: Iran, Iraq, Israel, Indonesia. And, particularly, India.
India is now more populous than China. They share a 2,100-mile border in the Himalayas where scores were killed or wounded in 2020. Both are reinforcing strategic points.
Joe Biden wants a friend nearby if China gets hostile. Ashley Tellis at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for decades my best India source, urges warm relations. But, he says, India won’t fight unless its own interests are directly at risk.
About 90 percent of its army equipment, and much of its air force fleet, is from Russia, which supplied India 2.2 million barrels of oil a day last month despite U.S. sanctions. China is its main source of imports.
The World Press Freedom index ranks India at 161 of 190 counties, three places above Russia. Freedom House calls it “partly free.” With Russian-type oligarchies under Modi, 1 percent of Indians control 40.5 per cent of its wealth.
Maya Jasanoff, a Harvard professor, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that beyond parallels to Europe’s fascist history, “India offers a troubling guide to how authoritarians can sabotage a multiethnic democracy in the Internet age.”
She cites “an out-of-touch elite, widening economic inequality, easily mobilized ethnic grievances, a changed information landscape,” along with “a once independent judiciary, which Mr. Modi has been angling to undercut.” Yet such worldly Americans as Bill Gates and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimundo fawn over him.
Modi talks about climate change, but the gutsy non-profit, The Reporters Collective, reveals how he enabled his billionaire buddy and backer, Gautam Adani, to mine huge amounts of coal despite a Supreme Court ruling. Other scandals abound.
He shuns the press at home and agreed after White House insistence to take a single question from an American reporter. She asked about his suppression of minorities. “Democracy runs in our veins…,” he replied. “There’s absolutely no discrimination.”
This is the man who in 2019 shouted in Hindi at a huge Texas rally of Indian Americans with a demagogic U.S. president in attendance, “Once more for a Trump government!”
Modi now cranks up the heat in Kashmir, smoldering since Partition between India and Pakistan in 1947. Both administer the divided enclave. A High Noon between two nuclear powers at the top of the world — what could go wrong?
I won’t try to summarize the eloquent Arundhati Roy. Her New York Times op-ed is attached below. It concludes:
“A bad moon is rising in the South China Sea. But for India, its friends and enemies are all wrapped up together in a tight ball of wax. We should be extremely, exceedingly, exceptionally, extraordinarily careful where we place our feet and float our boats. Everybody should.”
Perhaps Biden read Modi the riot act in private. I sure hope so. Public scolding only gets an authoritarian’s back up. Unless it’s Vladimir Putin, whose war crimes call for a stiff kick in the Kremlin.
Statecraft is no job for amateurs or ideologues. Democratic leaders can only protect human rights and values by example. That requires educated followers who recognize competence and know who to blame when things go wrong.
The other disturbing part of Bastille Day in Paris was massive security and the reasons for it. (See official video Elysee Palace)
On TV, the parade looked like the good old days when families mobbed the world-renowned boulevard, hoisting kids onto shoulders behind a single row of bike-rack barriers watched over by relaxed cops with only sidearms and sticks.
But Robocop police lined the heavily barricaded route. Security guards at metal detectors confiscated water bottles, forcing thirsty people to stand for hours in the heat.
Public fireworks sales were banned for fear some hothead might touch off a riot.
France, on terrorist alert since 2015, faces sudden anti-government protests. Police now have license to shoot anyone who flouts an order to stop. Last month, a cop killed a 17-year-old of North African descent, sparking outrage across the country.
At a casual glance, the soaring number of fatal shootings by police and seething hostility in over-armed, drug-ridden peri-urban banlieues is a damning indictment of a France that has abandoned its traditions.
I’ve watched the change since 1977 when it took its self-image seriously, a terre d’axile that tried (if sometimes failed) to live by those Emma Lazarus lines on the Statute of Liberty it gave the United States.
Postwar U.S. policy bears much of the blame. And now the nation that stitched the world back together after 1945 is pulling it apart again as brutal heat, freak floods and crop failure show beyond doubt that human life on Earth is threatened with endgame.
Over centuries, the French established colonies on a mission to civilize the world, like it or not. Schoolkids in Africa and Indochina learned about “our ancestors, the Gauls.” In World War II, colonial soldiers did much of the dying. Afterward, the empire crumbled.
North Vietnam and Algeria fought bitter wars for independence, leaving deep scars. Still, shared history enabled tense coexistence with Paris. Sub-Saharan colonies were free in 1960 but stayed linked to France with a convertible currency and advisers in key ministries. Each year, the Elysée Palace subsidized budget shortfalls.
Families from ex-French territories mostly integrated. But refugees from the Iraq war and its ripple effects besieged France along with others fleeing drought and poverty. Immigrants now number near five million, approaching 10 percent of the population.
Many are strict Muslims with no interest in roti de porc or Côte de Rhone, disgusted at exposed flesh in a permissive society. Angry jobless youths in dead-end enclaves fall prey to radical imams and terrorist recruiters.
Remember “freedom fries” and Bordeaux poured down drains when France refused to invade Iraq in 2003? Ungrateful Frogs had forgotten D-Day! Bart Simpson, the comic character, coined an epithet: cheese-eating surrender monkeys. He was only right about the cheese.
After losing three million combatants and civilians last century, the French know the cost of war — and how hard it is to stop. Soft power requires skillful diplomacy. Hard power — invasion — breaks things, produces misery and leads to future conflict.
France built a defensive nuclear-tipped force de frappe. Bases in Africa kept the peace. Paratroopers quickly quelled uprisings. When trouble flared, U.S. aircraft shuttled supplies to French forces who did the dirty work.
French legionnaires held frontline positions in the first Gulf War and then waded into Bosnia. After 9/11, left-leaning Le Monde declared in a frontpage headline, “We Are All Americans,” and France rushed troops to Afghanistan.
Then W. went after Saddam, a secular Sunni who despised Osama Bin Laden. When Colin Powell appealed to the Security Council, France wanted evidence that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction, which it hadn’t.
Torture and humiliation in U.S. military prisons spawned the Islamic State. Its Caliphate in Iraq was conquered, but its fighters streamed through Libya into West Africa. Terrorist networks now operate across much of the continent.
In the Sahel, a desert swath below the Sahara, Mali and Burkina Faso throbbed with life — ancient mud mosques, haunting music, humor, peppery soul food and kids with homemade toys who laughed off hardship. Tourists filled hotels with pools, well-stocked bars and delicacies flown from France.
No longer. At first, paratroopers took back Timbuktu and opened main roads. Then after heavy casualties and military coups, Macron brought them home. Russian Wagner mercenaries now pillage and rape in the Sahel and far beyond where gold, diamonds and other loot are easy pickings.
America had no colonies but plenty of political aims and commercial interests. Dwight Eisenhower foresaw a “military-industrial complex.” Wars are hell for those who fight them and those in the way. Otherwise, they are ungodly profitable.
JFK ignored De Gaulle’s warning to stay clear of Vietnam, and America forgot the eventual lesson. Outsiders can’t remake ancient societies they don’t understand or impose democracy with handpicked corrupt leaders.
Jimmy Carter tried to protect human rights in his single term. Then Kissinger gave free rein to Augusto Pinochet in Chile and rightwing generals elsewhere who tortured to death leftist guerrillas and suspected sympathizers. In Argentina, I watched fragile democracy swiftly descend into the “dirty war.”
Reagan backed military rule in Central America and Contras, “freedom fighters” who smuggled cocaine to Florida on CIA planes. After an explosion at a U.S. Marines base in Beirut killed 241 servicemen in 1983, he ordered a wag-the-dog invasion of Grenada.
It was not just Republicans. Bill Clinton ignored dangers after the Soviet Union fell. He acted too late in the Balkans and blocked U.N. action to stop Rwandan genocide. Barack Obama let Russians control Syria, and he ignored Biden’s urging to exit Afghanistan.
No elections anywhere have been more crucial. Donald Trump is a treacherous, obscene criminal, but the problem goes beyond him. A Ron DeSantis or another faithless Republican could be worse.
Trump amounts to a conniving jackal that happened on a weakened prey. Beginning in the 1980s, Republicans infiltrated local governments from statehouses to sheriff’s offices, with an all-out assault on public schools.
Most students learn to be worker bees, with little attention to civics, history or geopolitics. The Internet and nonstop TV confuse more than inform. Meaningless catchwords whip up fervor among what Lenin called “useful idiots.”
Republicans now appropriate Hitler’s bedrock tactic: the grosse Lüge. The big lie. Hannah Arendt, a Jewish social theorist who escaped Germany and moved to America in 1950, put it well:
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction…between true and false no longer exist.”
A massive turnout would turn this around. That will take beating the bushes, especially in swing states and gerrymandered districts. Democrats leaning toward a third-party spoiler are open to fact-based persuasion. So are wavering independents.
I can’t resist the metaphor. Even hobbled by Republicans with no plan beyond vindictiveness and demagogy, the old guy at the tiller is heading America off the rocks. After a little smooth sailing, a fresh young crew can chart a course to that better future.
Biden will need a thumping majority in Congress and statehouses. Every ballot will matter. Remember Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish statesman: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
Little is no longer enough. In 2020, only 26 percent of eligible voters from 18 to 30, those with the most at stake, even bothered to cast a ballot. Many inadvertently helped Trump by voting for an also-ran or writing in someone they liked better than Biden.
Down ballot, gerrymandering, vandalized voting rolls and torrents of money allow a Marjorie Taylor Greene to rise overnight from harassing a Parkland school massacre survivor outside the Capitol to be a major force in a hijacked Republican Party.
Whether she is an unhinged lunatic or an evil genius with a Trumpian gift for stirring up the animals doesn’t matter. Beyond her bat-crap crazy caucus, there is Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan. Don’t get me started.
We all laughed when Greene said authorities who imposed mask mandates during a deadly pandemic were worse than the Gazpacho. Not so funny in today’s context.
New generations can shape their own brave new world only if they understand what went wrong in the old one. For now, it all depends on whether Americans, young or old, do anything they can to get enlightened people to the polls.
For starters, it is crucial to remember the French Resistance. There is no Gestapo, for now. All Americans need to do is register — and show up.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.