I am back in Buenos Aires after nearly 40 years. At the time, the country was a dictatorship, an archipelago of torture. For a young reporter with what was still known as Le Nouvel Observateur, the times were tense. I was denounced as a subversive, arrested upon arrival at the airport, jailed, and threatened—all of which which led to a story that I can reread today without wincing with embarrassment. Forty years later, the fascist officers of the time, the likes of General Videla and Admiral Massera, are just painful memories relived each Thursday by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Buenos Aires has regained, in look and feel, the allure of an unwalled European city such as I imagine it had in the days of Jules Supervielle, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Roger Caillois, and the early Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. And I am touched—why hide it?—to be welcomed to the city by students, thinkers, and young members of the government who had not yet been born at the time of my first visit there but who greeted me as one of their own
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Three days later, just ahead of the much-anticipated referendum that President Masoud Barzani pushed forward through the hell and high water of largely hypocritical international pressure, I find myself in Erbil, capital of what soon will be Kurdistan. Not for anything in the world would I have missed this rendezvous. Nothing and no one could have kept me from spending that day among the people of the Peshmerga, who, from Jalulah to Sinjar, in the fray of battle and the calm of friendship, honored me with their confidence. The birth of a nation may or may not be a moving event. But when that birth is a deliverance; when it rescues a great people from an age-old and bloody oppression; when, even today, that people finds arrayed against it an unholy alliance of the region’s mock republics—Islamic (Iran), Islamist (Turkey), and postcolonial (Iraq); when its emergence promises to increase by one the ranks of the world’s democracies, a secular and pluralistic democracy tolerant of minorities, welcoming to Christians and Jews, and committed to equality of the sexes—well, then, what a joy. I will be back.
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In the company of two such strong and positive emotions, I hesitate to utter the name Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But I fear I must. Because this thriving retired senator, this pure product of the French Socialist Party and of a system that he now claims to want to unblock, this Tartarin (the puffed-up protagonist of Alphonse Daudet’s 1872 satire—a sort of French Elmer Fudd) who cannot stop avenging the humiliations he imagines were inflicted on him by François Mitterrand, François Hollande, and others, is, alas, a consummately contemporary character. Take his latest sally, which he dressed up as a history lesson for French president Emmanuel Macron. Mélenchon knows full well that it was not the French street but the Convention that brought down the monarchy. He knows that, far from defeating Hitler, the German people first elected him, handed him a victory, and made him chancellor. He is too smart not to know that that even in France it was not mass demonstrations, but the combined courage of Churchill, Roosevelt, and a small army of Free French totally at odds with “the street” who managed to do away with collaborationist Pétainism. And I cannot for a second imagine that he did not know what he was doing when he conflated—in the same sentence!—resistance to centrist leader Alain Juppé, to the labor reforms proposed by Hollande’s government, and to Nazism. Why, then, did he do it? There is only one plausible explanation for this sorry utterance. Which is that Mélenchon is, at bottom, one of those politicians for whom history and the truth are unimportant. That he is no longer a leftist, a Troskyite, or a Maduro socialist, but rather the braying equivalent of the unscrupulous and cynical spin doctors who break the elegant language of politics down into degenerate phrases empty of substance but rousing to the right audience in the right mood. And that, under the disguise of an old-style republican determined to revive the endangered oral art of the tribune, he is in fact one of those politicians who, like Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen, view historical revisionism as no more or less than a tool with which to garner attention and create buzz. It is whispered in France that Macron would not mind having Mélenchon as his principal or even sole opponent. And not long ago it was also said—at the start of Mélenchon’s new career as an “unsubmissive” rebel—that the disturbing Patrick Buisson, who so impressed former president Nicolas Sarkozy, was advising him and egging him on. If that is true, it is a bargain with the devil. One for which all of France will soon start paying the price. Because when one leaps from this side of the debate to the other, when one deals deliberately in speech that is knowingly and systematically debased, when one views the people to a mob to which one can say anything just as long as one gets the right reaction, one is courting the impulse to destroy—and inviting serious turmoil. Everyone in the street! foams the little man. And although the foam may resemble a mighty tornado while the wind is blowing, death and destruction will overtake it every time.
Translated from french by Steven B. Kennedy.