Monday, September 18, 2017

Michael Deibert interview with M24

While in London, I was interviewed about Haiti by M24, the radio station of Monocle magazine. My part begins around the 11 minute mark and can be heard here.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

London Book Launch for Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History

Zed Books, Waterstones Tottenham Court Road, the historian Carrie Gibson and a wonderful, well-informed audience all helped to give my new book, Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History, a lovely UK launch in London earlier this month. All photos are © Michael Deibert.





Thursday, September 14, 2017

On the Ground: Michael Deibert interview with Sam Schindler on What We Will Abide

26 August 2017

Journalist Michael Deibert has called several countries –if not continents– home, and has written several books, including In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico, and most recently Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History, which came out earlier this year.

He’s had articles published in The Guardian, Truthdig, The Huffington Post and Slate among others.

He currently resides in Lancaster, but as his résumé clearly shows, staying put isn’t exactly his game. We sat together on a relatively cool summer morning in the cemetery adjacent to St. James’ Church in the heart of Lancaster City, where he was born and the city he calls home – for now.

Listen to the full interview here

Thursday, August 24, 2017

One Rural County’s Battle to Stop a Pipeline From Slicing Through Pennsylvania

August 15, 2017

One Rural County’s Battle to Stop a Pipeline From Slicing Through Pennsylvania  

Lancaster County, Penn. is rising up against the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline.

BY Michael Deibert

In These Times

(Original article appears here)

LANCASTER COUNTY, Penn.—Under the banner of a piercing blue sky at the edge of a cornfield, hundreds gathered on July 9 to pray and raise their voices in song.

Drawn from a diverse group of multi-faith actors, local activists and concerned residents, the assemblage had arrived at this spot to consecrate a prayer chapel they hope will stand in the way of the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, slated to be built through 37 miles of this county in southeastern Pennsylvania by the Oklahoma-based Williams Partners.

In this largely rural county of nearly 600,000, encompassing rolling farmland and the hardscrabble city of the same name, Williams and its subsidiary—the Transcontinental Pipeline (Transco)—have already gained permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to seize private property via eminent domain along the route. Coming on the heels of the 2016 to 2017 protests against the construction of Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, some believe this may be the new front in the battle between the fossil fuel industry and its enemies.

The sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ are the Catholic religious order that owns the land on which the prayer chapel—little more than a pulpit and several rough wooden benches—stands in the pipeline’s path. They don’t intend to go without a fight.

“We have a land ethic: We consider all creation to be interconnected, and the land is holy,” says Sister Janet McCann, who is on the leadership council of the Adorers at their mission center based in St. Louis, Mo. “To have something come through that could endanger the lives of human beings and the ecosystem, that’s something we need to stand up against. We don’t want to be part of that.”
Her fellow sisters echo this call.

“We are women of faith, and we see this as part of the gospel,” says Sister Sara Dwyer, the social justice coordinator for the nuns. “We are here to be responsible stewards of the earth, and to preserve it for generations to come.”

The chapel is the latest chapter in a years-long battle that has placed hundreds of local residents against the power of the natural gas industry and its enablers in both local and federal government. With echoes of the face-off at Standing Rock and other movements around the country, the battle in Lancaster is one that has politicized many residents who never thought of themselves as activists before.

For Malinda Clatterbuck, her involvement began with a knock on the door of her home in the heavily-rural southern part of the county one afternoon in March 2014.

There, she found a surveyor contracted by Williams standing on her front porch asking for her and her husband, Mark, to sign a form permitting their property—acres of woods she had grown up on—to be surveyed for the pipeline. The surveyor said the Clatterbucks should have already received the paperwork, and that the new project was to be built using already existing pipelines (of which there were none). Clatterbuck told the surveyor she would have to do more research before she signed anything.

When she looked into it, she found that the pipeline was slated to traverse her property (the route has since been moved). Furthermore, it was to cut through other farmland and run directly under the Conestoga River, an umber-hued tributary of the larger Susquehanna River which snakes along for about 65 miles, spanned by covered bridge and abutting local Amish and Mennonite farms.
The experience, and what they viewed as the prevarication on the part of Williams and its ancillaries, led the Clatterbucks to form Lancaster Against Pipelines (LAP), a local advocacy organization committed to opposing the Williams project through non-violent civil disobedience. Among other actions, LAP built an outfitted treehouse on the property of local landowners sympathetic to their cause at the point where Williams was to drill under the Conestoga. They dubbed the structure The Lancaster Stand.

“We’re an agricultural community in many ways, and we depend on the earth for our livelihood,” says Malinda Clatterbuck. “In a way, I think Lancastrians have a better understanding of humanity depending on earth for life than some other places. But this is also the rights of communities to protect their own health and safety, rights that have been taken away from us. This incident has given us an unwanted education about our government not being about people having power, but about industry dictating what happens to everybody else.”

For its part, Williams has been quick to point out what it says are the financial benefits of the project.

“The existing Transco pipeline currently delivers about 40 percent of the natural gas consumed in Pennsylvania, operating more than 1,000 miles of pipe and serving major local distribution companies such as Philadelphia Gas Works, PECO Energy, Columbia Gas and UGI in Lancaster County,” Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for Williams, wrote in an email.  “Any one of those existing Transco pipeline customers will be able to take advantage of new gas supply access made possible by the Atlantic Sunrise project.”

Stockton also pointed to a commitment by Williams to invest $2.5 million in environmental stewardship in the project areas and the “economic relief” that the firm says will come to local communities from natural gas impact fees in Lancaster County.

The response from local and national officialdom to the locals’ concerns has largely not been supportive.  A new bill, H.R. 2910, the “Promoting Interagency Coordination for Review of Natural Gas Pipelines Act,” passed the U.S. House of Representatives in July. It seeks to streamline the permissions needed to commence work on fossil fuel infrastructure.

“I’ve always wanted to see Pennsylvania grow its energy infrastructure,” says Scott Martin, the state senator for Pennsylvania’s 13th District, of which Lancaster is a part. Martin, a Republican, has been a strong proponent of the pipeline. “We’ve tried to bridge the gap between the company and the landowners, but, in the end, if we don’t have these things, how do we expect to have energy for the future?”

In a move that made national news, this past summer, Martin co-sponsored legislation in Pennsylvania’s senate to make any protesters convicted of “rioting” or “public nuisance” liable for the costs related to any protest or demonstration. Those leading the initiative explicitly referenced the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. State Senator Scott Martin noted that, while the local protesters had been peaceful, “if the situation deteriorates … protesters should not be able to walk away from the damage they cause without consequence and expect first responders and taxpayers to deal with the fallout.”

Pipeline advocates frequently accuse protesters of having been infiltrated or in thrall to outside forces and even of being ‘homegrown terrorists.’ The local protesters bristle at the suggestion that they are motivated by anything other than the desire to protect the county where many have made their homes for generations.

“We have been accused of being outside, paid agitators, but most of us here are from community churches—Unitarian, Lutheran, Mennonite—and some of us here are from some of the oldest families in Lancaster County,” says Joanne Musselman, whose family helped found the nearby town of New Holland in the early 1700s. “It’s a sacred covenant between the farmers and the land to be passed onto our grandchildren. And now the big oil and gas boys from Texas and Oklahoma are here to ruin our farmland and sacred places. It’s criminal, and it’s criminal that our elected representatives don’t represent us on this issue.”

Such activism in Lancaster is hardly new. Before, during and after the Civil War, the county served as the political base for the fierce abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, whose grave in Shreiner-Concord Cemetery in the city of Lancaster remains a place of pilgrimage.

Since the electoral college victory of Donald Trump, direct action groups such as Lancaster Stands Up have also emerged in the county, staging demonstrations and advocating for progressive political goals.

The battle, however, remains an uphill one. In late July, pipeline opponents were informed that the landowner on whose land the Lancaster Stand had been built had finally caved and sold the property to Williams for $2.8 million. In recognition of this, the local protesters dismantled the Lancaster Stand rather than allow it to fall into the hands of Williams.

“The industry has a hell of a lot of power in institutions that should be protecting the rights of people,” says Malinda Clatterbuck, with LAP and its allies vowing to fight on. “This is a systemic problem in our country right now. We’ve come to understand that this problem is larger than just protecting Lancaster and what’s beautiful in Lancaster. No one stands alone. We live in community. We have to depend on one another and we have to protect one another.”




Thursday, July 20, 2017

Was the ‘Guatemalan Spring’ an illusion?

Michael Deibert | 11/07/2017 5:21 pm

fDi Magazine

(Read the original article here)

A year into president Jimmy Morales’s mandate, Guatemala’s economic woes persist. Michael Deibert reports.

In the autumn of 2015, it appeared that Guatemala, Central America’s most populous nation and largest economy, might be turning a corner. Two decades after a peace accord ended Latin America’s bloodiest civil war, the nation, mired in corruption and impunity, succeeded in striking some important blows against both.

Following weeks of massive street protests, both the then-sitting president, Otto Pérez Molina, and recently-departed vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, were divested of their duties and imprisoned on corruption charges, accused of running a criminal network known as La línea (The Line) while in office. The arrests were spearhead by the work of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body that has operated since 2007, which works closely  with Guatemala’s Ministerio Público and is charged with investigating criminal organisations and exposing their relation to the state.

At the time, many heralded the developments as a kind of “Guatemalan Spring”, one that would hopefully sweep much of  the corrupt old order away and give the country a chance to capitalise on its vast natural resources and unique geographic position on the Central American isthmus.

A political outsider, former comedian Jimmy Morales, won the presidency that autumn, though the fact that he ran as the candidate of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), a party founded by former military officers leaning to the extreme right of the country’s military spectrum, gave many pause.

A little over a year into his mandate – despite the fact that, last year, Guatemala attracted $1.18bn in foreign investment, with agriculture, electricity manufacturing and mining leading the way, according to figures from Santander – the suspicions some had about Mr Morales have done anything but dissipate.

This past March, thousands marched through the streets of the nation’s capital, Guatemala City, demanding his resignation after both his brother, Samuel Morales, and son, José Manuel Morales Marroquín, were arrested on charges they participated in a tax fraud scheme. The pair are currently awaiting trial.

At around the same time, in an event that seemed to highlight government indifference to Guatemala’s social ills, 41 teenage girls were burned to death at the Virgen de la Asunción shelter, which had been recommended closed due to repeated allegations of abuse of its charges. The case led to the indictment of three government officials and two police officers and prosecutors have openly talked about having Mr Morales’ immunity lifted in it, as well.

Two towns in the department of San Marcos, Ixchiguán and Tajumulco, entered a state of siege due to conflict between local and national authorities and bands of rival drug traffickers.

One small bright spot has been the renewal by the United Nations of the mandate of CICIG head Iván Velásquez this past June. Mr Velásquez, a Colombian jurist, has led the body since 2013, and has earned the enmity of many of Guatemala’s corrupt actors, even as CICIG has maintained a large degree of support among the population. 

If Guatemala is to continue to move forward and solidify the modest gains against impunity it has made, the work of CICIG and the Guatemalan institutions it partners with – and the power of its newly-motivated citizenry – will be key.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The End of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti

June 21, 2017

The End of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti

What It Means for the Country's Future

By Michael Deibert

Foreign Affairs

(Read the original here)

Under an ash gray sky threatening rain this past April, dozens of people in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cité Soleil (Sun City) gathered across the street from the local police station to survey a flat patch of earth where goats normally graze. As surveyors in helmets and green vests took measurements of the land, residents discussed their plan for this corner of a desperately poor quarter of this impoverished country: the construction of a new library, the Bibliyotèk Site Solèy, funded by small donations from hundreds of Haitians and with books contributed from both within Haiti and abroad.

“This is not just a library. This symbolizes a lot for us,” said Louino Robillard, a native of the northern town of Saint-Raphaël who moved to Cité Soleil with his father when he was three and grew up in the district’s Ti Ayiti section. Robillard is the driving force behind the Konbit Solèy Leve, a social movement whose name refers to both the tradition of volunteer community work in rural Haiti (konbit) and the neighborhood’s name (solèy leve, meaning “rising sun”).

“This symbolizes unity,” Robillard said. “This symbolizes hope.”

A little more than a decade ago, Cité Soleil was a war zone where daily survival, let alone long-term planning, was a Herculean task. It was, and to some degree remains, a redoubt of the armed political pressure groups known as the baz (base) in Haiti, who maintain an uneasy and ambiguous relationship with the country’s political factions. Today, however, grass-roots organizations such as Konbit Solèy Leve and the Sant Kominote Altènatif Ak Lapèhave been working to put the konbit model into practice, gathering residents to clean the fetid canals and other areas of the district and trying to sow connections between the sometimes fractious groups in the zone. The grass-roots nature of such initiatives is especially significant given what Haiti has witnessed over the last decade.

MINUSTAH'S BEGINNINGS

In February 2004, then Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a democratic icon who had decided years before that he was not beholden to the rules of democracy, fled the country into exile amid massive street protests and an armed rebellion against his increasingly despotic rule. He left behind a nation devastated by political warfare and environmental crises, with a treasury virtually emptied by years of corruption and theft. After the brief presence of the U.S.-led multinational interim force, in June 2004 the United Nations established the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French-language acronym, MINUSTAH.

The Brazilian-led mission that came for an initial period of six months would stay on for 13 years, tasked with “stabilizing” this often tumultuous country of glittering Caribbean beaches, mist-shrouded mountains, and the syncretic vodou religion. Haiti also boasts the distinction of having conducted the only successful slave revolt in history, which saw it gain independence from France in 1804, making it the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere after the United States.
Although MINUSTAH oversaw three consecutive presidential elections, each more turbulent than the last, the UN Security Council voted unanimously this April to end the mission by October. Yet many of the problems that afflicted Haiti’s tentative democratic gains before the mission landed remain and, in fact, have been codified into practice.

When MINUSTAH arrived, Haiti (and Port-au-Prince in particular) was violently factionalized between Aristide supporters and the former members of Haiti’s disbanded military who had helped oust him, both heavily armed. The unelected interim government in power at the time cut off supporters of the ancien régime from the meager government funds they had been accessing, while some members of the country’s economic elite advocated a policy of repression and revenge against the ousted president’s partisans.

The tensions spiraled into a period of violent anarchy known as Operation Baghdad, which ground on for two bloody years that also saw the suicide of MINUSTAH’s military commander, Brazilian Lieutenant General Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar. The chaos lasted until the election of René Préval in 2006, for what would be his second tenure as Haiti’s president.

Criticized for years for its perceived passivity in the face of relentless violence, MINUSTAH seemed to find its footing under Préval, who had a volatile but ultimately productive relationship with the UN mission’s chiefs, first Guatemalan diplomat Edmond Mulet and later Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi. With MINUSTAH as a reserve force insulating him from the coups that had marked Haiti’s history, Préval, a savvy politician, could set about the work of trying to unite a divided country and attracting foreign investment. To a surprising degree, over the next three years, he largely succeeded. Even when unrest roiled Haiti in 2008, there seemed to be no fear that Préval would be ousted.

All that changed on January 12, 2010, when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince and the surrounding regions. Tens of thousands of Haitians and 101 UN employees, including Chief of Mission Hédi Annabi, died. This was the largest single-day loss of life in the organization’s history. The stability that had been so carefully nurtured over the preceding three years vanished within seconds.

After the earthquake, the tense relationship between Préval and Mulet (who returned to head MINUSTAH after Annabi’s death) became even more so. In the words of the Haitian economist Ericq Pierre, foreign aid and organizations poured in with “too many propositions, too many resources, too many promises, too much knowledge, and not enough know-how,” and a sense of drift and curdling directionlessness became palpable.

PEACEKEEPING SCANDALS

The culture of impunity within Haiti’s body politic is one of the country’s most destabilizing problems. Yet following the earthquake, MINUSTAH chose to avail itself of this culture rather than combat it.

After video evidence surfaced in September 2011 that Uruguayan peacekeepers might have raped an 18-year-old boy in the southern town of Port-Salut, a local human rights organization, the Réseau National de Défense des Droits de l’Homme, charged that the contingent had been leading “a life of debauchery” for some time. (Four of these peacekeepers were later convicted of “private violence” in the case by a Uruguayan court.) It was one of several sexual assault scandals that rocked the mission, including others involving Pakistani and Sri Lankan peacekeeping forces.

When I visited Haiti around this time, I witnessed a group of surly, well-fed men who identified themselves as Canadian police advisers drink themselves into oblivion and splash around in a hotel pool. Only feet away, in a tent encampment of earthquake victims, thousands sat in darkness through long evenings of pounding rain, creating the perception of a fraternity party amid an apocalypse.

Also in 2011, at a base set up by MINUSTAH peacekeepers from Nepal, a broken PVC pipe was pouring raw sewage into a tributary that fed directly into the Boukan Kanni and Jenba Rivers, which then flowed into the larger Artibonite River, the main water source for the eponymous lush agricultural region. This would lead to a cholera epidemic that has so far killed over 10,000 people. After years of denials, and despite multiple reports conclusively linking the cholera outbreak to the mission, the UN would not admit culpability until August 2016. To this date, it has compensated none of the victims.

MARTELLY'S MIXED RECORD

Along with the U.S. government, MINUSTAH played a decisive role in Haiti’s acrimonious 2010–11 elections. Préval tried to impose upon a weary nation his successor, the highly unpopular Jude Célestin. But through a combination of international diplomatic pressure (including that of Mulet and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) and violent street protests, he was forced to back down and assent to a runoff that eventually saw singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly inaugurated as Haiti’s president in May 2011.

The record of the Martelly government, whose rise MINUSTAH aided, was a mixed one. It made advances in terms of infrastructure and tourism, and the country’s spirits were often buoyed by the president’s charisma. But many of the salutary effects were undercut by the violence surrounding last year’s aborted election, and the government, like many before it, was marked by a high degree of corruption and impunity.

Both symbolically and mechanically, Martelly represented the return of a political strain associated with the former Haitian dictator François Duvalier and, more closely, his son and successor, Jean-Claude. Whereas Duvalier père presented himself as a noiriste dictator enacting a kind of color-based revenge, the son attempted to portray a more liberal laissez faire image while promoting foreign investment (a dishonest image, as the country remained a brutal police state). This strain historically has often seemed locked in a struggle with the anarcho-populism most vividly typified by Aristide. When elections were finally held in November of last year—again delayed, again disputed—Martelly’s designated successor, Jovenel Moïse, an agribusinessman and, like Martelly, political novice, won an outright majority.

“Perhaps MINUSTAH served to prevent coups,” says Laënnec Hurbon, Haiti’s most eminent sociologist and the author of key works such as Le Barbare imaginaire. “But, while I am wary of the nationalist rhetoric of politicians who make regular criticisms of international interference, I must admit that in the 2011 elections MINUSTAH intervened in the electoral system to impose a candidate in the second round...When this candidate who came to power, a whole new layer of neo-Duvalierist politicians took over the state who were only interested in doing business with the resources of the state.”

Although relatively peaceful at the moment, despite MINUSTAH’s long-stated goal of stabilization, Haiti is a country where many appear to have lost faith in the democratic process, with only the most desultory electoral participation. Haiti remains a kingdom of impunity, with political malefactors who are able to reinvent themselves (one need only look at Haiti’s current Parliament to confirm this) and a police force whose autonomy, cultivated by Préval and former Police Chief Mario Andrésol, had eroded under Martelly, despite the best efforts of many dedicated officers. Many, including the president, speak openly about resurrecting the Haitian army, extraconstitutionally disbanded in 1995, which the police replaced.

Moïse remains an unknown quantity, whose words of commitment to the country’s long-underserved peasant majority bring hope even as what some say are authoritarian tendencies give pause. (One of his first acts as president was to dismiss the head of the Unité Centrale de Renseignements Financiers anticorruption body.)

“The new government will have to be careful of its image and ensure the president's staff is impeccable in terms of honesty,” says Marilyn B. Allien, the president of La Fondation Héritage pour Haïti, Haiti’s branch of the global anticorruption organization Transparency International. “This also applies for cabinet members and members of Parliament. Every effort should be made to ensure to project an image of honesty and integrity. If the president is honest and shows no tolerance for corruption, this will deter those in his entourage and in the government from engaging in corrupt practices.”

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS

In Cité Soleil, fishermen still cast nets into the capital’s polluted bay as schoolchildren in pressed white and green uniforms amble down the now quiet streets.

“Right now Cité Soleil is very cool, very calm,” Phozer Louis, the lead MC for the Haitian rap group Fos Lakay-Majik kleng and a Cité Soleil native, told me. “The young people here have put down the gun and picked up the ball, the book, the microphone. . . . We ourselves have to change Cité Soleil, as no government has ever done anything for us.”

When the MINUSTAH troops leave this nation where they saw so many of their number die and where, intentionally or not, they themselves caused so many deaths, they leave a country where the cost of living is rising ever higher for average citizens, who lost the ability to feed themselves thanks to international agricultural policies foisted on Haiti in the 1990s and where many of the structural problems of its political reality remain unchanged.

It is true that MINUSTAH likely prevented both Préval and Martelly from being ousted, a laudable feat, but the core of the malaise afflicting the Haitian state—the culture of impunity for anyone boasting political or economic influence—remains, with a judiciary as corrupt as it ever was and a police force that has become notably more Balkanized in recent years.

The lives of the moun andeyo—the forgotten rural masses—have, over the last decade plus, benefited here and there from a desalination program to make salt water suitable for human consumption or the restoration of a rural road or other projects, but they remain essentially unchanged. From the shacks of Cité Soleil to the elegant restaurants in the hills above the capital to the small villages that dot the country’s historic Plaine-du-Nord, within this country still in the grip of largely unreconstructed political and economic elites, Haitians now hold their breath and wait to see what will come next.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Before night falls: An American’s letter to France

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Before night falls: An American’s letter to France    
by Michael Deibert

It has been a wrenching few years in France, hard to witness for an American like me who holds the country in great affection. From the attack on the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo (itself a champion of an inclusive, liberal, secular France) in January 2015 to the Paris attacks in November of that year, to sundry assaults in Nice, Magnanville, Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, the Champs-Élysées and elsewhere, France has had its sense of security badly shaken. Layer on top of this an anemic economy that grew at a rate of barely more than 1% in 2016, national unemployment that hovers at close to 10%, and youth unemployment that sees nearly one in four under 25 years old out of work, and it is no surprise that a sense of malaise and pessimism has settled on the country. The two traditional major political currents, today represented by the left-wing ruling Parti Socialiste and the right-wing opposition Les Républicains, seemingly utterly out of ideas for how to address these severe challenges.

And now, I fear, France might build upon these terrible events with a self-inflicted wound that would be the greatest tragedy of all: Electing Marine Le Pen as president.

It is a testimony to how much the traditional political system in France has broken down that in last month’s presidential election, the two top vote-getters who proceeded to the second (and final) round were Le Pen, of the extreme-right Front National, and Emmanuel Macron, a former finance minister whose own political party, En Marche!, was only formed in April of last year.

As Le Pen and Macron head into the 7 May runoff election, most polls put Macron comfortably ahead, but threats of abstention by France’s far left (whose candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has declined to advise his voters to support Macron) raise worrying specters of the 2016  U.S. election, where two candidates with no serious program for the country siphoned off just enough votes from Hillary Clinton in key states to give Donald Trump the White House (Clinton lost Pennsylvania by 44,312 votes. while Jill Stein and Garry Johnson, neither of whom had any chance of winning, drew away 49,947 and 146,711, respectively).

As the far left and the far right attempt to paint Macron as a tool of the establishment given his background as investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque (a barely concealed antisemitic dog whistle among France’s far right), observers like myself are left to gaze upon the disheartening spectacle of one of the world’s most highly educated and wealthiest democracies having so many of its voters potentially seduced by a political figure who represents, in word and deed, a number of the demonic tendencies in France’s body politic that many thought they had left behind.

Marine Le Pen took over the Front National from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man of intemperate speech who once suggested that Nazi gas chambers that killed Jews and others during the Holocaust were “a detail of history” and praised Philippe Pétain, who headed France’s collaborationist Vichy government during World War II, a transgression for which he was fined by a French court. When the elder Le Pen reached the 2002 general election for president (which he would lose to Jacques Chirac), Le Monde ran an article accusing him of having tortured prisoners during Algeria’s war of independence, during which Le Pen served as a lieutenant in a paratroop regiment.

Though the young Le Pen succeeded in expelling her father from the party in August 2015 and has attempted a (largely cosmetic) makeover, the Front National remains a deeply nasty organization, a party overflowing to the brim with Holocaust-deniers and assorted antisemites, virulently and violently anti-immigrant agitators, Islamaphobic harpies and royalist quacks

Just last month, referring to the Rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver, a Nazi-directed mass arrest against Parisian Jews that took place in July 1942 (an enterprise aided by French police), after which children as young as 18 months old were shipped off to Auschwitz and killed, Le Pen said that “I don’t think France is responsible.” After Le Pen made a grand show of stepping down as leader of the Front National to “feel more free and above all, above party politics,” the man who replaced her, Jean-François Jalkh, was forced to step down after he told journalists that it was “impossible” that the chemical agent Zyklon B was used “in mass exterminations.” 

All that aside, Le Pen has a clear and piercing message that resonates in a deeply pessimistic country: France has been betrayed by global elites, is being overrun by dangerous migrants (conveniently ignoring the fact that almost all perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks in France were native-born) and that only by returning to a vanished and idealized past (which never really existed) can France recapture its “greatness.” It is a message that should seem disturbingly familiar to those of us living through Brexit Britain and the current Trumpian dystopia of the United States. And it has already seduced some of the opportunists populating France’s political establishment. Only last week, failed presidential candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of the Debout la France party announced his willingness to serve as Le Pen’s Prime Minister.

As an American who lived in and loves France, it is my sincere hope that this country that has given the world so much does not make this Faustian bargain. 

We have had a long friendship, France and the United States, and we have seen one another through some wrenching times. The Marquis de Lafayette abandoned his comfortable life in France and spent the agonizing winter of 1777 with George Washington and the the Continental Army in Valley Forge (only a few miles from where I grew up) because of his commitment to the American cause. In later generations, thousands of American soldiers would give their lives on the beaches and in the fields of France to help free it from tyranny.

African Americans like Sidney Bechet found relief in France’s embrace from the scalding racial prejudice of the Jim Crow South. Others, such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright, joining Americans such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller, came to bask in the country’s rich cultural ambiance. Beyond the U.S., refugees from wars such as those that afflicted the Balkans and Algeria in the 1990s (I am aware, of course, of France’s tangled colonial relationship with Algeria) also arrived and found in France the democratic and pluralistic embrace they could not find at home.

Lest you think my affection comes from delusion, ignorance or romanticism, let me assure you it does not. Both of the neighborhoods I lived in, Château Rouge and Bagnolet, were immigrant-heavy and lower-middle class, but were vibrant and welcoming to an outsider such as me, and I would often stop off at the local bars along Rue Léon like Les 3 Frères or L'Olympic, where the bartenders and patrons of Maghrebian, West African, European and other extraction would sit, some drinking a Leffe or a glass of vin rouge, some drinking tea or coffee, in easy, democratic amity. When Paris was attacked in November 2015, it pierced my heart the way few things have since I stood in Manhattan in 2001 and watched our iconic buildings fall, walking home over the bridge to Brooklyn with debris raining down on me.

I stood and saw with my own eyes the ashes of the police station at Villiers-le-Bel during the riots there in 2007, and visited Clichy-sous-Bois to listen to and understand the reality of the people who lived there. I traveled through the villages of Normandy and stood on the D-Day beaches there and thought of the sacrifice of those brave soldiers (like my grandfathers) who fought fascism and racial hatred in Europe and the South Pacific, and whose blood and ashes intermingled with those of other patriots on French soil. I discovered the sublime beauty of regions like the Bouches-du-Rhône and the Camargue, and the simplicity of village life in the Vallée de la Loire. I myself hail from an area of southern Pennsylvania not that different in its fading economic model from a place like Amiens, and to some of Marine Le Pen’s wavering supporters, I say this: As a child of the American, if not French, working-class, I share at a molecular level your feeling of betrayal by the political and economic elite.

But I have also seen how fast populist demagogues can destroy a society and hollow out its institutions, leaving a bitter pantomime of civilization in its place. I have seen this first hand in places like Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, and watched it from afar elsewhere, in Russia, Turkey and Venezuela, to name a few. I am seeing the beginning of it now in my own country under Trump

The violent naysayers on the left and the right will tell you that France must close in upon itself, be afraid, shut out the world, or that Emmanuel Macron is too young, too inexperienced, too much a product of the establishment to ever dynamite France out of the deep sense of ennui in which it now dwells. They will tell you that only by leaping into the unknown, by violating the social contract and political norms, by taking a chance on those with a conspiratorial gleam in their eyes - who tell you that in order for some French people to rise, others must be brought low - can France drag itself out of the mire it finds itself in.

My advice to you from embattled America, where we find ourselves, on multiple fronts, forced to fight Trump every day: When the sirens of extremism arise, demanding your support and your obedience, telling you they love your country but truly only loving power itself, tell them to go to the devil.

Michael Deibert is the author of Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History (Zed Books, 2017).