Escaping from Hollande to Russia, now that’s a turnup for les livres

Gérard Depardieu’s life has more twists than the plots of most films in which he has starred. The latest one comes from a terse announcement on the official Kremlin website:

‘In accordance with Point A, Article 89, of the Russian Federation Constitution, the application for citizenship in the Russian Federation by Gérard Xavier Depardieu, born in France, 1948, is hereby approved.’ What’s one to make of this?

Depardieu, as we know, has renounced his French citizenship as a reaction to François Hollande’s acting on his self-proclaimed hatred of rich people. Possessing this emotion nowadays seems to be the sole relevant qualification for leadership in any Western country, as President Obama could confirm.

Modern politicians may be intellectually challenged, but they all possess enough animal cunning to know how to encourage for their own benefit the practice of most cardinal sins, envy especially. So dislike for rich people has become widespread even in the country that has ‘pursuit of happiness’ (that is, of money) emblazoned in its founding document.

Rich is of course a relative concept, and how an egalitarian leader defines it determines how the target group will react. Obama, for example, wanted to punish anyone making more than $200,000 a year (about £123,000), which is to say 6.7 million Americans modestly successful in any field, business, professional or academic. Some horse trading with the Republicans raised that threshold to $400,000, still penalising about nine percent of the population.

Penalising too is a relative concept: America’s ‘superrich’ will still have a lower marginal tax rate than any Brit making over £35,000 a year – but hey, we aren’t talking absolutes here. In any case, considering the number of victims involved, they have to grin and bear it. They can neither hide nor run.

Hollande set his sights higher, both in the threshold and the rate. He targeted anyone making over €1,000,000 a year, which is to say about 1,500 Frenchmen. This isn’t to say that those who make less than a million get away scot-free, not in a country with the world’s highest per capita social spending.

France’s Constitutional Council has blocked the 75-percent tax rate, but its objections were purely technical. As Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici promised, the glitches will be ironed out, and the bill resubmitted in a year, to be post-dated for 2013. So Depardieu is right in saying that nothing has changed.

Still, the numbers of those to be affected are relatively small, and, though the intended extortion victims can’t hide, they can indeed run. This is what Depardieu has done.

Last year he paid about 85 percent of his income in various taxes – this before François got his confiscatory act together. Not all of Depardieu’s income came from acting; he is also a successful owner of multiple businesses, all related to food and wine.

Though he has wound down his business interests in recent years, he still employs about 80 people, who all worship him. In a country, where the word patron (boss) is pejorative, Depardieu is seen as an exception.

Not only does he pay over the odds, but he helps his employees in all sorts of ways. For example, he shuts his restaurants on weekends to make sure his people spend more time with their families. When a family breaks up, he sends the divorcee-to-be to his own lawyer, free of charge. When someone is ill, he is treated gratis by Depardieu’s own doctor.

In short, a nicer bloke you wouldn’t wish to meet, which makes it so much stranger for an outsider to observe the vitriol heaped on Depardieu after he decided to leave France with what’s left of his money.

It has to be said that this action somewhat lacks in novelty appeal. Hundreds of thousands of successful Frenchmen have left the country in recent years, many of them settling in Britain, which proves how desperate they are. French tennis stars, for example, have been populating Monaco for years. So why single out Depardieu?

Well, you see, Depardieu is perceived to be rightwing, and he even campaigned for Sarkozy in the last election. As far as Le Monde is concerned, this is one sin that can never be absolved. Right is always wrong.

In parallel with attacking Depardieu’s personality, the press still insists he’s the best actor in the world. Actually, one could name enough thespians with a wider expressive range than Depardieu’s to contest this claim. At most, he’s the best actor in France, but of course for the French this is tantamount to the same thing.

Anyway, here’s a talented, kind, generous man who, in common with all worthy individuals, likes his wine, food and women. Alas he’s also an actor, which probably means he’s not excessively bright. (Having grown up in an actor’s family, I feel entitled to make such sweeping generalisations.)

Hence his extended flirtation with Russia, where he has opened a branch of his wine business. He’s also the spokesman for Sovietsky Bank, and his famous face adorns its home page. And it’s not just business – it’s personal. Col. Putin tends to describe Depardieu as a friend, which may well become a polonium chalice.

Putin’s affections tend to be fickle, and Depardieu would be well-advised to give the colonel’s Russia a wide berth. If he doesn’t, before long he’ll be told that his business is in need of a few silent partners claiming a lion’s share of the proceeds. And if he proves obstreperous, the response could be more muscular than the French PM calling Depardieu ‘pathetic’.

Stick to Belgium, Gérard. It may be dull, but it’s safe. The food isn’t bad, and the beer is the best in the world. Importing vast amounts of French wine will be easier, and you won’t even have to pay protection money. Nor will you have to do a Socrates and drink a cup of hemlock. Or rather Polonium-200, its advanced modern equivalent. A no-brainer, this.


Why do we keep voting for nonentities?

The word is harsh but fair. All major Western countries are now governed by the sort of people who a mere 100 years ago wouldn’t have been elected proverbial dog catcher.

This is merely an empirical observation involving no thought. The starting point of thought is the question ‘why?’, not ‘what?’

So why is one-man-one-vote democracy so manifestly failing to elevate to government those fit to govern? Why do they all lack in qualities regarded throughout history as essential job requirements?

When incompetent leaders overlap in time with a crisis, a disaster beckons. In the past, Westerners knew this and, when in trouble, usually replaced inoffensive mediocrities with men previously considered too abrasive for high office.

For instance, Admiral Ernest King was being quietly pushed into retirement during the interbellum period. Yet after Pearl Harbour he was immediately elevated to the second highest position in the US Navy. ‘When the shooting starts,’ he quipped, ‘they send for the sons-of-bitches.’

On the first day of the war Britain too replaced the generally inadequate Neville Chamberlain (John Major’s proclaimed role model) with our own son of a bitch, Winston Churchill. The West still had a self-preservation instinct then, and knew how to express it through specific measures.

I won’t bore you with a long list of reasons for believing that today’s situation is as pregnant with disaster as 70-odd years ago. These are self-evident to anyone whose judgement isn’t compromised by ideological afflatus.

And yet the sons-of-bitches haven’t been sent for – we don’t even know who they are. Instead we persevere with our Baracks, Daves and Françoises whose only strategy for getting the West out of a hole is to keep digging (feel free to substitute your own nincompoops – the conclusion will be the same).

We could discuss this problem in every conceivable detail, and in fact many do. Few commentators, however, have the courage to accept what to me looks obvious: a democracy in which reaching a barely post-pubescent age is the sole requirement for voting, and one that’s not counterbalanced by other forms of government, is fundamentally flawed. In medical parlance, the problem is systemic, not symptomatic.

The philosophical premise of democracy is two-fold. First, it’s based on the assumption that most people will be able to comprehend public good and vote accordingly, even if this means some self-denial. Second, if the first assumption doesn’t quite work out, and people insist on casting their vote for purely selfish reasons, then a multiple of private selfishness will somehow still produce public goodness.

When applied to millions of people, the second assumption is dubious and the first is downright wrong. For in the absence of a powerful spiritual and moral adhesive, otherwise known in the West as Christianity, people will never put bono publico before bono privato. To expect otherwise would be to ignore human nature, and this error never goes unpunished.

In other words, by demanding an unrealistic degree of selfless sophistication from the electorate, unlimited democracy turns into a purely theoretical construct, an ideology in other words. It may swagger for a while, but it won’t survive a prolonged clash with human nature.

For human nature will sooner or later trump any ideology – it will prevail over the democratic premise as surely as it will vanquish communist chiliasm. In practical terms, this means that a ballot cast by a self-serving voter can be bought by a self-serving politician.

A typical OAP promised a higher pension won’t stop to think where the money is going to come from – he’ll cast a yes-please vote. A recently naturalised immigrant won’t hesitate to vote for a candidate who promises unlimited immigration. Someone whose livelihood derives from the state won’t vote for a candidate promising to reduce its size.

Hence, coming to the fore isn’t a candidate who can do all the right things for the country, but one who can offer all the right bribes to the electorate. 

This corrupts the voters and the politicians equally: the former expect bribes, the latter are all too willing to offer them. And no statehood wholly dependent upon corruption will last – for confirmation just scan Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Thus all modern politicians effectively act as agents of destruction – they represent a mutation following a steady, and at times barely perceptible, accumulation of petty corruption until it begets a giant fire-sputtering ogre.

This explains the seemingly suicidal policies followed by every Western government, from the $16-trillion debt amassed by America to the asinine thinking behind the EU, from practically unlimited immigration of cultural aliens into all Western countries to extortionate taxes sucking the blood out of economies just as they exsanguinate anyway.

Democratic romanticism is in fact utopianism – just as capitalist romanticism, pace Adam Smith, is. There is an important difference though.

Smith et al believed in the redemptive moral value of an economy based on private enterprise. This belief is counterintuitive: pursuit of naked self-interest, even when multiplied by millions, isn’t going to produce virtue – this too goes against human nature. What private enterprise demonstrably can produce is a dynamic economy offering opportunities to those capable of grasping them.

Hence an expectation of prosperity in a capitalist society is empirically sound, and this is certainly preferable to any known alternative. For, if expectations are managed, capitalism works. Not always, not equally for all, and not in gaining the high moral ground postulated by Smith – but it does work in achieving purely pragmatic goals.

Democracy resembles capitalism only superficially, in that it too strives to attain a sum of virtue that’s greater than its parts. The basic difference is that, having failed to produce a moral El Dorado, capitalism can still defend itself by claiming empirical benefits.

This fallback is denied to democracy, for achieving secular virtue is its ultimate raison d’être. An unprincipled, self-serving businessman can still make a valid claim to empirical redemption, for example by referring to the jobs he has created or the money he has saved consumers. An unprincipled, self-serving politician has no such claim: his very existence undermines the system he’s supposed to serve.

His only hope is to ensure self-perpetuation – not just for himself but for his own kind. This has become the sole desideratum of the political elite from which all our leaders are drawn, and, their own corruption augmented by the electorate’s, they all pursue it with manic single-mindedness.

This explains why Americans have re-elected their truly catastrophic president – he spread enough baksheesh around to surf in on the wave of bought loyalties. This also explains why the Republicans seem to be chronically unable to come up with a valid candidate – or why, for that matter, we’ve had four awful prime ministers in a row and are sure to get a fifth.

The situation is only going to get worse, for all Western societies have reached the critical mass of moral and intellectual corruption. An explosion is likely, and we can only pray that it won’t be too violent. You may think this prognosis is too pessimistic – but one man’s pessimist is another man’s realist.













The French light up New Year’s Eve: auto-da-fé takes on a whole new meaning

Proper illumination adds so much to festivities, especially at Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Come this glorious season, London, New York, Rome, Paris and countless smaller places playfully wink at the world with millions of flickering lights arranged in elaborate and often beautiful patterns.

One can almost suspend a gagging effect at the sight of those hideous Ferris wheels in London’s South Bank or Paris’s Tuileries – even they look pretty all lit up. And behind the Tuileries, the Eiffel Tower, normally so ugly and intrusive, has every bone and rib beautifully silhouetted in high-wattage lamps.

The French do have a highly developed aesthetic sense. That’s probably why the tradition of lighting things up on New Year’s Eve is faithfully maintained throughout the country, Interior Minister Manuel Valls proudly declared yesterday.

Specifically, 1,193 cars were burned on 31 December, 2012, painting the sky in various shades of red and yellow, thereby providing a welcome contrast to midnight-blue.

How does this number compare with last year’s? We don’t know, for former president Nicolas Sarcozy decided not to publish such figures. He thus adopted the Soviet stratagem for dealing with crime statistics: keep them under wraps, and Boris is your uncle – no figures, no crime.

The last time this particular statistic was made public was on New Year’s Eve 2009, when 1,147 vehicles were burned. The number of torched cars has thus grown at roughly the same rate as the French economy during the same period. It takes a deeper and more knowledgeable economic thinker than I am to establish exactly why the two curves move in parallel. It’s sufficient for my purposes to observe that they do.

It has to be said that the French don’t always burn cars simply to add to the festivity of an occasion. Sometimes they do so to express displeasure with something or other.

For example in the autumn of 2005 youngsters from housing estates burned 8,810 cars in less than three weeks because… well, you tell me. My guess is that they were simply looking for something to do, what with the idea of getting a job never crossing their minds. To be fair, given France’s labour laws, their chances of finding employment would have been close to zero anyway.

If the same burning rate were maintained throughout the year, France would be tastefully decorated with 153,000 vehicular torches per annum. The side benefit would be less road congestion, but alas that isn’t to be. The fact that only about 40,000 such torches are lit testifies to the laudable restraint of France’s youths and an equally praiseworthy vigilance of its police.

This time the record for the greatest number of torches is proudly claimed – surprise, surprise! – by the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, which is by pure coincidence home to a large North African community. There is, I hasten to add, no causal relationship between the two facts whatsoever, and if you think there is I’ll report you to both the Deuxième Bureau and Scotland Yard.

In any case, we all know the poor youngsters aren’t to blame for this rather unorthodox way of celebrating New Year’s Eve. It’s all society’s fault or rather, if you listen to Sarkozy’s spokesman Bruno Beschizza, the fault of the present government.

To be more exact, he blamed the government not for this year’s auto-da-fé but for paving the way for future activities along the same lines. Publishing the figures this year, he said, was a tragic mistake, for this will encourage youngsters to outdo this year’s exploits in 2013.

Gangs, according to Mr Beschizza, compete with one another in many categories, including the number of cars they manage to set alight. Now that the government has established the target figure, they’ll be able to set their sights even higher.

I don’t know what he’s complaining about. Personally, I’m happy to see that the competitive spirit, so manifestly dormant in the mainstream economy, is still alive in France. To prove this point, four armed robbers broke into the Apple shop in the centre of Paris and stole €1,000,000 worth of gadgets. The police were busy watching the festivities in the Champs Elysées, thus creating a window of business opportunity, of which the robbers took such profitable advantage. There’s hope for the country yet.  








New Year, old lies

Life, especially of the civilised variety, would be impossible without a little subterfuge every now and then.

We wish a good day to someone we’d joyously see rot in hell, we compliment an ugly woman on how fetching she looks this morning, we tell our boss how much we love our tedious job. As a tactful person, I’m not going to mention fibs we tell to spouses, traffic cops or the Inland Revenue, but he who is without sin…

Some porkies are perfectly innocent, some are less so, yet all are part of what is in hackneyed English called the rich panoply of life. Take them away and it won’t be honesty that prevails but social chaos.

Another thing that unites all these little lies is that they are indeed little. Most of us speak the truth most of the time, which is why lies, when uncovered, become so noticeable by contrast. Nevertheless, they do only limited damage, outnumbered as they are by truths.

If, on the other hand, lies act as the base on which a giant structure is erected, then catastrophe beckons. A house divided may not stand, but one built on such a foundation will certainly collapse, as Bernie Madoff could tell you.

An Egyptian pyramid is still upright because it was built the right way up. Had it been balanced on its tip, it would have been reduced to rubble millennia ago, much to the chagrin of Egypt’s Tourist Board.

Western polity started out as a solid pyramid tapering up towards the sky, but it has since been turned upside down. The tip of thin lies is straining to support the giant structure, but it’s tottering. Even a gentle push can bring it down at any time.

Examples? One doesn’t know where to start.

Well, off the top, look at America’s ‘fiscal cliff’. New Year’s Eve negotiations spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden are being hailed as last-ditch salvation. That is, not to cut too fine a point, a lie.

Joe of course has all the right credentials. When running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, he plagiarised a speech by Neil Kinnock, that heir to the laurels of Demosthenes, Cicero and history’s other great orators. I mean, who in his right mind would plagiarise Neil Kinnock? Not only is Joe a bit short on veracity, he can’t be excessively bright either.

A perfect man then to fashion a mendacious agreement with the Republicans, which is being treated as a firm hand not letting America fall off that proverbial cliff. What actually happened was that the country has been left teetering at the very edge. A fall hasn’t been prevented, it has been deferred.

Even assuming that tomorrow the House of Representatives passes the bill agreed in the Senate, and this is a big assumption, the effect on America’s $16-trillion debt (that’s 16 followed by 12 zeroes, in case you’re wondering) will be barely noticeable. While tax increases for middle-class families earning more than $450,000 will go into effect within days, along with new taxes on inheritance, capital and capital gains (all potentially more destructive than even higher income taxes), any specific spending cuts will have to be renegotiated in about three months – meaning that the same stumbling block will remain as firmly lodged as before.

At the same time, whatever minimal debt reductions could be achieved by raising taxes, and they are very minimal indeed, will be offset by extending unemployment benefits for a year.

In short, what we are seeing isn’t an exercise in decisive statesmanship but an attempt to flog a PR lie to the public. Come to think of it, this is what politics has become all over the world: a tissue of lies covering up a rotting body politic.

Crossing the Atlantic, the EU is an even more blatant example of an institution built on lies and sustained exclusively by them. When the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, the signatories pretended, for public consumption, that they were founding nothing but a free-trade zone called the Common Market.

That was a lie. It’s just that the originators of eurofederalism, all those Monnets and Schumans, realised that a single European state was such a monstrous idea that the public would never swallow it in one fell swoop. Piecemeal drip-feed was the best they could hope for Europeans to digest.

To that effect they set up a systematic deception programme designed to claim one little power after another, until one day they’d all come together into a giant, irreversible entity. Starting like a python devouring its prey bit by bit, the entity would become like death: what it claimed it would never relinquish. 

Thus, treaty by mendacious treaty, the Common Market became the European Economic Community in 1986, the European Union in 1992 and, in all likelihood, will become a United States of Europe in a year or two. Throughout, assorted federasts, like our own Edward Heath, were begging Brussels not to let the cat out of the bag. The ‘f’ word, as in federalism, wouldn’t be uttered until subterfuge was no longer necessary.

Now we are being fed another lie, that we must remain within the EU, if only in a Norway-like associate status, for otherwise we wouldn’t be able to trade with the 27. The public, anaesthetised to lies, doesn’t ask the most obvious question: why? Why must we abide by every law and regulation of another country in order to do business with it? Or perhaps the public is just too exhausted to ask such questions, for it knows that all it’ll get in response will be more lies.

This is the world we live in, ladies and gentlemen. So Happy New Year to all. May your wildest dreams, rather than your realistic expectations, come true.