Argument

Battle Royale

Why is Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein picking a fight with France's foremost racist politician?

As any masterful strategist knows, picking the perfect enemy is as important as selecting one's ally.

But why did Hollywood producer and Oscar award-magnet Harvey Weinstein publicly trash the godfather of France's far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, just days after a Weinstein import, The Artist, quietly rocked the Academy Awards?

If Weinstein were almost any other American producer fresh from shepherding a French-made and mostly silent black-and-white film to five improbable Oscars, he would probably still be polishing those trophies and trying to capitalize at the box office.

But as an aggressive movie-industry legend whose films have won 86 Oscars, Weinstein is not like other producers. The television show Entourage immortalized Weinstein -- especially in an episode titled, "Sorry, Harvey" -- in which a stunning, foul-mouthed, abusive film producer named "Harvey Weingard" curses out waiters, threatens to destroy various actors' careers, and brandishes a knife over dinner with one of the main characters. (A Weinstein rep commented to Variety magazine in 2007 that the producer thinks Entourage is a "fun and entertaining show.")

So perhaps it is no wonder that Weinstein is already hard at work to make sure that France's enormously successful film, The Intouchables, enjoys a similar reception in the United States.

The fish-out-of-water, interracial buddy movie tells the story of a poor, young black man from a suburban ghetto who is hired to care for a bourgeois, white, quadriplegic Parisian man. It may not sound like a recipe for surefire comedy, but the feel-good movie about a former convict who teaches his wheelchair-bound boss how to live again has become the second-highest-grossing film on French soil, ever. (It has sold nearly one ticket for every three French citizens.) The lion's share of the film's $250 million take has come from France, a country with one-fifth of the U.S. population -- meaning that an equivalent success in the United States would be a billion-dollar movie. That's bigger than Titanic or Avatar.

Critically, the film scored excellent reviews in France. Highbrow critics tended to note their suspicions about the politically correct-sounding core concept, only to revel in the film's on-screen execution and the performances of its acting duo. Most ranked the film as good or excellent. At one press screening, jaded French film critics -- generally a cerebral group that avoids public displays of affection -- actually applauded, vigorously. The left-leaning Nouvel Observateur magazine went further, commenting: "There is no point in beating around the bush: The Intouchables is a miracle."

The public felt the same, only more so. The film's average ranking out of some 5,500 reviews on France's AlloCiné website is 4.5 stars out of five, with 58 percent giving it the maximum. And two days before the Oscars, one of the stars of The Intouchables, Omar Sy -- who plays the ex-con -- beat out Jean Dujardin of The Artist for the best-actor César award (the French equivalent of the Oscar), making Sy the first black man in French history to win in that category.

By that time, the Weinstein Company had already snapped up the film's American distribution and its English-language remake rights. But in the run-up to the March 1 U.S. premier of the film at a French film festival in New York, Weinstein needed to overcome one potentially major obstacle: a stunningly vicious Variety magazine critique from last September that threatens to shape the thinking of other American reviewers as they head to press screenings ahead of the film's May 25 theatrical release in the United States.

The trade magazine's reviewer, Jay Weissberg, lambasted The Intouchables as a movie that "flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens." Weissberg called the film "offensive," and he wrote that Sy is "nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get 'down' by replacing Vivaldi with 'Boogie Wonderland' and showing off his moves on the dance floor."

Twisting the dagger, Weissberg added that Sy's charisma is squandered on "a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race."

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but Weinstein is savvy enough to know that bringing over a French comedy that might be perceived as racist won't fly in America. Weinstein could have simply attacked the critic, but that might have looked petty. So Weinstein initiated a contretemps strategy: He attacked Le Pen -- something that wouldn't have been possible if the old Frenchman hadn't already lodged himself into debate over the film.

It is, in many ways, difficult to imagine these two men -- the ultimate Hollywood battler and the French political beast -- in the same universe, much less taking part in the same debate. Weinstein dines at snazzy restaurants where attractive wannabe-actor waiters cater to his every whim; Le Pen used to wear an eye patch and has been the target of multiple assassination attempts.

But perhaps it was inevitable. After all, Weinstein has been involved in the U.S. release of around 30 French films, including Amélie, the triptych Bleu, Blanc, Rouge, and Delicatessen. Le Pen's role in French society is akin to that of Rush Limbaugh in the United States. The Frenchman may have been an active politician for more than 40 years, but he has never aspired to hold a share of real power (unlike his daughter Marine), instead preferring to push the national political debate further and further to the right -- particularly when it comes to immigration and the dilution of white, Christian, French culture. And like Limbaugh, Jean-Marie Le Pen has rarely encountered a sensitive hot topic that he wouldn't use to try to enlarge the reach of his megaphone.

In a televised Jan. 29 interview on France 3, Le Pen offered a critique of The Intouchables that was nearly as caustic as that in Variety, but for a different reason. "France is like this cripple stuck in this wheelchair, and we are going to have to wait for the help of these [ghetto] youngsters and from immigration in general," Le Pen said. "I don't subscribe at all to this way of seeing things."

"It would be a disaster if France would find itself in the same situation as this unfortunate handicapped person."

Weinstein seized on the comments by the fixture of France's far-right. Why? If your film is being accused of racial insensitivity, pick a fight with a real racist.

The 83-year-old Le Pen may have passed on the reins of the National Front party that he founded four decades ago to his daughter last year, but he continues to provoke from semi-retirement. It is a fitting continuation for a man who has repeatedly stoked up trouble, whether during his numerous presidential campaigns or otherwise. In his 1986 book, Pour la France, he asserted that France should prioritize European émigrés rather than the more numerous "Third World" immigrants who, due to their cultural-religious roots, tend to "refuse assimilation." He also suggested that many of these "Third World" immigrants -- read: Muslims -- are inspired by radicalism. In 2009, Le Pen asserted that immigrants and their children perpetrate 90 percent of crimes in France. (French law bans the gathering of statistics related to racial or ethnic backgrounds, so he was making a random -- and outlandish -- guess.) And let's not forget Le Pen's most infamous comment -- that the gas chambers of World War II were a "tiny detail" of history.

Weinstein certainly had a lot to work with here. So when The Intouchables premiered at New York City's Lincoln Center this month, Weinstein released a statement not only attacking the old Frenchman's interpretation of the film, but also Le Pen's politics and his daughter popularity. (She currently polls a strong third place in her quest for the French presidency.)

"It's not a surprise to hear such an intolerant statement from the man who founded and was president of the extreme-right, xenophobic, racist National Front party," Weinstein said in a statement. "Le Pen made a repulsive statement, representing a bigoted world view. And right now, Jean-Marie's daughter, Marine Le Pen, is running for president of France as the leader of the National Front party … with almost 16% of the population intending to vote for her. That's frightening to me, and I think it's important to speak up and speak out against Le Pen and his ideas."

If American filmgoers even know of Le Pen, few are likely to side with the xenophobic French nationalist whose views are shaped by France's lost grandeur. Weinstein's real point is that his film can't possibly be racist if France's most notorious living racist actually sees it as a disturbing plaidoyer for people to come together across racial, ethnic, religious, and class differences.

It is the sort of confrontation that high-level electoral-campaign strategists labor to orchestrate. The strategy involves boosting the most offensive or despicable critic of your client (to the detriment of more potentially credible ones) and then asking who wants to align with the devil, so to speak. Intouchable, untouchable -- you get the point.

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Argument

France's Beef With Islam

France's topsy-turvy presidential election now has candidates arguing over, of all things, halal meat.

The French, as no one really needs to be reminded, take their food pretty seriously. So perhaps it shouldn't have been shocking that recent revelations that the country's halal butchers have been quietly selling their surplus to non-halal distributors has emerged as a hot-button presidential campaign issue at a time when candidates might be expected to focus more on unemployment or the spiraling European economic crisis.

The tabloid-ready story, first raised in a public television documentary in mid-February, has given far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen the chance to point out yet another capitulation to Islam under President Nicolas Sarkozy's watch. With characteristic embellishment, Le Pen claimed on Feb. 18 that all meat eaten in the Paris region is now slaughtered according to Islamic ritual.

Sarkozy visited a meat locker to deny her claims, saying less than 3 percent of meat consumed in France is halal (or kosher), and the government announced a new system for tracing slaughtered animals. But the scandal, pardon the pun, had legs: Non-Muslim French people have unwittingly eaten thousands of tons of halal meat. Sensing a political opening, the National Front leader filed consumer fraud and animal cruelty lawsuits on Feb. 23 to keep the issue alive.

Faced with the reality of public opinion that is receptive to the halal issue, Sarkozy and his lieutenants decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The interior minister warned that granting municipal voting rights to foreigners could lead to halal meat being imposed on school cafeterias. The president threw his support behind the National Front's proposal to label all halal meat and told reporters that halal meat is the "number one issue" on the French electorate's mind.

But the halal meat scandal has revealed a hidden weakness in Sarkozy's reelection strategy. Since his rightward lurch in the French culture wars during the 2007 elections, he has managed to outstrip Le Pen's National Front at its own game by declaring "multiculturalism" a failure, supporting several efforts to ban the wearing of burqas, and starting a national debate on the theme of French "identity." Taking up his earlier argument of five years ago that the National Front should not be allowed a "monopoly" over the theme of French nationhood, Sarkozy told supporters on March 5 that national identity is "not a bad word." But in the high-stakes game of culture-war politics, staying one move ahead of the National Front requires constant vigilance.

The French always want to know exactly what they're eating -- be it genetically modified corn or halal beef. Brouhahas have raged before over the kind of meat sold in supermarket and fast-food chains. In fact, the nearly $6 billion halal market is worth one-and-a-half times the organic meat business. France has an estimated 3.1 million consumers of halal meat, and fully 44 percent of non-practicing Muslims say they purchase it exclusively.

It's hard to take the National Front's health concerns seriously here. The party has called ritual slaughter a "barbaric" practice that "spreads bacteria" to nonbelievers. (In halal slaughtering, the animal is not stunned before its throat is cut, but that is a difference without material distinction for the end product.) Just as the organic-produce movement in Europe overlapped with the anti-American sentiments of some activists, it is clear that the sudden concern for animal welfare correlates with general hostility toward Islam.

Ironically, Sarkozy and his UMP party fostered this atmosphere. On Feb. 20, Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire invited Le Pen to "go explain her objections to ritual slaughter to the Muslim community -- and to the Jewish community while you're at it." (Anti-Islam activists generally avoid mentioning the fact that kosher meat involves nearly the exact same slaughtering procedure.) He indignantly accused the far right of scapegoating Muslims. But two years ago, the same official denounced a fast-food chain for serving exclusively halal meat.

This time, the government sensed it had gone too far only after the public reaction to Prime Minister François Fillon's comment on March 5 that "in a modern country, there are ancestral traditions that used to correspond with the demands of hygiene, but that don't have much to do with anything anymore" -- breaking the final taboo of whether kosher slaughter was targeted by the public debate.

The Jewish community was "stupefied," Muslims felt "scapegoated," and the prime minister immediately walked his message back and met with Jewish and Muslim representatives the following day. This was a step-by-step re-enactment of the interior minister's attempt to salve hard feelings among Jewish and Muslim leaders after the most recent "secularism debate" in April 2011.

Sarkozy and his party have always thought they can beat Le Pen on her own turf, and they have successfully attracted her supporters in the past. In response to the National Front's upset showing of 18 percent in the 2002 elections, the UMP rallied public opinion behind the March 2004 "headscarf law." The strategy paid dividends in the 2007 presidential election, when the National Front received only 11 percent and Sarkozy walked away with 31 percent -- and then, the presidency.

The UMP kept up its seduction routine for the duration of Sarkozy's first term: first with the creation of a "Ministry of National Identity," followed by a three-month "grand debate on national identity," and then an extended national discussion on burqas that culminated in their complete prohibition in 2011. It halted a further debate on "secularism and Islam" last year only after its closest Muslim allies threatened to decamp and respected figures like current Foreign Minister Alain Juppé called for an end to the stigmatization of Islam.

Since the start of the 2012 campaign, Sarkozy and his deputies have continued to blow their dog whistles to the far right. On Feb. 5, the interior minister ventured, "Unlike the left, we do not believe all civilizations are equal." The next day, he announced new naturalization standards for immigrants. Three days after that, he ordered the expulsion of a radical imam. The president promised a center-right newspaper that he would keep immigration and identity at the heart of his platform -- and he delivered.

Sarkozy was not predestined to take on the role of Muslim-baiter-in-chief. He is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. One of his earliest accomplishments was to establish the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). Back in 2003, he supported a headscarf ban in national identification photos, but not one in schools. Since he joined government a decade ago, a thousand new Islamic prayer spaces have opened across France. In February alone, the first Muslim cemetery was inaugurated, a national stamp was issued featuring the Great Mosque of Paris, and Sarkozy inducted the president of the CFCM into the Légion d'Honneur.

France has only escaped having the National Front bloc in Parliament, however, because electoral rules and regulations keep the party out of the National Assembly and Senate. The president has avoided challenging the validity of Le Pen's views. Sarkozy's ideological promiscuity allows the French political system to reflect a slice of that public opinion that has been excluded from national institutions.

Sarkozy has not invited National Front leaders to cross the line into mainstream politics. But he has embraced the National Front's ideas in pursuit of its 4 million voters. In two recent surveys, 42 percent of French respondents said the Muslim presence is a threat to national identity, and 76 percent said Islam is advancing too quickly. The French electorate, not just the government's platform, has been partially "LePen-ized." Le Pen's highlighting of halal meat hit the same nerve of French insecurity about its Muslim minority that the Sarkozy administration has worked hard to keep exposed.

The mainstream left of the Socialist Party has never shown much appetite for this fight, either. It backed the government's headscarf and burqa laws, and its last presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal (the ex-partner* of the current Socialist candidate), supported sending unruly youth to boot camp. During her campaign, she evoked France's "veiled," "raped," and "crushed" Muslim women.

To the horror of French centrists, only Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a presidential candidate representing the Front de Gauche, to the left of the Socialist Party, has consistently confronted Le Pen head-on, most recently on Feb. 23 in a much-circulated talk-show clip.

During the week of halal scandal, Sarkozy and his Socialist rival, François Hollande, each lost 2 percentage points of approval in opinion surveys, while the leftist Mélenchon neared 10 percent for the first time and Le Pen hovered at 17.5 percent -- the very score that got her father into a face-off with Jacques Chirac in 2002.

It's still unimaginable that the second round of the French presidential election would feature the far left against the far right. But with no "popular front" against anti-Islam populism in sight, the National Front will have few obstacles in its path. The president and his party never stopped feeding the crocodile, and sooner or later it's going to get around to eating them.

Correction: This piece originally referred to Ségolène Royal as the ex-spouse of presidential candidate François Hollande. They were never married.

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