Publisher's Note — May 14, 2018, 10:44 am

The Comedy

“France has lowered herself to the status of a stamp or seal in order to ‘reassure’ the American Establishment that its loutish leader isn’t entirely mad.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on May 7, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

To a French-American in despair at the lack of political, moral, or rational stewardship in the United States today, France can sometimes offer an appealing model. Emmanuel Macron is far from being my ideal president—embodying, as he does, neoliberal ideas that I detest—but I must admit that he possesses the ability to express himself logically and even displays a flair for comedy, at least in comparison with the buffoonish Trump. The choice of Edwy Plenel, the leftist director of the web journal Mediapart, and Jean-Jacques Bourdin, the “populist” TV host, to conduct the big televised interview with Macron on April 15 is debatable, but one can’t help appreciating the president’s sharp reply to a question concerning the occupation by anti-capitalist activists of an abandoned airport site in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. When Plenel asked the president of the French Republic about the strong-arm tactics the police employed against the squatters, Macron answered sarcastically, “I myself am going to have an ‘alternative agricultural project.’ I’m going to settle into your living room, and then I’m going to say, ‘This is an alternative agricultural project.’” Not bad for a banker.

All the same, Macron’s recent visit to Washington again underlined the constitutional and intellectual crises in my two homelands, as well as my new disappointment in France. France’s importance on the international scene rests on an assumption of independence and savoir faire backed up by legal principles, and her postcolonial position still appears in the best light when it serves as a counterweight to the reckless and often illegal foreign policy of the American superpower. But there was Macron, carried away by his own vanity, doing his best to destroy the legacy and tarnish the prestige of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac, and Dominique de Villepin, and volunteering for the task of supporting his American counterpart’s sudden and gratuitous impulses. After the purely symbolic strike against the Assad regime, the French president must have blushed to read the legitimation proffered by the New York Times: “It was reassuring that [Trump’s] military response to a suspected chemical attack that killed dozens of people in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7 was coordinated with Britain and France.”

And so France has lowered herself to the status of a stamp or seal in order to “reassure” the American Establishment that its loutish leader isn’t entirely mad. Bravo! I have no doubt that the talks in Washington and Macron’s speech before Congress reinforced the impression that the American president is in sound mental health.

Nevertheless, the moral and legal decline that’s dragging down Paris in tandem with Washington must be noted. In the United States, a long line of successive presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy, has weakened the legislative branch’s power to declare war, even though that power is constitutionally reserved to Congress. Ever since the Vietnam War, the commander in chief has become both legislator and general, to the detriment of the popular sovereignty guaranteed by the Constitution. Of all our undeclared wars, Vietnam was the worst catastrophe, but the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi—a military action backed by President Obama and taken without the least consent on the part of Congress—did some significant damage. Macron, like Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, also considers himself above parliamentary consultation, despite the fact, pointed out by an expert in legal and military affairs, Jean-Philippe Immarigeon, that “every constitutional lawyer knows the French president has no war powers except in the case of nuclear war, where rapidity of reaction is paramount; otherwise, he’s nothing but a lieutenant general in the armies of the Republic.” Article 35 of France’s 1958 constitution, like Article 1, section 8, of our Constitution; drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, today contains only empty words drained of all force. Writing in the Revue Défense Nationale, Immarigeon repeats the comment Beaumarchais puts in the mouth of Figaro: “Are we soldiers who kill and get killed for interests beyond their ken? Me, I want to know why I’m angry.”

As citizens badly informed in equal measure, the French and the Americans may have much more in common than the allegedly democratic values extolled in Macron’s speech, which he delivered in English before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill. When Trump—with evident condescension—brushed the dandruff off his little French friend’s suit, I told myself that France’s global image could not possibly sink any lower. The next day, however, Macron outdid himself with his reference (which was supposed to be witty) to the celebrated meeting between Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin and the friendly embraces they exchanged—similar, Macron snickered, to the hugs of the two presidential pals. He apparently forgot the French philosopher’s analysis of what gets lost when comedies are translated, a sort of epigram that the woman who is now Macron’s wife might have taught him in high school: “Good comedy is the speaking picture of a nation’s ridiculous foibles; and if you don’t thoroughly know the nation, you can’t judge the picture.”

Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note August 7, 2019, 3:14 pm


“Nor would I leave to Emmanuel Macron and Mark Zuckerberg, both of them politicians first and foremost, the job of regulating anything that has to do with words or language.”

Publisher's Note July 12, 2019, 10:47 am

American Greatness

Publisher's Note June 10, 2019, 12:05 pm

My French Side

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A group of researchers studying the Loch Ness Monster did not rule out the possibility of its existence, but speculated that it is possibly a giant eel.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today