Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cat Tossing and Witch Burning, or Sunday Evening in West Flanders

Belgium is home to some strange festivals. The one that really caught my eye, though, was the Kattenstoet of Ieper/Ypres, a city best known for the muddy slaughter that occurred in the surrounding fields in the Great War (I wrote about this last year). Ieper, like Brugge/Bruges, was a cloth town back in the Middle Ages; the huge, beautiful Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) still dominates the Grote Markt, although it needed to be repaired after burning in the war. The Lakenhalle had a mouse problem, so cats were deployed, but eventually this resulted in "a plague of cats," as this year's program dramatically describes. The wise townspeople tried to solve this problem with an annual ritual hurling of living cats from the belfry of the Lakenhalle. In 1817, the last real cats were thrown - an early victory of the Dutch animal rights movement, perhaps, as Belgium was part of the Netherlands for 15 years after the fall of Napoleon.

Today, the town puts on a Cat Parade every three years - most recently Sunday, May 13. It's a stunning production of thousands of actors and elaborate floats and costumes, including giant cats from Ieper's "ambassadors" Mr. Cieper and Minneke Poes to Garfield, representations of cat worship from Egypt to Ireland, scenes from the town's history including a 16th Century Iconoclasm, and illustrations of Dutch sayings featuring felines, such as "the cat is in the clock" (domestic violence again) and "squeezing kittens in the dark" (seducing young girls at night). Hello Kitty through a cookie at me when I was trying to take his (her?its?) picture (on that note, the festival is apparently known in Japan - I saw more Asian tourists here than in a year in Brussels).

Then the jester scales the belfry and tosses stuffed cats to an energized mob below. The scrum gets fairly rough - as one poor American woman complained, a cat was falling into her arms and she was saying "kitty kitty kitty" and then it was "elbow elbow elbow." (The elaborate cat disposal might have worked historically by the way - I only saw one cat in the city, on the yard of an apartment block right before getting in the car to return to Brussels).

As a grand finale, the trial of a poor townswoman for witchcraft is reenacted, and she is burnt to death. Well, something in identical clothing is burnt atop a pile of branches, with the executioners anachronistically resorting to kerosene. It's a bit of a dark ending to the festivities, but just before the burning, cats made of balloons are released into the Flemish sky.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Socialism in One Country (At Least)

Yesterday's election results are quite troubling, in Greece. The extreme austerity program imposed by the euro zone and IMF is painful and may not be working, but the seven-way split of seats is going to make it very difficult to form a functional government at all. A racist fascist party that makes European far-right figures like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders look good made it into parliament. The old-school Communist Party is still there. Many analysts expect the divided result to lead to new elections in weeks, after no one gets paid next month. The chance of a Greek exit from the euro zone, and all that entails, just went up.

France, on the other hand, had a result to welcome. I have never been a hater of Nicolas Sarkozy, but his strong points (a good partner to the United States, Germany, Britain and others, indisputable energy, a reform agenda) were matched by serious negatives (implacable opposition to Turkey's integration into Europe, anti-immigrant populist posturing, continued failure to follow through, political tone-deafness which led to his deep unpopularity in France). Not long ago, on some level, I worried that his impending defeat at the hands of Socialist Francois Holland would upset the markets, reignite the euro crisis, and damage Barack Obama's chances of re-election - the most important of a host of significant elections. But ultimately, I concluded that a jolt to the austerity mantra of Angela Merkel, the ECB and the IMF was exactly what Europe needed, and that was most important at the moment.

Though the European social welfare state needs reform, it does not deserve the blame for an economic crisis that was caused by deregulation and the irresponsible behavior of the financial sector. But with Greece launching a succession of sovereign debt crises two years ago, a crisis of globalized free market capitalism became a crisis of what was left of the state in Europe. Neoliberalism, a cause of the crisis, was triumphing in continental Europe, that bastion of social democracy. Germany is largely to blame. As her mentor Helmut Kohl complained, Merkel is destroying Europe. There is no political leadership on positive further European integration such as Eurobonds and ECB purchases of government debt coming from Berlin, despite this being the only way out of the euro crisis other than at least partially breaking up the euro zone. Just strict fiscal discipline, with no room for "crass Keynesianism." And Sarkozy was not providing a counterbalance. He was the junior partner of Merkozy. As society suffers under austerity, you get results like in the Greek elections yesterday. Or the 6.4 million French voting for Le Pen in April. And desperate center-right politicians accommodating the far right to stay in power.

Francois Hollande has changed the conversation, even before his victory yesterday. Merkel and Mario Draghi are talking about the importance of growth, even if they have different ideas. The way forward will be difficult. President Hollande's agenda is even more intimidating than President Obama's was in January 2009, given the weaknesses of the French economy compared with the power of Germany and the markets. But his election is a good thing.

But that's enough of the economics - I was in France for the election yesterday as the Socialists celebrated their first presidential victory since 1988, in the left-leaning northern city of Lille (where Parti Socialiste chief Martine Aubry is mayor), a 35-minute TGV ride from Brussels. The city was fairly quiet during the day, except for the lively Wazemmes market, near which we discovered a polling station. We stood in line checking out the scene until someone told us we needed our blue cards to vote, then left the election to explore an art museum, the book market in the old bourse, the citadel, and the zoo (I mused that if the zoo had been somewhere in America, two weeks prior, I might well have run into a Campaigning Newt).

Around 5, we stopped for a drink at a bar with a TV and watched commentary about a good turnout. At 8, we were walking by another bar when I spotted Hollande's picture flashed on the screen and heard cheers. We entered and caught Sarkozy's concession speech, where his raucous crowd of supporters reminded me of those at John McCain's concession four years ago. After a nasty final stretch of campaign, both Sarkozy and Hollande were very gracious once the result was announced.

On the Place du General de Gaulle, the party had started. A crowd of a few hundred people gathered, waving posters of Hollande and flags - of France, of the Parti Socialiste, of the Hollande campaign, of Algeria. A congo line weaved through the crowd as dance music pumped out of a balcony above. I caught the scent of weed. Socialism is back, in one leading European country at least, and if it's hardly going to be a party over the next months and years at least it could be one on Sunday night.