The New Eastern Question

Georges Corm

(La Découverte, 320 pages, 2017)


La nouvelle question d'Orient.jpg

Since 2000, the Arab world has faced unprecedented turmoil and chaos. Terrorism, in the name of Islamic millenarian concepts, continues to spread to different parts of the world. Georges Corm, who has written prolifically on the contemporary Arab world and on the history of his native Lebanon, examines the dominant narratives through which those dramatic events are being analyzed by politicians, academics, and the media. He believes it is imperative to remember and learn from the past in order to gain a more accurate and sounder perspective on the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Corm takes the reader on a journey through the imbroglio of international politics and conflicts from the early Balkan wars to the decolonization period, the end of the Cold War, and the Arab Spring.

In The New Eastern Question, Corm adopts a broad historical and epistemological approach that takes into account the convoluted geopolitical history of a region that has long been the object of intense rivalries among European powers. In the nineteenth century, a vast Western discourse on the “Eastern Question” accompanied the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire and the intense power struggles and territorial reshuffling that resulted from its final dissolution. Corm retraces the continuities and ruptures between this old Eastern Question and the new one that emerged after World War II.

Corm challenges the repetitive clichés, “canonical tales”, and dubious theoretical frameworks that have been used to explain the nature of current conflicts and justify the resurgence of military interventions in the region. He singles out Samuel P. Huntington’s infamous theory of the “clash of civilizations.” He rejects this notion of civilization and insists on the coexistence of traumatic historical memories, each operating within its own frameworks of perception.  Perhaps most important, Corm casts a critical eye on the revival of an anthropological approach, previously discarded, which uses Islam as the main interpretative lens through which just about everything can be explained. He discusses at length the inaccuracies stemming from giving religious identity precedence over any and all other national, socioeconomic or cultural events and shows how such a view distorts and negates the actual realities and histories of widely diverse populations.

Corm perceptively notes that outside observers tend to amplify the role of internal issues—Islam, tribalism, corruption—whereas Arab insiders often focus on the impact of external interventions starting with Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt expedition. He strives to find a middle ground.  He does not minimize the internal factors underpinning the current crisis and devotes a chapter on the economic failure of the Arab world and the ravages caused by the oil-driven economy. But he also clearly espouses Arnold Toynbee’s insight that the Eastern Question, whether old or new, has been and still is predominantly a “Western question.”

Georges Corm is an economist and historian specializing in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions. He has been teaching at Lebanese and European universities since 1972 and is currently a professor at the Political Science Institute of Saint Joseph University in Beirut. His body of work, translated into many languages, includes Le Proche-Orient éclaté (1983; Gallimard Folio/histoire, 2005, 2007, 2012), L’Europe et l’Orient (1989; La Découverte/Poche, 2004), Orient-Occident, la fracture imaginaire (2002; La Découverte/Poche, 2004), Le Liban contemporain (2003; La Découverte/Poche, 2005), La Question religieuse au XXIe siècle (2006; La Découverte/Poche, 2007), L’Europe et le mythe de l’Occident (2009; La Découverte/Poche, 2012), Le Nouveau Gouvernement du monde (2010), Pour une lecture profane des conflits (La Découverte, 2012) and Pensée et politique dans le monde arabe (La Découverte, 2015). Two of his books have been translated into English: Fragmentation of the Middle East: The Last Thirty Years (The Making of the Middle East) (Unwin Hyman, 1989) and A History of the Middle East: From Antiquity to the Present Day (Garnet Publishing, 2009).


Emmanuel Macron: Such a Perfect Young Man

Anne Fulda

(Editions Plon, 206 pages, 2017)


  ***German rights sold to Aufbau***


In May 2017, during an election unlike any other, French voters elected the youngest-ever president since the creation of the French republic. Even more remarkable than his age, Emmanuel Macron, at the head of his brand-new centrist party En Marche, sidestepped the left–right divide that dominated French politics for decades and handsomely defeated his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen. His clear victory came as a relief to Europe’s political establishment still recovering from the Brexit vote and the surge of populist movements threatening to overturn the European project. Yet, on the eve of his election and in spite of having served briefly as economy minister under outgoing Socialist president François Hollande, Macron remained for the most part unknown to the public, a newcomer whose meteoric rise to the national stage took most veteran politicians by surprise.

Anne Fulda sets out to uncover the Macron “mystery” by probing the smooth persona of “such a perfect young man,” the suggestive subtitle of her new book, Emmanuel Macron. Through interviews with family members, friends, and patrons, she traces an exceptional trajectory: from a studious childhood in a traditional if not conservative provincial bourgeois family, to the rarefied circles of Parisian intellectual, political, and financial elite where Macron, thanks to his brilliant intellect, charm, and work ethic, developed close ties with prestigious mentors. These include the banker David de Rothschild, millionaire Henry Hermand, economist Jacques Attali, politician Michel Rocard, and philosopher Paul Ricoeur.

Macron’s career as a civil servant, banker, and politician befits that of a graduate of ENA, France’s elite school for bureaucrats and politicians. Yet his early ambition was to become a writer. His enduring passion for literature was nurtured by two key women in his life: his idolized and formidable grandmother, whose legacy he extols in his book Revolution, and his wife, Brigitte, whom he met at the tender age of sixteen. The author addresses the much-commented-upon topic of Macron’s marriage to a woman twenty-four years his senior, the object of much media coverage both in France and abroad. Such a love, so boldly unconventional and so determinedly pursued, offers insights into Macron’s character, drive, and singular destiny. It has also become an integral part of Macron’s political storytelling—that of a man unafraid to challenge the established order to pursue his dreams, not unlike the nineteenth-century heroes of his favorite novels.

Anne Fulda paints an intimate and finely nuanced portrait of the new French president, this “political UFO” who aims to “reconcile the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long.”

Anne Fulda is a senior journalist at Le Figaro who specializes in national politics. She is particularly known for her portraits of French politicians. She is the author of two previous biographies, Un président très entouré (Grasset, 1997) about former president Jacques Chirac, and François Baroin, le faux discret (Lattès 2012; Paris), as well as a collection of portraits of remarkable women, Portraits de femmes (Plon, 2016: Paris).


Russia: Between Fear and Struggle

Jean Radvanyi and Marlène Laruelle

(Armand Colin, 240 pages, 2016)


This essay analyzes the geographical, historical, political, cultural and geostrategic factors that make it possible to understand what deeply disturbs Russia today.

—Diplomatie Magazine

Russia is scary for the West. American president Ronald Reagan did not hesitate in calling the USSR an “evil empire,” and the Ukranian crisis brought this feeling up to date, this time about Russia. We speak of the “nuisance value” of this foreign power, while others evoke the Russian’s “genetic impotence” to democracy. Putin-era Russia does not cease to inspire mistrust, and never has its image been so negative.

At the same time, perhaps it is Russia itself that is afraid. Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country, its elites, and its civil society are still haunted. Undermined by the turbulence of the 1980s and 1990s, divided between reformist aspirations and the fear of a liberal society, Russia seems tempted to withdraw into a new era of isolation.

Straightforward explanations accompanied by substantive maps and graphs, as well as a side-by-side chronology of Russia’s domestic and foreign politics from 1991 to 2015, bring the breadth of Laruelle’s and Radvanyi’s knowledge accessibly to the reader. With Russia’s current ubiquity in the news, this book will help fill the gaps in our curiosity.

Marlène Laruelle is associate director and research professor at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), as well as director of the Central Asia Program, at the Elliot School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Laruelle has authored numerous books in English, French, and Russian, including Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire (Woodrow Wilson Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), In the Name of the Nation: Nationalism and Politics in Contemporary Russia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), and Russia’s Strategies in the Arctic and the Future of the Far North (M.E. Sharpe/Routledge, 2013). She recently edited Eurasianism and the European Far Right: Reshaping the Russia-Europe Relationship (Lexington Books, 2015).

Jean Radvanyi, specializing in the Caucasus region, Russia, and the post-Soviet states, is a professor of geography and geopolitics at the National Institute of Eastern Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) where he is also co-director of the Europe-Eurasia Research Center. He was director of the Franco-Russian Center for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences in Moscow from 2008 to 2012. Among his many published works are La nouvelle Russie, 4th edition (Armand Colin, 2010); Les états postsoviétiques: Identités en construction, transformations politiques, trajectoires économiques, 3rd edition (Armand Colin, 2011); and Retour d’une autre Russie: Une plongée dans le pays de Poutine (Editions Le Bord de l’eau, 2013). He has also written books on Soviet and post-Soviet cinema.


Understanding Political Islam: A Research Trajectory on Islamist Otherness, 1973–2016

François Burgat

(La Découverte, 260 pages, 2016)

“Allah.” Why, in one’s native language, should the Muslim God exclusively take this opaque, divisive name, when the deities of other Judeo-Christian religions—the Jewish Adonai, the orthodox Bog—are invariably translated into the more relatable “God”? In practice, “this affirmation of the Other’s irreducibility to a shared conceptual universe often masks—unless it in fact reveals—a more or less conscious desire to reinforce alterity rather than to reduce it.”

François Burgat, political scientist and Arabist, recounts decades of meetings with Islamists from Algeria to Syria, through Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Palestine, and France. What he finds are motives far more political than ideological, and thus far from the accepted essentialist explanations that insist on seeking the keys to contemporary political Islam in the Koran of the seventh century.

For Burgat, the impact of colonialism on local cultures and political landscapes was immediately apparent as a young man visiting Algeria. In an account of the research trajectory spanning his extensive career, the author explores how his first hypotheses now stand up to more recent turbulences including the Arab Spring and the Islamic State’s astonishing mobilizing capacity of radical Islamists. It is in understanding the identity crisis of Muslim communities, and their need for distancing from the colonizer, that we can start to understand the emergence of Islamism within political Islam, he argues.

In the face of simplistic explanations that too often ignore the historical roots of these developments—famously endorsed by the academic Gilles Kepel and famously refuted by Burgat (see The New York Times Magazine, April 5, 2017)—this book is a dissonant note from the common understanding that sectarian radicalization causes political radicalization. Burgat’s analysis is the opposite: It is not by reforming religious thought that the region will be pacified. Peace will come to religious discourse once peace arrives in the region itself.

While more political/social science than memoir, Burgat’s narrative of his intellectual journey is honest and very human—an important read for anyone, whether interested in the history of “the other” or an “other history,” and essential, relatable reading to those in the field.

François Burgat is Senior Research Fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and formerly headed the French Institute of the Near East as well as the French Centre for Archeology and Social Sciences in Yemen. He speaks at conferences, think tanks, and universities worldwide to share his insights gleaned from nearly forty years of fieldwork in the Middle East and North Africa. Burgat’s most notable publications have been reissued multiple times and have been translated into five languages: L’islamisme à l’heure d’Al-Qaida (Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda, University of Texas Press, 2008); L’Islamisme en face (Face to Face with Political Islam, IB Tauris, 2002); L’Islamisme au Maghreb (The Islamic Movement in North Africa, U. of Texas Press, 1993–1997).