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L'Obs, formerly known as Le Nouvel Observateur ("The New Observer") is France's most widely read weekly newsmagazine. Founded in 1964 by Claude Perdriel, it has been part of Le Monde group since 2014, and is based in Paris.
Photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arriving at the site of a shooting attack near a synagogue in East Jerusalem.
Pierre Haski

Netanyahu's Extremist Blitz Is Reaching Its End Game

By challenging Israel's constitutional system and launching a crackdown on the Occupied Territories, Benjamin Netanyahu is playing a high-stakes game opposed by half his country and the country's allies. It can't last much longer.


In just two months, the most right-wing coalition in Israel's history has achieved a tour de force.

Perhaps because its days are numbered, it has begun a lightning-fast institutional transformation of the Jewish state in a sharply "illiberal" direction; it has taken steps to achieve the de facto annexation of part of the West Bank; it has blown hard on the burning embers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it has divided Israel as rarely before; and finally, it has begun to alienate the support of its main diplomatic partners around the world.

Undoubtedly, this summary may seem excessive to those who observe Israel with the lasting indulgence of disappointed lovers; and insufficient to those who didn't need the return of Benjamin Netanyahu, along with his new friends, to have a strong opinion against Israeli government policy.

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An old Palestinian protester waves Palestinian flag while he confronts the Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the village of Beit Dajan near the West Bank city of Nablus.
Pierre Haski

Utter Pessimism, What Israelis And Palestinians Share In Common

Right now, according to a joint survey of Israelis and Palestinians, hopes for a peaceful solution of coexistence simply don't exist. The recent spate of violence is confirmation of the deepest kind of pessimism on both sides for any solution other than domination of the other.


PARIS — Just before the latest outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, a survey of public opinion among the two peoples provided a key to understanding the current situation unfolding before our eyes.

It was a joint study, entitled "Palestinian-Israeli Pulse", carried out by two research centers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, which for years have been regularly asking the same questions to both sides.

The result is disastrous: not only is the support for the two-state solution — Israel and Palestine side by side — at its lowest point in two decades, but there is now a significant share of opinion on both sides that favors a "non-democratic" solution, i.e., a single state controlled by either the Israelis or Palestinians.

This captures the absolute sense of pessimism commonly felt regarding the chances of the two-state option ever being realized, which currently appears to be our grim reality today. But the results are also an expression of the growing acceptance on both sides that it is inconceivable for either state to live without dominating the other — and therefore impossible to live in peace.

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The Strange Case Of "Doctor S" - A Phony Star Shrink In Brussels
Isabelle Renaud

The Strange Case Of "Doctor S" - A Phony Star Shrink In Brussels

Yassine S. presented himself in Brussels as a Harvard-educated psychologist. Business was booming until his "mental manipulations" caught the attention of colleagues.

BRUSSELS — Yassine S. could have sent his application by mail, especialy since it was snowing that day in early 2013. Instead he went to the Wallonia-Brussels Federation in Brussles to drop it off in person. Letter of intent, certified copies of his diplomas, university transcripts and copy of his thesis — everything he needed for equivalency certification to practice as a psychologist in Belgium.

His application was examined on Feb. 28 and accepted less than two weeks later, which wasn't suprising for someone with a Master's degree from Harvard University. With that kind of background, doors are supposed to open easily. Except in this case, the diploma was a fake. Yassine S. never set foot in Harvard.

For a year and a half, he practiced in complete tranquility. Colleagues, acquaintances and even former patients have fond members of the kind young man who seemingly came out of nowhere.

"He was 24, French and just arrived in Brussels," recalls Missri Najoua, an employee of the Al Malak association, which gives private tutoring in the working-class Forest neighborhood. "He offered to open a free therapy space for children. He came every Monday afternoon and the children were happy; they found him kind. We didn't have anything to complain about."

Very active online, Yassine S. used his website to wax eloquent about his straight-from-Harvard therapeutic techniques, promising "a cognitive-behavioral approach" and "mindfulness therapy and psychotherapy based on functional analysis." Phew!

But on Facebook he presented a very different profile, emphasizing his faith and sharing anecdotes from his experience as a Muslim, rather than Ivy League psychologist.

Both versions of Yassine — the jargon-fluent professional, and the teller of religious tales of happiness and brotherhood — seemed to serve him well. In the city's Muslim community, his messages were read, appreciated and shared. As a direct consequence, in Auderghem, a chic and leafy neighborhood in south Brussels, the line of eager patients to the apartment he shared with his partner grew longer and longer.

Growing suspicions

Yassine's case was surprising: so young and already so many diplomas. How unusual! And yet for a while, at least, he was able to slip through the cracks, thanks in large part to his natural charm. He even managed to convince the cardiologist whose office occupied the ground floor to let him use his waiting room.

"When I took this office, he quickly introduced himself to me," the heart doctor recalls. "He told me he worked regularly as a psychologist for Border and Erasme the two main hospitals in Brussels, which was remarkable considering his young age. As I only receive patients in this office two afternoons a week, I agreed to let him use my waiting room for his consultations while I was gone."

The cardiologist, who we will refer to as Dr. H., gladly gave a hand to his kindly young neighbor with the impressive CV. He appreciated how Yassine was always willing, for example, to take out the garbage. But the cardiologist wasn't happy to discover, one evening, an imposing black and gold plaque saying "Dr. S., psychologist from Harvard," above his own plaque, at the entrance of the building. "These two plaques together suggested we were associates, which wasn't the case," he says.

Dr. H was irritated. Others soon started to genuinely distrust the young man. Virginie Leblicq, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Brussels and carried out consultations in several health centers, only met Yassine once, but later found out that he'd used her name as a reference to be recruited in a center. "I immediately checked to see if he was registered at the Commission of Psychologists and, in 2013, he was."

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Street scene in Brussels. Photo: loranger

Her suspicions remained, however, and in the following months, Leblicq collected more information about Yassine. "Patients told me about strange things. I wasn't reassured, especially as he also received children," she says. "He carried out so-called "mental manipulation" techniques he learned at Harvard."

Skipping town

For reasons of patient-therapist confidentiality, Leblicq won't go into any more detail. But she continues to be outraged by the case. "Starting in 2013, some colleagues and former patients tried to alert the Commission of Psychologists, but it wasn't until May 2014 that it took hold of the matter," she recalls.

From there, the institutional machinery went into motion — discreetly.

"In June 2014, the Commission of Psychologists questioned us about the validity of Mr. S.' diplomas," says Chantal Kaufmann, the general manager of Research and Higher Education at the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. "We launched the verifications and, on June 18, Harvard University informed us that it had no trace of him in its register. We alerted the Commission of psychologists, withdrew the equivalency decision and filed a legal complaint."

Starting at that point — in August 2014 — Yassine S. was no longer a psychologist in any official sense. By then, however, he no longer needed the official endorsement to practice. His reputation was made, his network established and patients kept flowing in.

Several months later, the Commission, seeing that Yassine S."s removal from the registry had no effect on his activity, decided to sound the alarm. Messages denouncing fraud were sent to the websites, forums and associations he was close to. The effect, this time, was immediate: Yassine S. disappeared.

In the following weeks, there was unexpected confusion. The Commission of Psychologists received several calls from disoriented patients. At the health center where Yassine S. worked, Virginie Leblicq tried to step in and help but was overwhelmed by the mess that Yassine S. had left behind.

"Given the scale of the situation and the impossibility of receiving all the patients immediately, I offered to organize a counselling committee with other colleagues for a month," she says. "We received many emails and phone calls, in which people talked about their feeling of abandonment and betrayal."

The patients were in shock. Where was their psychologist? Why had he left? Who really was this stranger to whom they shared their torments, told all their secrets?

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Photo: Historic.Brussels

In Brussels, no one seems capable of answering this question. The scraps of information turn out to be false leads. The collaboration between Yassine S. and the Bordet and Erasme hospitals? The human resources departments there have never heard of him. The young tenants who now live in his Auderghem apartment have only seen him once, briefly, when he handed over the keys to them. And the mail that is meant for him is piling up at the entrance. There is no answer on his cellphone and his website is down.

Good intentions?

Yassine S. vanished from Brussels never to be heard from again. There's nothing left of him apart from his disoriented patients, a few old messages on Facebook walls and a photograph, the only one of him online. It shows a handsome young man with a kind smile and a dark look, wearing a French Navy uniform.

Why would a so-called Harvard graduate choose to be represented in a military uniform? The picture seems to be the enlargement of a group photo, but certain elements are suspicious: a dark border lines the shirt collar, as if the face of another had been pasted onto the body.

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"The cap and the uniform don't match," says Lieutenant Séchet, of the Information service of the French Navy. "The cap belongs to the Brest Naval Training Centre. But the small stars attached to the reverse of the vest, like the gold-level surfacier insignia that he is wearing on his right side, show a petty officer with at least five or six years of experience. Not to mention the five medals, which could have only been awarded to a highly qualified military man."

A forged photograph? Lieutenant Séchet can't really say. "It happens that, between friends, Navy members swap their uniforms with higher-graded members just for a picture," he notes. Séchet later discovered that the register of the Navy has a record of a certain Yassine S., who, in 2011, spent seven months at the Naval Training Centre before leaving Brest. Yassine S."s "Harvard," it turns out, was the French Finistère department.

A father's explanation

We finally managed to meet his father outside of Paris. "Yassine is young and he was looking for his way in life," says the father, clearly bothered by the affair. "He tried the Navy, then became passionate about psychology… He studied a lot, by himself, to learn everything. But he made the mistake of lying. This Harvard story was absurd and useless!"

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Photo: lolren

As a practicing Muslim, he disapproves of the lie but remains convinced his son meant well. "Once he got into his activity, he became overwhelmed by success and didn't know how to back out of it," the father explains. "He loved his patients and wanted to do good, in his own way."

Despite our requests, Yassine S. refused to meet with us. A judicial inquiry, in the meantime, is still underway. "He's in shock about the scale of the scandal and would like to put it behind him," his father says.

Yassine S. has communicated a bit in recent months via online posts. "Be careful when you make a wish, not because it could become true, but because you'll be forced to no longer want what you got," he wrote at one point. "Fantasy must remain in the imagination." And Harvard, it seems, should stay in Massachusetts.

Not so narcissistic after all?
Aurélien Viers

A French Intellectual's Defense Of The "Subversive" Selfie

French academic André Gunthert asserts that the selfie is not narcissistic folly at all, but rather represents a new kind of revolution that threatens elite control of society.

PARIS — André Gunthert, the Visual History chair at the French School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, is the first to have turned the digital image into a bonafide object of academic study.

Now, with the emergence of social networks, digital images have multiplied and been democratized, and the leftist researcher offers a radical new inquiry into the phenomenon. "Photography became a niche practice within a wider universe, the one of electronic communication," Gunthert writes in his new book The Shared Image.

A "selfie," or self-portrait taken with a smartphone, is sometimes viewed with contempt from society's top rungs. Intended to be shared, often to get people to laugh and react, this form of expression is nevertheless significant.

In fact, Gunthert says, the selfie phenomenon represents a revolution "unlike anything we've seen for centuries." They are not just iconographic, but also sociological — and even political. Selfie detractors simply don't have a full understanding, he says.

Not new

"We could think that the selfie is the product of an innovative shot using new technology, the smartphone," he says. "But this practice existed long before digital images."

For instance, in the 1991 movie Thelma & Louise the two female characters take a picture of themselves before embarking on their road trip. They don't need anyone to take their picture — especially not a man. The selfie allows them to express their freedom, their independence.

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis's selfie in Ridley Scott's "Thelma & Louise" — Source: Pathé Entertainment/MGM

This form of expression lived in obscurity before the modern age of the smartphone, without being recognized as a genre in its own right. But it has gained traction now, as even the Oxford Dictionaries' editors named "selfie" the 2013 word of the year.

Hyper contextualization

When Thelma and Louise take a picture of themselves with a Polaroid, they create the memory of a precise moment. "This is not a simple self-portrait," Gunthert says. "This is a contextualization in space and time. Director Ridley Scott has made it a symbol: We can see this picture again at the tragic end of the movie."

The selfie transposes a situation into a visual form. It shows a reinterpretation of reality, he asserts.

The selfie is the answer to the disappearance of context in digital media (such as facial expressions, or the emotion in someone's voice). Snapping a selfie thus becomes a form of hyper contextualization. "We take a picture to transmit our location ("I just arrived at the airport") or to check our appearance (""Look at my new haircut")," Gunthert says.

A form of respect

Tourists who take pictures of themselves in front the Eiffel Tower value something as old as tourism: sharing the experience of a monument or a site, Gunthert says.

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Photo: Gautier Poupeau

"When we see them all reproducing the same movement, it's negatively perceived," he says. "But when a literature professor asks his entire class to read Emile Zola's Germinal, no one is surprised! Germinal is a cultural monument that needs to be shared."

Seeing the Eiffel Tower is the same thing, he argues. "It's experiencing individually a cultural reference. Taking a selfie in front of a historical building is a really good way to show appreciation."

Likewise, when tourists take pictures of themselves in front of the Mona Lisa, it's a sign of interest and respect. "The image is precious for them," he says. "They will keep it, show it to their friends and tell them, "Look, I've seen the Mona Lisa.""

It's about conversation, not the image

Gunthert argues that the image is simply a vehicle for conversation. "Social networks are not conversations about pictures but conversations with pictures," he says. "The connected picture doesn't exist without a recipient. We don't take selfies for ourselves, but for others."

Snapchat, an application that's very popular with teenagers, clearly illustrates this concept. "On Snapchat, we don't take pictures of ourselves to appear at our best," Gunthert says. "We play with our image, we highlight it, we tarnish it and, finally, we let it vanish after a few minutes, 24 hours at the most."

On Instagram, in a rather classic way, we produce images, he says. By contrast, we start a conversation on Snapchat by obfuscating our own image. It's the first application that doesn't respect the image. "In fact, on Snapchat, we schedule the image's destruction," he says. "It's probably the height of subversion, the ultimate desacralization of the image. It's not designed to be beautiful but to make people talk. And laugh."

Selfies aren't narcissistic

Narcissism is related to psychiatry, Gunthert argues. Americans consider it to be a pathological disorder.

If we think of the selfie as something narcissistic, "We totally miss its social and sociological dimension," Gunthert says. "For me, selfies express an evolution of social norm. Make no mistake: The selfie is a class practice."

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Bill Nye, Barack Obama and Neil deGrasse Tyson in Feb. 2014 — Photo: Pete Souza

It represents a social evolution that has nothing to do with psychiatry, he insists. Selfies are made to be shared. "We always send it to someone, never to ourselves. To do that, a mirror is enough."

Selfies have of course become omnipresent in the context of intimate texting conversations, also known as sexting. "We address these images to someone, through private messages, without the outside world noticing it," says Gunthert. "This is not a narcissistic manifestation."

Psychologist Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me, described a narcissistic tsunami that's submerging the world, a theory the media happily relayed. "But a study published in 2008 in Psychological Science showed that young people haven't truly changed their behavior these last 30 years," Gunthert says.

Selfies aren't ugly

When professionals take photos, it's normal for them to master them and make them perfect. By contrast, selfies exude an intentional do-it-yourself feel. The presence of flaws are characteristic to the genre.

"Young stars like Rihanna take great authentic selfies on Instagram," Gunthert says. "The pictures are often low quality, poorly lit, badly framed. But these photos tell a story to her fans. They say: Here I am when I get up, what you see is my intimacy. This doesn't stop her from making the front cover of Vogue with a perfect image. Official pictures will live on."

The evolution of image tells the evolution of society, he says. Until recently, only artists had a right to disrupt norms.

"Marcel Duchamp, who distorted everyday objects to make art, was very subversive. But that was Duchamp. In 1910, the general public could do nothing but admire the work presented," Gunthert says.

Today, everyone can distort works, publishing it all online. "What Duchamp did, now every teenager can," he says.

Shaking up the elite

Those most annoyed by this genre of expression are "well-off" people living in a "protected world," Gunthert says.

For instance, when a young woman asked Prince Harry to pose with her for a photo during a trip in Australia, he answered: "No, I hate selfies. Seriously, you need to get out of it. I know you're young, but selfies are bad." He then turned around and urged her to take a "normal" photograph of him.

"I completely understand Prince Harry," the researcher says. "He thinks, "I don't share the limelight. I am the prince, so I have the right to be on the stage. You have the right to watch me.""

The same reaction could be found during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, when director Thierry Frémaux described selfies as "ugly, vulgar, ridiculous and grotesque" and tried to forbid the stars to take them on the red carpet — in vain. Actress Catherine Deneuve thought the same, saying that selfies "trivialize everything."

"In Cannes, before the selfie dispute, we saw the star surrounded by a swarm of professional photographers," Gunthert says. "A year later, everything had changed: Selfies impose a new proximity with the public."

We now see big stars in the middle of their audiences, Gunthert says. "This is this proximity that Prince Harry avoids. With the selfie, we, the nobodies, have entered the image."

Sima, a one-of-a-kind poker mom
Corinne Bouchouchi

Mother By Day, Poker Player By Night

Sima, a Parisian mother of three, hits the poker tables every night around 10 p.m. and plays for a solid eight hours, just like a day's work. She earns a decent living, if not the respect of her children's teachers.

PARIS — Her black hair is pulled back into a bun, and she's wearing a pair of hoops and light lipstick. It's 10 p.m., and Sima is leaving her Parisian apartment to go to work. She takes a cigarette from its pack, the first of many on this particular night. Relaxed, she walks along almost deserted streets, as though the city is hers.

Her phone rings. It's a friend calling to say she'll pick her up to go to the Cercle Clichy Montmartre, a poker group, or "circle," situated in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. "It's my second home," Sima says.

Her two youngest daughters —7 and 9 years old — are in bed at home with her partner and her 22-year-old daughter. "During school, I leave every evening around 9 or 10 p.m., after I kiss them goodnight," Sima explains. "They know I'm going to play. The youngest one kisses me and tells me, ‘You're going to win, Mom. Don't be scared of all those men." I come home the next day around 6. I can prepare breakfast, drive them to school and go back to sleep until 2 p.m."

Sima has three daughters by two different fathers. A professional poker player for four years, she recently joined Roger Hairabedian's Ladies Team. Hairabedian, known as "Big Roger," is the only Frenchman who holds the double champion title. Sima's gambling winnings currently constitute her only income, which pays her rent, feeds her family and earns her enough to spoil her daughters.

Sima, 40, has a degree in sociology and can intersperse her conversation with long excerpts of Russian, Persian and French literature. In the mid-1990s, when she arrived from Armenia with her first husband, she initially worked as a saleswoman and a waitress. That was before a staph infection confined her to a hospital bed for a few weeks and nearly erased some of her memory, she says.

She also tried to create a nonprofit organization to offer chess lessons to disadvantaged children, but that project stalled when she couldn't find office space. She arrived in Place de Clichy after the separation from her second husband, and she was determined to earn a solid living.

200 euros every night

"My friends who are chess players told me about poker," she says. "I got into the circle to watch, and I started learning by observing others. This one, he was one of my subjects of study," she says, smiling and pointing to a guy walking towards her. "He's been to all the poker circles of Paris. I was very scared of his aggressive style of play at first."

There are now experienced players who fear her, even though she pretends to ignore it. "There are some great masters here, but we all form a community," she says. "And it's not because I know how to play that I won't be a "fish" some day. We all are someone's fish!"

A "fish" is someone who systematically raises his bid and who can be easily ripped off. Poker has its own codes and its Anglicisms, which aren't always easy for novices to translate. For example, "all in" is when a player bets all his chips in the current hand, the term "sizing" means to adjust one's bet.

Sima says she approaches the game like a good mother, never leaving home with more than 200 euros or so, her cigarette pack and her cellphone. "I'm a small player," she says. "I don't spend more than 200 or 300 euros. I know that's everything I can lose. I can't go any further."

At 84 rue de Clichy, a group of mostly male players smoke cigarettes outside under the watchful eyes of a security guard. Sima puts out her cigarette before going in. It's not possible to follow her inside, as journalists aren't welcome.

The Cercle Clichy-Montmartre is the last survivor of Parisian gaming's legal world. Since 1919, casinos haven't been allowed in the capital. "Circles," though, are considered distinct and are legal and are oddly considered to be NGOs.

It's a crowded night in the nice 19th century brasserie converted into a gaming room. Sima waits as usual for a table to become available. During the daytime, behind the glass-front double doors, we can make out the 10 round tables dedicated to "low limits," those who bet between 50 and 100 euros. Higher-dollar players are directed towards a well-hidden VIP room.

With its massive windows and tall engraved mirrors, the place looks like a Belle Époque-era tearoom, nothing like the movie scenes in The Sting or Casino Royale. "There is no subdued light or shady atmosphere, and I don't have a pale and despairing face," Sima says laughing. "This is serious here. Rules are very strict. We can't get mad or even talk loud. If two players insult each other, the croupier reports it immediately."

Ordinary job

About 200 people come here every night of the week, like others go to the office. In this small world that she calls her "Clichy family," Sima has her habits. Between two games, or when she is waiting for a table, she sits at the bar and takes out a small ivory chess game, a gift from the staff. "I know all of them — the croupiers, the managers, the regular gamblers," she says. "Some of them are my friends. I told the boss that if I left the circle one day, I would take one of his mirrors. I spent too much time looking at myself in it."

Her long-standing chess playing — she still remembers the position of her pawns during a championship she lost at 8 years old in Armenia — has helped her to refine her bluffing skills.

"When we play chess, when we compete, we learn this body language," she says. "We can't find that on online gaming sites. They lack analysis of the adversary, his psychological portrait."

Her largest loss to date — 1,000 euros — happened one evening when the other players had only average cards. "I had 60 euros left," she recalls. "The next day I left with these 60 euros and I won 800."

It's a day-to-day lifestyle she tries to consider like a normal job — except with no fixed wage at the end of the month. At the beginning of the school year, her daughter explained to her new teacher that her mom was a poker player. "That's not an occupation," the teacher replied. Upset, the daughter questioned her mother. "I explained to her that her teacher stayed up for eight hours a day to give her lessons," Sima says. "And I was sitting for the same number of hours at a gaming table to make a living. Most of the gamblers I know don't dare to tell their children what they're doing."

But for Sima, bluffing is only for her opponents.

Arpad Bella, the man who first opened the Iron Curtain
Doan Bui

Iron Curtain Border Guard Watches New Walls Rise

As a border guard in 1989, Arpad Bella personally opened a portion of the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria to a crowd of East German refugees. Today, while migrants rush to the gates of Europe, he sadly watches history run backward.

SOPRON Sometimes photographs speak for themselves. This one, for instance, in black and white in an old yellowed issue of Stern magazine that retired border guard Arpad Bella has kept safe all these years. There he is, a much younger version of himself, standing in uniform next to a barrier at the border between Hungary and Austria, in Sopron. The wall is open and Bella allows through a crowd of people lining up to cross. They are Eastern Germans, and that was in 1989.

These pictures of crowds crossing through barbwire gates resemble other, more recent photographs — from this year, in fact. From Syria and Iraq come the same scenes of distraught exodus, but 26 years later.

Bella has changed. He's aged and his hair has gone gray, his uniform now boxed away with mothballs. He still lives in Sopron, at the border with Austria, the same border that refugees are desperately trying to reach to make it to the West.

"Every evening, we watch the news with my wife," he says. "These images that are shown over and over again haunt me. It's as if the past has suddenly returned."

Albert Camus wrote, "History repeats itself, like a bleeding mouth that merely vomits forth a wild stammering." History stammers, jolts, cries, those exiled have another face, but it's as if the film were rewinding.

In the home of the man who long ago opened up a first section of the Iron Curtain, there's a entire series of official photos. Bella with Angela Merkel, Bella with Helmut Kohl. And there's a "without borders" diploma for the border guard who helped open one up.

Grenzenlos, or European utopia, seems so far away today. Border. The word is now on everyone's lips, from Paris to Berlin to Budapest in a Europe that is imploding, facing the most serious crisis in its post-war history.

El Dorado

On Aug. 19, 1989, Arpad Bella was on guard at Sopron's border post. The air was very heavy that day, and there was a stormy, almost electric atmosphere. There had been East German refugees around the city all summer. Tens of thousands of them were camping there, at the foot of the wall. So close to their El Dorado. Hungary had been known for being the "merriest house" of the Soviet camp and for the past few years it was here, in this pretty region of lakes and forests, that people found themselves between East and West, where Trabant cars made in East Germany mixed with Mercedes of West Germany.

The Iron Curtain, that wall of electrified barbwire, was still there, of course. But it already had a considerable number of holes: in July, the government had discreetly started dismantling portions of it, all the while saying it was monitoring the borders.

That day, the pacifist "Pan-European Picnic" association had decided to invade the Sobron post and symbolically open its gate for two hours. It was just one small delegation that would make the return trip from Austria with a brass band. In any case, that's what Arpad Bella's superiors told him, elliptically ordering him to "handle the situation." Later that morning, Bella saw them arrive. The "small delegation" was in reality a long line of men, women and children, hundreds of people, all hurtling towards the Austrian border.

"Normally, my job was to defend this border, prevent them from crossing," Bella remembers. "Even if it meant using force, or even opening fire." That day, he was taken by surprise and hadn't really had time to think. But his heart decided not to shoot. As many as 600 East German refugees crossed the border, and photos of the event traveled around the world.

Bella was upbraided the next day, and the border guard management even opened an investigation on him for "helping Germans illegally cross the border and not ensuring order." Bella feared he would be sent to jail, but his decision preceded history. In the following days, the stream or refugees continued, and the Hungarian government kept quiet. In the following months, 100,000 East German refugees crossed the border. The first wall fell, and the one in Berlin would follow in September.

A European fortress

Today, after the passage of 26 years, the same Hungary that once solemnly thanked Chancellor Helmut Kohl, declaring that "the land on which the Brandenburg Gate stands is Hungarian," has become the leader of a European fortress. Government spokeman Zoltan Kovacs retorts: "The historical comparison is ridiculous," he says. "The German refugees were European, Christians like us. Unlike these migrants who come from the Middle East."

Read that: Muslims. "They don't even have identification documents," he adds. "Who can say they aren't terrorists?"

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, backed by his Slovakian or Czech counterparts, tirelessly repeats that the country must say no to refugee quotas that Europe wants to impose, "defend ourselves" against the "invasion," and thus barricade the country from the rest of Europe.

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Refugees in Hungary marching towards the Austrian border — Photo: Joachim Seidler

The countries of the former Eastern Bloc, which used to be locked up behind walls, fear refugees, forgetting that hundreds of thousands of their own citizens were also once refugees who obtained the right to asylum in France or Germany. Slovakia has declared that the EU is no longer safe because of the "flood of migrants." The Czechs are campaigning for the reinstatement of borders in the open-border Schengen Area. And Hungary is building walls.

Apart from what has been broadcast on television, Bella hasn't seen the new wall at the Hungary-Serbia border. "When I was little, my father told me that over there, too, there had been a wall," he says. "The entire zone was mined. After World War II and the clashes between Tito and Stalin, the border became militarized, with bunkers. The army was constantly patrolling." There were mines around Sopron, too, and many people died. They also say that an entire herd of goats once exploded on a minefield, which is now covered in pines. The Iron Curtain was impassable.

"There were many escape attempts by East German citizens. Almost none managed to cross. The entire zone was locked down," Bella says.

The wall had two parts. A lower fence and, above, a row of electrified barbwire. "The lower fence was to prevent animals from getting near, which would have continuously triggered the alarm," he says. "Every time it rang, a patrol showed up." There were watchtowers every 10 kilometers. Some are still there, abandoned, like sinister silhouettes disfiguring the green countryside. The now-empty barracks where the border guards slept are also ghosts of the Iron Curtain era.


Today, the new wall at the Serbian-Hungarian border, which runs across 175 kilometers, was also built in two parts. A first fence of barbwire and a three-meter-high wall. For now, it's not electrified. "Someone will try to climb it," Bella says. "When there's a wall and people who want to cross on the other side, it's inevitable."

We met him on Sept. 4, and the following days proved him right. On Sept. 6, at the Serbian-Hungarian border, thousands of anti-riot policemen turned up to patrol with loud sirens. On Sept. 14, the government declared a state of emergency and the army was called to the rescue, to "secure" the place. On Sept. 15, in front of cameras from all over the world, the border, the last passageway still open around the railway, was "sealed."

"The border will be impassable," Orban said. He also announced he would build a second wall, at the border with Romania, for fear that refugees would try to cross further north. On Sept. 17, Hungary announced it would even erect a wall at the border with Croatia. There were incidents between police forces and refugees blocked behind the barbwire. There were grenades, water cannons and injuries on both sides. Asked whether the police will be allowed to open fire, Orban eluded the question. "They won't have to. The wall will be hermetic."

Bella doesn't believe that. "Of course they'll be led to open fire," he says. "Their job is to defend the territory. They'll have to make a choice. And I wouldn't want to be in their shoes."

Once again, Bella was right. The Hungarian Parliament authorized them to shoot "on the condition that the shots are not deadly."

Bella sometimes has the impression that history sank too quickly for him. "I was born with the wall," he says. "I never imagined I'd see the Iron Curtain fall. And then 1989 came long. It all changed so fast. I didn't think my children would work in Switzerland or Austria, that we'd be able to cross borders as we please. That something like the Schengen Area would exist. We've now entered a new cycle. Maybe we're back to the era of walls."

A Malmo demonstration in favor of Sweden's policy of welcoming refugees
Anne-Françoise Hivert

Sweden And Denmark, A Scandinavian Showdown Over Refugees

Tensions rise between northern European neighbors. Sweden is second only to Germany for hosting the most refugees, while Denmark is dubbed Hungary of Scandinavia.

MALMÖ — In the hall of the Malmö station, in southern Sweden, two men sit side by side with relief visible in their eyes. They finally made it. Ali, 20, and his uncle, Mohamad, left the Syrian city of Aleppo a month ago.

"There's no electricity, nothing to eat or to drink anymore," Mohamad says of Aleppo.

Unlike many of their travel companions, they have no family in Sweden. But they were told they would be well received here. "It's a good country to raise a child," Mohamad says. His family stayed in Syria. "Crossing the Mediterranean is too dangerous," he explains. In Hungary, the police arrested him and placed him in a detention center for a week, before he escaped. His nephew continued to travel alone.

When he arrived in Malmö 15 days ago, Ali thought his uncle would never be able to join him. That's because Denmark has reinforced police checks at its entrance since the arrival of several thousand refugees this month. It's the last stop for those who dream of the Swedish El Dorado. Copenhagen also decided to suspend any railway traffic with Germany. As a result, refugees now use the ferry that connects Germany and Sweden directly.

Two very different approaches

At the Malmö station, volunteers continue to receive those who have slipped through the net from Denmark. They set up a stand on a square and serve sandwiches and drinks. Passersby stop to offer help. Some come bearing bags full of warm clothes, shoes and toys.

Others leave money to pay the train fare for those who want to travel on to Stockholm, Oslo or Finland. The SJ rail company announced it wasn't requiring tickets to bear specific names, as a way to facilitate moving around. A small Red Cross van has been on site for the past few days. "We mostly tend do to foot injuries or sunburns," supervisor Lena Yoanes notes. "Some children have fever."

There are immigration services here. "The quicker the asylum requests are registered, the better it is for later," a civil servant explains. Police officers are stationed around but don't intervene. Many of the volunteers are from Denmark. Some even bring people refugees across the bridge that passes over the Øresund strait, the sound that separates Denmark and Sweden. They risk two years in prison if they are caught. Jibran, Omar and Haroon, three friends of Pakistani origin, don't care. "Our government isn't doing anything for these people, so we decided to do something," Omar says.

A few days ago, they were in Rødby, in southern Denmark, for a ferry's arrival from Germany. "But the refugees didn't dare speak to us," Omar says, "because they were afraid of being arrested."

Images of entire families walking under police escort along the highway to Copenhagen left the Danes shocked. The left-wing daily Politiken reacted by characterizing Denmark as the "Scandinavian Hungary," given the eastern European country's refusal to allow refugees inside its borders. To break the stalemate, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen asked his Swedish counterpart to let those who wanted to get to the other side of the bridge to Sweden pass. Feeling that Denmark should take its share of refugees, the Swedish head of state Stefan Löhven refused.

"A force for Europe"

Things are falling apart between the two Scandinavian neighbors over the asylum issue. Tension only increased in recent days when several major Lebanese dailies published advertising inserts meant to dissuade possible immigrants from choosing Denmark.

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A file photo of Danish police. Photo: Euromagic

The Immigration Ministry says that social welfare allocated to refugees in Denmark has been reduced by half, that obtaining a permanent residence permit or family reunification there is complicated, and that those whose applications are rejected are deported immediately. Lawmaker Marcus Knuth, a member of Venstre, Denmark's left-wing Liberal Party, explains the measures. "Last year, we received as many refugees as the 15 European countries who receive the least combined. Our system is about to collapse."

The message, he says, is mostly meant for smugglers, who "lead entire families on roads that can turn out to be deadly." In Sweden, the social-democrat Minister of Justice Morgan Johansson responds angrily, saying, "It's not really the time to scare those fleeing their war-torn country, but to show solidarity."

If Sweden is opening its borders, it's mainly for humanitarian reasons, he explains. "It's obvious, especially when so many people flee a war as horrible as the one currently taking place in Syria." But, he says, "let's not forget these migrants represent a force for Europe. A third of the Syrians we receive have university diplomas. There are nurses, doctors, engineers, the kind of jobs for which we lack candidates. Some only see the costs in the short-term. It's true that receiving them has a cost. But it's also an investment."

3,000 demands per week in Sweden

He mentions, for instance, Västra Götaland County, in westen Sweden, which realized it would need to recruit 200 doctors in the next few years. "Government officers went by the region's reception centers and discovered there were 31 Syrian doctors," Johansson says. "They immediately set up a program to teach them medical Swedish in one year."

The government, made up of the Green and Social Democratic parties, just allocated the equivalent of 3.2 million euros to the Department of Social Affairs, to accelerate the validation of foreign diplomas. It also granted an extension of 160 million euros to municipalities that will now receive 16,000 euros per hosted refugee.

At the Swedish Migration Office, officiails say the situation is under control, even if new arrival records are being set, with more than 3,000 asylum requests filed per week. To handle this, the administration has opened several offices across the country. It also just negotiated 20,000 accommodation places with private bodies: former schools, abandoned hospitals, deserted hotels. In one year, the agency's budget doubled, from 960 million euros in 2013 to almost 2 billion in 2014.

In Malmö, the Immigration Office is now open on weekends and until 9 p.m. during the week. The port, with 370,000 residents, is the main gateway into the kingdom. About 40% of asylum seekers arriving in Sweden pass through here.

In the large waiting rooms in the working-class neighborhood of Jägerso, about 100 people are waiting their turn. There are many men, families too. After the fingerprint process, asylum seekers are called in for a private interview in the presence of an interpreter. They receive a bank card, which allows them to open an account into which benefits are deposited twice a month. They are provided with free accommodation in one of the country's many reception centers. Then they leave with an appointment for a review of their case.

Last year, 77% of asylum requests were granted, "almost 100% for Syrians and Eritreans," a supervisor says. Most refugees received a permanent residence permit and will be able to be naturalized within four years.

"Studies have shown that those who get a provisional residence permit live in insecurity and fear, not daring to leave the country, while those who are naturalized are more likely to return home, as they have the guarantee that they'll be able to return to Sweden if the situation worsens," says Peo Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Linköping and specialist in European immigration policies.

A moral duty

On the square outside the Malmö station, left-wing lawmaker Rossana Dinamarca, who came here from Chile "just 41 years ago," is delighted. After an asylum seeker murdered a woman and her son in an Ikea store during the summer, and as the far right party's support rose in opinion polls, the rhetoric became tougher. "But politicians have to notice that people are supporting receiving the refugees," she says.

Both the political left and right invoke moral duty. Hansen talks about "a wound in the national consciousness after World War II, mixed with a certain sense of pride." That's because Sweden helped Nazi Germany very actively. "Growing up, we learned it was a huge disgrace," she says. "But Sweden also helped save Danish Jews evacuated in 1943, and it received survivors of concentration camps and Baltic and Finnish refugees after the war."

The influence of the Social Democratic party, in power for 68 years from 1932 to 2006 (with an interruption between 1976 and 1982) also counted a lot, observes Jens Orback, head of Stockholm's Olof Palme International Center. "The notion of solidarity was very important." He mentions the former prime minister, assassinated in 1986, who was a defender of Central American liberation movements and a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War.

"We have a strong welfare state," Orback says. "We've never opposed groups against one another. It's also because Swedish nationalism isn't as strong as elsewhere. We're not scared of seeing our culture disappear little by little."

"This has a lot to do with the image we have of ourselves as a moral superpower," says political specialist Andreas Johansson Heinö. "It's a question of prestige. We could almost describe this as chauvinism." The paradox, he says, "is that for a long time we were a very homogeneous society, with a language, religion, people. The nation has never really been threatened. This is why we have the means to open our borders."

"The constant fear of being invaded"

In Denmark, it's the complete opposite. Danish writer Carsten Jensen, who is very critical of his country's policies, explains that the relationship with Germany is crucial. "For centuries, our neighbor was a large, aggressive military power that kept threatening to swallow us up," he says. "We constantly lived with the fear of being invaded. After World War II, when this threat disappeared, it left a void in the general Danish consciousness. Immigrants filled it, and we still live with the constant fear of being invaded."

But, in Sweden, some towns do protest against the influx of refugees. The government has just announced it would impose quotas to balance the accommodation of refugees across the country. But the justice minister remains optimistic. The far right may be gaining ground after every election, but ""opinion polls also show a rise in tolerance." Last month, thousands gathered in Malmö to welcome the newcomers.

 Herve Pighiera, recycling his way through France
Caroline Brizard

Why This Man Is Walking Across France To Collect Garbage

AIX-EN-PROVENCE — Over the past two days, Hervé Pighiera has picked up 118 cigarette butts, 60 cigarette packs, 69 plastic bottles and 7.75 kilos of non-classifiable garbage, including a little dollhouse armchair made of wicker and plastic.

Pighiera is on a mission to clean roadsides. On July 12, this smiling fellow in a straw hat, with curly hair and a thick beard, left on foot from Aix-en-Provence, almost 800 kilometers from Paris, heading towards the capital. Since then, he has been collecting garbage and logging everything he picks up as a way to denounce the mountains of trash that our society produces. "I don't want to be one of those who knew and did nothing," he says.

So he walks, dragging a big bin behind him, filling it as he goes. With a few stops along the way, he plans to arrive at the Paris-Le Bourget conference venue on Nov. 30 for the COP21 United Nations Conference on Climate Change. He will come armed with firm beliefs and his harvest of damning statistics. "I collect on average 600 pieces of garbage every day, and even more when I get closer to cities," he says.

The roadsides are littered with all sorts of trash and sometimes odd objects that owners must have lost by accident. He's already found "a screwdriver, T-shirts, baby pajamas, a plastic watering can, a National Front membership card, pie-baking dishes, bolts, a pair of size 13 shoes, a phone, a condom — still in its packaging — and road maps," he enumerates.

A lifelong commitment

Pighiera's garbage-picking vocation started in childhood. "I used to go pick up mushrooms with two bags: one for the mushrooms, the other for the trash," he says. And growing up with an anarchist father who found Christian faith late, and a sister who became a geographer, his environmental awareness developed. Did you know, for example, that a single cigarette butt can pollute up to 500 liters of water?

"The walk is an excuse to talk about illegal dumps, nuclear energy, wind turbines and our un-eco-friendly lifestyles," he says. "We now have a duty to repair the damage done to the planet."

A trip to Latin America last year left him shocked at the omnipresence of unauthorized dumps, sometimes in the most beautiful of places, especially in Peru. "When I came back to France in February, I thought we should take advantage of the COP21 conference to raise people's awareness," he says. He worked on the project for two months, and after a four-day trial, he started his long march.

But Pighiera doesn't travel alone. Lola Orsoni, 24, handles the logistics. Slim, dark-haired and clearly determined, she just finished her studies in urban management. The two met three years ago at a couchsurfing event in Aix-en-Provence.

Lola is the other face of this project. She's the one driving the car and the trailer where they keep what's collected. She also picks up the bin bags that Pighiera leaves behind for her. They weigh them, open them and thoroughly inventory the content every other day for their statistics, before throwing it all in proper waste containers.

They aren't traveling to Paris via a straight line. The invitations, people they meet, camping sites where they're offered free night stays or restaurants offering them complimentary meals mean they're always making little detours. They also take advantage of their adventure to encourage people to fight against projects that threaten the environment.

Other breaks are more poetic, like their two-day stay at Guédélon, where a group of people are building a medieval castle using only ancient techniques. It's a joy to watch for Pighiera, whose real job is as a builder.

Publicity for the cause

The adventure has also visibly brought him some notoriety. A truck suddenly stops after passing us. The driver jumps out of his vehicle and says, smiling, "I recognize you. I saw you on TV." That was a few weeks ago, during the Tour de France, publicity that brought him many new supporters. After a quick chat, the truck driver gives him a bottle of coke and a pack of cookies "for the road," he says.

Pighiera and Lola resume their journey. His grabbing stick barely stops moving between the ground and the bin. "The plastic that's been left outside in the sun decomposes itself into little particles that are hard to grab and that stay in the ground," he says. Also high on his list of annoying waste are the energy shot bottles, which cyclists leave on the roadside.

Around him the French countryside with its freshly ploughed fields are spotted with forests here and there. Cows stare at him as he walks past. It's a beautiful day, and others like the truck driver stop to congratulate him and have a chat.

At noon, Pighiera and Lola stop in a small park lot. One by one, they empty the bags they've been filling since yesterday in the trailer. Gloves on, the two hurry to divide the waste into different buckets: cigarette packs, plastic bottles, and everything else that can't be recycled. "We keep record of the amount of garbage, the weight, the main brands, and we publish the information on our website," he explains.

They want to highlight the part that companies play. "The consumer is not the only one to blame," he says. "It's also important to point out the responsibility of the authorities and the manufacturers. The law could, for example, tax non-biodegradable packaging to force companies to use other materials and in smaller quantities."

The figures are indeed alarming. After 50 days and 862 kilometers, the two have collected a mountain of garbage: 272 kilos of non-recyclable waste, 103 kilos of glass, 137.5 kilos of metal, 51.5 kilos of recyclable plastic, 32 kilos of paper and 3,324 cigarette packs.

And they're not done yet.