Paris Calling

Buenos Aires To Paris, Don't Blame Covid For Killing Culture

Swedish-born, Paris-based writer Carl-Johan Karlsson has been seeing “dead museums” since the pandemic arrived... and even earlier.

Outside the Louvre Museum in Paris last summer
Carl-Johan Karlsson


PARIS — In the early days of last spring's strict confinement, I went for a walk with a friend soon after dawn. Keeping six feet apart, we spoke through our face masks and each of us carried a signed French government "permission to exercise" form in our front pocket. It was March, but that early Parisian morning was a little telegram from summer. We reached Pont au Change just as the first crackling light poured over the mansard roofs and set the placid river glistening. The air was calm and quiet except for the sounds of birds singing — and after a moment of silent reflection staring out from the bridge, my friend and I agreed: Paris had never looked worse.

The scene of a deserted, majestic city would of course have made quite the postcard, but all I could think of was William Burroughs' phrase "dead museum." And so it was recently that I thought of that phrase again when reading about two other cities that I once too called home; New York, where the Metropolitan Opera announced that the pandemic had forced it to cancel its entire 2020-21 season; and Buenos Aires, where the city's 200 "milongas' or, tango dance halls, will remain shut indefinitely after closing back in March.

Tango moves during an online class at an apartment in Buenos Aires — Photo: Martin Zabala/Xinhua/ZUMA

Before I go on, I should pause to say that I understand the risk of talking about tango when people are still dying in hospitals around the world. I should also note that, even though I live in Paris, I'm no particular high-culture maven. I've never been to the Met and I've never tangoed. I got close, back when I lived in Buenos Aires, showing up at milongas to soak up the atmosphere and watch the little tornados of people swirl and marvel at how they (with eyes closed!) managed to never collide. I never dared, having realized early that the Swedish male frame doesn't lend itself to dancing — our asses are too flat. Still, being there as locals tangoed like they had for generations was, without knowing it at the time, why I'd made the Argentine capital my temporary home.

Cities are nothing if not a compacted bale of all of the things that are now a threat to our health: dancing cheek-to-cheek, opera singers belting out arias, sweating shoulder-shoulder on the subway, shooting the shit in crowded bars, filing into a movie theater, sharing a cigarette … a handshake. And as we still don't know whether we're at the end of something terrible or at the beginning of something that won't end, it begs the question: What if some of our physical culture won't be coming back?

Beyond Burroughs, there is of course a whole slew of 20th-century dystopian writers who imagined what a spiritually dead culture might look like — some with an almost spooky prescience (George Orwell's 1984 hit bestseller lists again in 2017). Still, a very different perspective comes from my photographer fiancee who is convinced that the pandemic is a chance to confront a culture that has long been in crisis: "Maybe what we're going through now can remind us of what's been lost."

Culture will always need our collective expression.

That view requires a sunnier disposition than mine, but I understood what she was getting at. Visiting art galleries, I often get the sense of reading a newspaper; it tells you what's going on; or even social media (what's trending...), but it rarely invokes any of the feelings — love, fear, hope, rage — that it typically claims to depict. It lacks what Aristotle called "anagnorisis," that feeling of catching up with a truth that was already there.

I couldn't tell you what allowed artists of the past to compose, write or paint the stuff we still revisit in awe, only that I can't find it today. I also know that no matter how many it takes to tango, culture will always need our collective expression … even if some just sit on our asses and watch.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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