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GP10Mar04: Paris the Invincible?

January 2004 in Paris.  Even under leaden skies, the wind-whipped Seine was luminous. Lines at the Louvre were non-existent.  One had all the time in the world to examine La Giaconda’s mysterious gaze, still riveting after years of over-exposure. Restaurants, even newly-anointed Michelin two-stars, could be visited on a few hours notice.  Thanks to the January soldes, one could indulge in pointy, stiletto-heeled shoes, despite the hefty euro.  It was a moment, rare these days, when one could yield to impulse.  

We’ve occasionally wondered what it would be like to live in central Paris, where the past is palpable and where the present seems merely to occupy a small space carved out of carefully preserved stone.  In winter, for instance, one’s children could ice skate in front of the Hotel de Ville, on the very spot where medieval transgressors were burned at the stake.  The curving stone staircase leading to one’s apartment might have been trod by a 17th-century duc.  Leaving one of Paris’ best neighborhood boulangeries, one might glimpse the steel girders of the Tour Eiffel, lights twinkling against the early evening sky. If we lived in Paris, we would likely take much of this for granted.  Becoming totally Gallic, we might also feel rather superior to the rest of the world, even if our actual power in that world was fading as fast as the light on a January afternoon.  (For articles on the monuments of Paris and other delights, we recommend the monthly newsletter, Paris Notes, at www.parisnotes.com.)

The Pleasures of the Day.  While “Non!” appears to have been the operative word in Franco-American relations for the last year, we were delighted to note that the French continue to say “Oui!” to the pleasures that make life civilized.  Unlike America, where we are still on post-holiday diets, religiously watching the glycemic index of every morsel we eat, the French are religiously enjoying themselves.  They are luxuriating in two-hour lunches, puffing on enormous Cuban cigars, imbibing superb wines, adding more beurre to their already buttery croissants.  We ourselves indulged repeatedly in foie gras, in forms that ranged from the sublime (thick slices of rosy fois gras de Toulouse atop the snob salade at Mariage Freres) to the ridiculous (an impossibly rich creme brulee de fois gras at Helene Darroze). We saw no fat people at all.

Underneath it all, the French are not really hedonistic.  Life is governed by a code of rules, so layered and convoluted that an American could live forever in Paris without truly learning to navigate the labyrinthine undercurrents of French society.  In Le Divorce, novelist Diane Johnson perfectly captured the dilemma of Americans trying to stay afloat in a foreign culture where all the rules are resolutely stacked in favor of the natives.  Her comedy of manners revolves around an awful American-owned painting of St. Ursula, which is claimed by the French when it is suddenly attributed to La Tour during divorce proceedings.  As Suzanne, the very soigne mother-in-law, sniffs, “It is a French picture, after all.”  

But there is much to be said for a society where dogs accompany their masters into cafes and boutiques and where phalanxes of men in green try to keep the sidewalks clean.  Most dogs do not walk on leashes, but trot alongside their masters with perfect aplomb. Of course, they also have excellent manners, as do French school children.  Then there is the laissez-faire attitude toward museum photographs.  In the Louvre, it is “gently suggested” that one not use a camera; but of course, everyone does and the guards do not care.  Even where photos are expressly prohibited—mysteriously, it is forbidden to take pictures of the Venus de Milo—the guards simply turn their backs.  (However, laissez-faire stops at the airport, where we saw security guards confiscate the camera of a Japanese woman who photographed her toddlers against a glass wall, exposing the top secret x-ray luggage conveyor belt.  The film was ripped from her camera, furious telephone calls were made and her name and passport number was entered with a flourish into a ledger of dangerous offenders.)

Invasion of Starbucks.  We skipped the opening of the first French Starbucks.  But reading about its debut, where toothily smiling baristas advised customers that croissants were great with coffee (see “Starbucks in Paris?  What Would Sartre Say?” by Matthew Kaminski, The Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2004, p. W11 ),  we couldn’t help but recall pleasant mornings lingering over cafe au lait, chocolat chaud and croissants at Chez Paul on the Rue de Buci.  Chez Paul, we discovered, is actually a chain of cafes boasting pains rustiques and de phantasie, but the outpost on the Rue de Buci has old wood paneling, a crystal chandelier, and a cerebus of a waitress in the outer non fumoir section.  Short, stout, with crimped iron grey hair and tightly pursed lips, she cast a suspicious eye on every customer and made change from a wallet safely ensconced in the pocket of a short black apron that fit tightly over her belly.  She was so grouchy and so irritable that we positively missed her when she was not at work the morning we left.  (Entre Nous, a tongue-in-cheek guide to finding “your inner French girl,” quotes one Parisienne as saying, “We French don’t care if you have a good day, so we never say it.”) Once the French get over le difference, we wonder if Starbucks will have all the homogenized allure of EuroDisney.  

Assimilation.  One of the vanishing pleasures of travel is the chance to wallow in a radically different culture.  The French may love the Gap, but we prefer Agnes B (see www.agnesb.fr).  Keeping French culture inviolate has long been a major focus of the country’s highly centralized government.  Back in the 1980s, culture minister Jack Lang slammed prime-time soap opera Dallas as an example of “American cultural imperialism.” Today, a substantial portion of television programming must be produced in France.  (We can attest that it is possibly even more inane than American TV, with goofy quiz shows and 70s-style song-and-dance spectaculars.)  And while Lang urged the French to drop Americanisms such as le weekend from conversation, schools in Brittany were recently forbidden to teach the local Breton dialect in favor of the official language of state.  

Underlying such strict government mandates is the all important concept of assimilation. “Outside” groups are accepted only to the degree that they give up their “foreign” ways and become ... French.   In The Flaneur, novelist and essayist Edmond White, who lived in Paris for two decades, writes about the infamous affaire Dreyfus and what it has meant to be Jewish in France.  White argues that despite the successful integration of Jews into French society during the Third Republic, there remained a faction of virulent far right anti-Semites who viewed them with suspicion and hostility.  This led to Dreyfus’s imprisonment on false changes of treason and the deportation of one quarter of all French Jews to German death camps during World War II.  Interestingly, White cites Mitterand’s official acceptance of homosexuality as one reason that no government help was forthcoming when AIDS began to ravage the homosexual population.  Perversely, he says, gays were so perfectly assimilated into the fabric of society, that no one wanted to recognize them as a separate group that needed assistance.

The current crisis of assimilation has to do with France’s five million Muslims who now constitute eight percent of the population.  Since Ariel Sharon’s rise to power, France has suffered a new wave of violent anti-Semitism, much of it said to be at the hands of young fundamentalist Muslims.  (See “A Frenchman or a Jew?” by Fernanda Eberstadt, The New York Times Magazine, February 26, 2004, pp. 48 -51, 61.)  In concert with Chirac’s campaign against hate crimes (and France’s longstanding secular tradition), the government recently banned the wearing of religious symbols in public schools, in particular the head scarves traditionally worn by Muslim girls.  Thousands demonstrated at protests surrounding the vote, including Muslim women who wrapped themselves in the French flag.  Dissenters claim that the ruling will cause devout Muslims to pull their daughters out of public schools and educate them at home or in religious venues—thus preventing assimilation from taking place.

Assimilation has never been such a top priority in America.  Although the illusion of the “melting pot” is beginning to crack, we are still a nation of immigrants, even if we have yet to come up with a workable immigration policy.  In California, public schools taught newly arrived Latinos in Spanish until Proposition 227 abolished bilingual education in 1998. Dearborn, Michigan has the biggest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East; many originally came from Syria and Lebanon to work at Ford.  We probably eat enchiladas more often than apple pie, dance to salsa music more often than bluegrass. Our pantries are filled with Chinese soy sauce and Indian spices, and when we go out to eat, we are nearly as likely to stop at a sushi bar or taco joint as we are at Red Lobster.  If we are what we eat, then America is a polyglot nation, embracing many cultures rather than bending them to a government imposed “norm.”
Back in France, some argue that the government’s efforts to preserve a strong national identity will prove isolating in the end.  Dominique Moisi, a leading international relations specialist, has called on France to decide whether it will be “Be a modern, normal country or one which is different, even exceptional....  [T]he French must stop bewailing globalisation and America’s role in it, give up cultural protectionism and refurbish their own message.”  (See “French Anti-Americanism and McDonald’s” by Daniel Ellwood, History Today, February 2001 at www.findarticles.com.)

Those of us who only visit, however, relish the very real, often thrilling differences between French culture and our own.  There is much to learn from their sense of entitlement to the pleasures of life and from their less-than-fanatical attitude toward work.  Secretly, we wonder if a country like France can tolerate the leveling influence of the European Union over the long run.  After all, when you have at least 365 regional cheeses and they are all wonderful, why should you alter even one of them?

For sure, in one Parisian cafe or another, there’s still an existentialist or two resolutely saying, “We are, therefore we are.” 

P.S.  To add to your fun in Paris, read some of the many entries in our Best of Class sections on Paris—and France.  For Paris, in particular, see 30, 31, 32, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 70, 197, 315, 321, 322, 323, 324, and 326.

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