ParisDiary, by Harriet Welty Rochefort

This page is the first one of several pages of texts about France and the French : click here to access them.

(#1)

 Paris?

I've been a permanent resident of the City of Light for years, 34 years to be exact, but the charm of the world's most beautiful city continues to operate. Whether strolling past the Eiffel Tower, sipping an espresso in a café, or ambling by the Seine, it's always as if it were the first time.

To live in Paris is to live with the constant jolt of beauty. Writer Joe Murray opined that "Paris should be declared as an international shrine...The people of Paris should work at no other job than simply that of being Parisians." That's a job I'm definitely happy to work at.

The Paris Diary, a selection of some of my monthly Letters From Paris on The Paris Pages brings you coverage of current news in France - the debate over the Islamic veil, worker's strikes - from the perspective of a veteran freelance journalist and writer.

And now en avant !

 

 

October 2003 - Hijab, not Hermès - The Islamic veil in French schools (Letter From Paris)

It used to be that when you talked about French women and scarves, the reference was clear : how beautiful their scarves are, how well they wear them. Who, other than a French woman, could tie a scarf with such grace and elegance ?

These days when you talk about scarves in France, it's a very different matter. The head scarf in the news is hardly Hermès. No, it's the hijab, a scarf worn by some Muslim women as an expression of religious devotion and modesty. Important note : not all Muslim women wear the hijab and nowhere in the Koran is it written that women are required either to wear a scarf or cover themselves entirely.

In France, it's not unusual to see Muslim women wearing scarves of varying forms and shapes and colors. It is however rare to see Muslim women covered from head to foot à la Saudia Arabia or Afghanistan ­ but you do see that from time to time as well depending on where you live. As a tourist, you won't see it unless you stray from the Champs-Elysées and the Latin Quarter into the more multicolored districts of eastern Paris.

Recent problems with Muslim schoolgirls wearing the scarf to school are creating havoc with France's self-image. France stands at a crossroads for although it is a mutlicultural and multiethnic nation, it remains ­ and is proud of being - a secular society.

Fierce battles were waged in the beginning of the 20th century to remove religion and religious signs from French schools. The huge crosses that hung over blackboards were torn down and students were told that they would not be allowed to wear " ostentatious " signs of their faith, be it Jewish, Catholic, or Muslim. Practically speaking, that means that a student in France can go to school with a small cross or Star of David or a discreet head scarf ­ but the buck stops there.

Over the past years some Muslim schoolgirls have challenged this rule by wearing scarves that go so far beyond the definition of " discreet " that they head right down the road to " ostentatious ". This vociferous and obstreperous minority (there are only about ten cases a year of problems caused by " aggressive head scarves "), has made the head scarf the worm in the apple of French secular society and especially French education.

And France obviously doesn't know what to do about the problem. Most of these challenges are solved away from the limelight on a case by case basis by the principal of the establishment. Most of the times the Muslim schoolgirls and the school administration reach a compromise agreement and nothing more is said.

That's the best case scenario.

The worst case scenario was exemplied recently with Alma and Lila, two young French sisters and recent coverts to Islam who insisted on covering themselves entirely. When the teachers and the administration tried to discuss the matter and negotiate a compromise, they stood their ground ­ and were expelled.

Some say " shame on the French Republic and its schools " to reject two young girls who may just be going through an adolescent crisis. (Neither of their parents, incidentally, is Muslim). Others say " why break a law that's been around for a hundred years and has worked ? " If the French had wanted religion in their schools, they wouldn't have taken down the cross in the classroom. (And, come to think about it, how would the fully-covered Muslim schoolgirls react to studying in a classroom with a huge cross on the wall ?)

If only it stopped in the classroom These young women don't confine their religious requirements to the wearing of the hijab. They also refuse to participate in gym classes with boys and want special women only swimming privileges. In American, you would say : " Fine ! We're a multicultural society and we tolerate and welcome all ethnic groups. A Kosher meal here, a hijab there, no problem. It's a big smorgasbord and there's something for everyone. " That's the U.S. which is not only a multicultural society but one based on " communities ".

 France has also been a highly centralized society whose aspiration is for everyone, black, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, to be French first and " community " second. In the French Republican ideal, the French school should represent and strive toward that goal. People can " do their ethnic, religious thing " as they wish ­ as long as it's not done in a French school or a French public administration. This idea of a non-religious society and of a centralized nation in which the concept of being French is more important than being black or Jewish or Buddhist is an idea now being brought into question by minority of French Muslims.

A recent case in which a Paris municipal employee, a female Muslim social worker, refused to take off her veil at work and refused to shake the hands of men has got the Paris City Hall in a tizzy. Did they kick her out ? No. Negotiations been going on for two years in an attempt to come to some kind of mutually acceptable agreement.

Explaining the school's decision to expel Alma and Lila, Philippe Darriulat, a professor of history and geography, wrote in Le Monde : " For us, it's really the question of secularityin a public school, should we apply the rules which apply to all the people working there or should we accept that each person adopts behavior dictated by his personal convictions and encouraged by outside influences ? " Like most teachers, Darriulat's first priority is to explain why the school, in the name of a secular society and in the name of women's rights, opposes the scarf. Generally, he says, a compromise is reached. Sometimes it's not.

It is clear that the French may have to reconsider the old laws or at the very least define a new and clear policy reinstating the rules of a secular society. A commission has been set up to study the problem and President Jacques Chirac has promised he will address the nation on this important issue before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, I have a question : if I were a devout Catholic or Jew and lived in a Muslim country, could I go to an Islamic school wearing a cross or a kipa ? I don't think so. Correct me if I'm wrong. It's for that reason I don't think the French should go on a huge guilt trip. It's not France's problem if these particular Muslim women need to cover themselves or have separate swimming pools or gym classes to be treated with respect by Muslim men. French men and women have always gotten along fine together. It's up to the minority group to conform to the majority, not vice versa. When in Rome.

Does this mean intolerance or lack of generosity ? Absolutely not. Just as two-year-olds do everything they can to try their parents' patience, these young and sometimes very young Muslim girls and their families are doing the same to the authority figure which in this case is the French Republic. And like the father or mother of the two-year-old, the Republic must point out the rules and insist on their enforcement.

A multicultural school with different ethnic groups in a secular setting, yes. A school composed of totally different communities, each only interested in itself and insisting on its rights, no.

In the International Herald Tribune, Catherine Field, whose thesis is that France's secular society is no longer adapted to the times, writes that " Religious tolerance comes from integration, and integration itself comes from mutual respect, fairness, open-mindedness and female empowerment. "

Female empowerment ? I'm sorry. I don't see how the veiled women of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan or any other Muslim country are in any way, shape or form empowered. But that's their culture. So be it. When we go to their mosques, including their mosques in France, we take off our shoes at the door to respect their tradition. When they to school in France, they must take off their scarves to respect the tradition of the society in whcih they live.

It's called, simply, mutual respect. And since the great majority of France's Muslims exercise respect and tolerance, you've got to wonder about those who don't and who's behind them. The scarf, I fear, is just the top of the iceberg.

To religion, to "Talibans in New-York"

To table of contents

July 2003 - Summer in Paris (Letter From Paris)

There are two ways to look at summer in Paris when you're a native and not planning a summer vacation: You can be desperately jealous of all
the Parisians who have fled the city for the mountains or the seashore or the country - or be insanely happy to be in Paris without the Parisians.

I've always belonged to the latter category. I like summer in Paris, finding it at its best without all the Parisians and their collective, and contagious, stress. Granted, there are a few drawbacks. Some of your favorite shops shut down and it's not always easy to find your (twice) daily baguette. In fact, every daily errand becomes a veritable expedition as you try to figure out which boulangerie/boucherie/fromagerie is open on what street and on what days.

For in a weird ballet of openings and closings, some stores stay open in July, others in August, others from mid-July to mid-August. The challenge
for those of us who remain in town is a) getting this down pat in your mind so that you don't run errands for nothing and b) being prepared to walk a long way to get your clothes cleaned or buy a steak.

KIOSKS - But not being able to find your favorite place open is nothing compared to not finding your favorite place at all! As I walked to the Place Gambetta on my way to foray for food at the wonderful food shops on the rue des Pyrenees, I discovered to my horror that the news kiosk on the corner had purely and simply disappeared overnight!

Right up there next to last month's closing of one of the neighborhood's two charcuteries, I counted this as one of the truly horrid disasters to befall
our quarter. What, I speculated, would happen if the fellow selling the Wall Street Journal, The Independent, The Herald Tribune and a host of Turkish, Italian, and other foreign language papers from exotic lands vanished? There are other newstands around but none offered such a variety of publications. Being a newspaper addict, losing the kiosk would be tantamount to a coffee lover losing his local café. I needed my daily fix!

I immediately strolled over to confer with my favorite newspaper salesman, Ali. Did he know what this was all about? Since Ali knows most of what is going on in the neighborhood, I was fairly sure he'd have a clue.

"Not to worry," he told me. "They're putting up a bigger and better stand." But, he said, that won't solve the problems facing Parisian "kiosquiers",
many of whom work in spaces so small they are known as "standing coffins". Compared to a "kiosquier", Ali's set-up is heaven. He holds court in his own shop where he has a lot of room to walk around in and arrange the daily and weekly arrival of newspapers and magazines. He has time to chat with the regulars and besides newspapers, sells buttons and thread, greeting cards and various and sundry other items.

A kiosquier, on the other hand, stands up all day long in the equivalent of a broom closet, squished amid the special supplements and magazines and
newspapers he or she often can't sell and can't return until a certain date. The crowning indignity is that none of the stands have toilets so if the
kiosquier is working alone, he or she either has to close the stand to go find one or in the worst case, end up peeing... in a bottle. (I didn't make
this up - I read it in a magazine that did a special article on the plight of Paris's kiosks). Small wonder that some 60 Parisian newsstands have closed. We're all happy they are there - but no one would ever want the job.

PARIS PLAGE - So in the end I didn't lose my favorite newsstand. Another good summer surprise amid the obstacle course of daily life is Paris
Plage, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe's contribution to summer fun. Let's see...Before Delanoe, Paris in summer was hot and noisy and polluted
and most everyone here wished to be somewhere else, say, for example, on a lovely beach with palm trees whose leaves swished in the breeze. Dream on...

Did the Mayor read minds? Last year for the first time City Hall saw to it that a large piece of Paris near the Seine was transformed into one big
"plage", complete with... sand and palm trees. With two million visitors, It was such a raving success that this year's Paris Plage, which will run
from July 20 to August 17, promises to be even bigger and better, starting with the importation of 2500 tons of sand as opposed to "only" 800 tons last year.

Only one problem with Paris Plage: you can't take off from the beach to swim in the Seine. Cleaning it up will be the next major move. (And tough luck if you're feeling the need of a cool swim in one of Paris's pools - better check first as 50 per cent of them are closed. You got it: CLOSED in July and August. Go figure.) In any case, thank God for Delanoe.

One thing no one could have forecast was this year's sizzling summer. Paris has had depressingly frigid and rainy months of July and August so I
personally am not complaining about the heat spell. This IS a northern clime, however, and people here aren't used to living the way the Italians
and the Spaniards do, with their shutters closed during the heat of the day and everyone inside their houses until it cools down. No, here in Paris,
everyone goes out as usual, the result being a lot of wilted listless looks and frayed tempers. Some stores and cars are air-conditioned but many are
not, the reason being that it's not worth having air conditioning for the few days a year the temperatures soar to unbearable.

Fortunately our car IS air conditioned which has given me the opportunity to ride around in it this week with great pleasure. I even found myself
dreaming up excuses to get into it and away from sweltering Paris. "Let's get out of here!", I suggested to a good friend who readily assented. We hopped into her little orange Citroën convertible and one hour and a half later were comfortably installed at a sidewalk table at "Les Vapeurs" restaurant in the charming coastal town of Trouville, a small popular seaside community on the Norman coast. After feasting on shrimp and mussels and whelk and mayonnaise and cold white wine, we sauntered to the seashore, cast off our sandals and sank our bare feet luxuriously in the
warm sand. Le paradis!

That was Monday. On Wednesday my son and I drove out to our country place west of Paris, an hour and a half away from our apartment in the east of the city. It takes a while to get off the peripherique (ring road) and highway but you know you're on your way when you hit the green and gold fields and see the farmers harvesting wheat.

You also know you've left Paris when you get in a line at the supermarket and it takes twice the time it does in Paris - I mean, who's in a rush out
there? The benefit of getting out on the road was that I had my 22-year-old son as a captive audience (and he me). We both thanked the heat for allowing us to catch up with each other's lives and spend a pleasant moment in air conditioning!

Had we driven further, we would have been in Chartres, one of my favorite places to go. But we had errands to run and weren't being tourists that
day. Chartres, whose magnificent 12th century cathedral I have visited many times over the years with greater and greater pleasure, would have to wait.

AND SCINTILLATING LIGHTS ON THE EIFFEL TOWER - The country's great but who can resist the lure of the city? Back in Paris,
I admired the Eiffel Tower's new sparkle. Every night from sundown to 2 a.m., the 324 meter (1,063 feet) high tower lights up ten minutes before the hour with dazzling blinking lights. It's as if the most beautiful woman in the world has donned her very best dress to honor her admirers.

Behind a beautiful dress, of course, is a designer and an army of seamstresses. Behind the Eiffel Tower's dazzle are some 20,000 light bulbs, 40 kilometers of electrical wiring, 60 tons of metallic parts and an investment of 4.55 million euros. It all looks so easy. However, workers installing the lighting had to contend with high winds, rain, sleet and snow, gawking tourists and the scary height. Fortunately the head of the company in charge of setting up the new lighting is....a professional mountaineer.

ON THE CANAL - Another fun thing to do in the summer in Paris: the three-hour boat ride that takes you down the Canals of Paris to the Seine. You can either board the boat at the Musée d'Orsay and travel to the Parc de la Villette in the east of Paris, or vice versa. We chose to start from the Parc de la Villette and end up at the Musée d'Orsay. I never tire of floating past the romantic streets of Paris some 26 meters above the Seine and slowly descending a series of 19th century locks as tourists watch...the tourists.

I even learned a new piece of trivia from our guide. As our boat went past some cinemas, he asked us if we knew who the most famous French actor was. No one could really come up with much of anything and in any case we were all wrong. The answer: Rin Tin Tin! The famous actor dog is buried in the Dog and Cat Cemetery in the Paris suburb of Asnières, a quirky place to visit once you've done all the major sites.

THE "BAC" - For French students, vacation is a time to rest and relax. And for French students who have passed the "Baccalaureate", the French school leaving exam, it's a time to celebrate. This year 80 per cent of those taking the exam succeeded - in spite of mammoth teacher's strikes. (Cassandras say that because of the strikes, some teachers scored higher than usual to make up for their absence but that's hard to prove).

The "Bac" is all important - and difficult. France is one of the only countries in Europe requiring students to take Philosophy, a subject they
are tested on at the "Bac" -- and it ain't multiple choice. This year's choices of essay questions included "Is dialogue the path toward truth?",
"Why are we sensitive to beauty?" and "Is happiness a private affair?" I've always thought that the French complicate their lives much more than we
Anglo-Saxons do but perhaps that is because they have simply been trained to think in a more complex way. Nothing's black or white.

STRIKES - Well, nothing except the strikes which have paralyzed the country since this spring. First it was the teachers, unhappy about a reform that would decentralize the highly centralized educational system. In addition to the teachers strike, an attempt by the conservative government to reform the current costly retirement system brought thousands of angry citizens to the street. At one point, too much was too much and just when you thought that every Frenchman in the country was for the strikers, thousands of people who were angry with all the work stoppages took to the streets to stage a counter-demonstration!

Summer came and with it a strike by actors and technicians furious at the government's attempt to augment the number of hours they need to work to
collect unemployment insurance in their downtime. The result: the closing of most of the country's finest and most prestigious festivals, including
Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, two of the biggest. French actors are already more privileged than most people who choose that profession. In the States, most actors are waiting tables; in France, a generous country to its workers, part-time actors collect unemployment during the time they are not working.

Statistics show that France has the fewest number of strike days in Europe. It's really hard to believe since it seems like someone is always on strike.
But that's normal: France is a country of groups with certain privileges. When a group, whether teachers or civil servants or actors, see the end to
these privileges, they do what comes naturally - in France: they take to the streets. That's their right, of course. However, much damage has been done as the festival cities, the SNCF and RATP, and large and small companies have lost major money.

And where are all these enraged citizens now? On vacation, of course. They've got to rest up for September's strikes! Get ready, everybody!

BASTILLE DAY -All the contention and social strife was put aside on Bastille Day when the traditional military parade on the Champs-Elysées took place among greater security than usual after a deranged right-winger tried to assassinate President Jacques Chirac at last year's parade. This year Chirac, who stood and waved to the crowd as usual from his car, was entirely surrounded by the impressiv ely clad Republican Horse Guard. Hard to get through horses!

The night of the 13th, many Paris firehouses opened their doors for the traditional Firemen's Balls. We strolled over to the one in our neighborhood around 11 pm. It cost 3 euros to get in and once inside, we were struck by the conviviality of the scene. Babies and grandmothers, young couples, tatooed types, groups of girls, groups of guys, blacks, whites, Asians all mingled together. Some danced to the music emanating from the hard rock band (I always imagined dancing to the tunes of Edith Piaf - how wrong I was!), others sat down to chat and drink their champagne or beer or...Coke!

And all were happy to be in the company of their heroes, the Parisian "pompiers", who, in my opinion, are as handsome as can be! I'm not alone -
July 13th and 14th are traditional nights for romance and the pompiers have their pick! On the evening of July 14, the scene changed, radically. The Firemen's Ball in our multi-ethnic and "not very rich at all" neighborhood gave place to a party on the swanky terrace of the Hotel Meurice where we were invited to the enormous duplex of a friend of a friend of a friend.

It's always fun to live in a city and see things you never dreamed about. On the terrace, which looked directly over the Tuileries gardens (more trees
than one sees from below!) and had a 360° view of Paris, we sipped champagne (better than the champagne at the Firemen's Ball!) and oohed and aahed at the view of Sacre-Cour, the Eiffel Tower, La Défense and the fabulous fireworks the City of Paris puts on each year at Trocadero. As we reluctantly left the party, my husband glanced at the door and saw the room rate: 12,000 euros. "I think he got a room rate," our friend remarked, and we all laughed. Even with a BIG discount, it wasn't anywhere near our range!

The sight I will never forget from that terrace wasn't the fireworks, which was the reason we were there. No, the best and most memorable sight from
that superb terrace was a huge perfectly round orange moon floating between the towers of Notre Dame. As we drove back home, I caught another glimpse of the moon. It had become even larger, had almost doubled, it seemed. It had turned a shimmering white and floated high, high, high in the sky.

A perfect Paris moon. A perfect Paris summer.

To unknown Paris

To table of contents

May 2002 - "Incivility" in France (Letter From Paris)

 The big debate in France these days is over "insecurity" and "incivility". It's such a burning topic of concern here that the entire Presidential election was focused on it (which is why the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen found himself propelled to Presidential candidate - hey, here's someone who's going to DO something about the degenerating climate of crime not to mention the simple everyday acts of gross behavior, graffitti, insults even to French institutions and the French flag. (two examples : the France-Algerian soccer game was never finished because young French-Algerians ran onto the playing field ; in another incident, Corsicans hooting during the playing of La Marseillaise before a soccer game). The first time, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin didn't react (bad for his score). On the second occasion, President Chirac left the stands until a public apology was made.

Actually some statistics show that the crime rate in France has not increased and in some cases has even decreased. What has changed though is the steady diet of incidents fed to French people everyday on the news. Right before the elections, not a day went by without a report on some hideous crime in some French town.

Crime is one thing : incivility and non-respect of others is another. I never thought incivility would strike the area I live in, a weathy enclave near the Bois de Boulogne. Until a few years ago, this neighborhood was perfectly calm. Then a new type of neighbor moved in (I won't say what race or nationality because I really don't care about whether people are pink or purple or brown or WASP or Jewish or Buddhist - however I do care a lot about RESPECT - and the new guys on the block are singularly lacking in that quality.

Our once clean and quiet apartment building is now filled with noise, people banging doors and talking loudly. Last summer when our neighbors went on vacation, they left for the airport at 4 a.m. How do I know this ? They didn't even bother to lower their voices as they waited for the elevator ! The new tenants don't smoke IN their apartments, preferring to indulge in their favorite habit in the stairwell. That way they don't stink up their apartments but all the rest of us get their secondary smoke in our apartments ! Their children's bikes and prams and skateboards are parked smack in front of their doors - against all the regulations. Their balconies are filled to the gills with everything from freezers to old decrepit sofas to mysterious looking plastic garbage bags.

And here's the clincher. When the concierge, a non-aggressive type, timidly reminds them of the rules, the reply is: "We pay the rent." Hey, me too !! When you live in this kind of environment, you tend to get hostile toward the people responsible for it. Which is not a good idea because there are always slobs in every group of people and hostility can and does breed racisim.

The problem in many working class suburbs is the same on a different scale. You get a group of people who are disturbed by another group of people who talk loudly, rev up the motor of their cars or motorcycyles, bar them from entering their apartment buildings, write on the walls. The people living in these buildings have small salaries and no where else to go. They're stuck in a place they don't want to be with people who are entirely uncivilized. Le Pen says he'll get rid of those people (who, in this case, are Arabs).

 

That won't solve the problem. Because there are plenty of Arabs in France who have totally integrated, who respect the law, who are part and parcel of French society. Unfortunately, people have a tendency to vote with their feet for the candidate who can solve their problems. Le Pen was defeated in the presidential elections but his National Front Party can still garner votes in the June legislative elections. We'll just have to wait and see.

So you may ask me: is there a problem for tourists? Ironically, I have to say that I have always walked around Paris and still do without any qualms. I don't lock my car doors and I don't jump everytime I hear someone behind me. Sure, there are pickpockets in the metro and you have to be careful about your handbags and pocketbooks and exercise the same kind of vigilance you would anywhere you are travelling. Other than that, France is a safe place to travel and contrary to reports in U.S. newspapers, it is not anti-Semitic.

Those of us who live here are saddened, though, to see the degradation of ordinary courtesy and politeness, in the everyday acts of civility. I wrote in French Toast that the French act according to certain codes including "ca ne se fait pas" (that isn't done). That particular code seems to have flown out the window as the French more and more do just exactly what they like without thinking of the other person ( the basis of civil behavior).

Double park? Drive your street the wrong way down a one way street ­ on purpose ? Bring your dog to a restaurant in defiance of hygiene rules? Breeze through a red light? Smoke in a non smoking area? All of these acts are committed on a daily basis with the offenders not .apologizing or feeling guilty in any way.

When you remind offenders, as my son did with someone who was smoking in the metro and my husband did with a person whose dog was climbing all over him in a restaurant, of their offenses, you'd better watch out. In the good old days, France was the capital of verbal ­ not physical ­ violence. In this new France I don't recognize, people are much more ready to get into a brawl rather than have a civilized discussion about their differences. (The smoker told my son to ---- off ; the dog owner threatened my husband with a head-butt and a bottle of wine he was getting ready to break over his head before the restaurant manager called him off).

I consider that I live in a country where anything can happen because a great number of people are no longer respecting any rules. And rules are what make it possible for people to live together.

Who's going to bring them back ? That, as they say, is the question

To French attitudes

To table of contents

If you enjoyed this diary

To table of contents

To top of the page

To home page

Order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

To email me

 If you like this site, please bookmark it or create a link!