Was Paris Burning ? (Letter From Paris)
Not to dismiss the very
real damage that was wreaked by angry young rioters who burned
not only cars, but schools, gymnasiums and theatres, but if I
hadn't been watching the French news or reading French newspapers,
I never would have known that this violence was taking place
- and I live in Paris.
|WAS PARIS BURNING?
What a question! Of course, it
was. You saw it on the news.
But if ever there was a time
to heed that old adage "never believe everything you read
(or see)", this was one.
But not to worry: CNN and Fox
News took care of that. I got a battery of emails from anxious
friends and family in the States worried about my safety.
Very nice: but how did they get
the impression that Paris - the Eiffel Tower, the Arch of Triumph,
the Latin Quarter - was burning?
Simple: news correspondents posed
against the backdrop of Paris and filed their reports. Meanwhile,
back in the real world, the rampaging was going on several kilometers
away from the Champs-Elysées.
Oh well, "A la guerre comme
à la guerre!" There's always a bit of the "payback
time" element in any reporting between the U.S. and France.
What a thrill for American reporters to give those high-handed,
lesson giving French their come-uppance! Especially after the
French coverage of Hurricane Katrina where the gist was "This
is happening in America?" "How is it possible they
leave dead bloated bodies in the streets?" "We thought
the Americans were so organized-why such a mess?" "It
looks like a Third World country!". And, finally, "Why
did the whites get out and the blacks remain? What a racist country!"
The idea being that there's no racism in France?
That reaction reminds me of many
remarks I heard during my first years in France. After learning
I was American, the French would never hesitate to point out
that I came from a racist country. Well, yes, there was and is
racism in America. What I didn't appreciate, though, was that
they didn't realize they had a little problem in their own backyard,
with their Arabs and their blacks who had been shunted off to
grim suburbs (out of sight, out of mind!). This very real problem
couldn't and didn't go away. It grew and grew until it ended
up in the raging street fighting the entire world saw on TV sets
Two more observations about the
U.S. media coverage
of these riots: first, some of the headlines screamed that they
were instigated by Muslims. That is not true. Secondly, some
correspondents pointed their finger at what to them is France's
strange and unique "Republican ideal" of integrating
minorities so that all can become French. "Bad idea! It's
not working"! they said. This idea, which has worked more
or less up until now, is in fact the object of controversy within
the highest ranks of the French government. Interior Minister
Nicolas Sarkozy prones "postive discrimnation" à
l'américaine. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin advocates
action within the existing system. President Jacques Chirac,
who recently celebrated his 73rd birthday, took two weeks to
address the nation about the "events" and is largely
regarded by both the right and the left and public opinion as
totally out of touch.
The "Republican ideal"
has its good points, in my opinion. After all, successive waves
of Portuguese and Italians and Poles became as French as the
French. These people never describe themselves as "Portuguese
French" or "Italian French" or "Polish French".
On the other hand, this idealistic desire for integration has
a hypocritical side to it: When little black or Arab or Chinese
French children read in history books about "nos ancetres,
les Gaulois" (our ancestors, the Gauls), one can legitimately
wonder about what goes through their minds. If I'm black, how
can my "ancestors" be white?!
Bad traditions die hard. The
French Parliament recently refused to suppress a law intended
to mention the positive aspects of colonization in French History
text books which only focus on the negative ones. Put yourself
in the position of a kid from a former French colony. In what
way was colonialism good for him or her? When is it ever good
for anyone other than the colonizer?!
In spite of these egregious examples
of insensitivity, even the kids rioting in the housing projects
are not crying out to be separate. On the contrary, they are
enraged because they want to be as French as the French! They
ARE French but they live in gloomy substandard high rises in
bleak neighborhoods, are subjected to an education not adapted
to their needs, and have the highest rate of unemployment anywhere
in France. (As if having the wrong skin color and address wasn't
enough, their baseball caps and hoods and baggy pants and way
of speaking French alienate potential employers).
Even the kids who are good students
and have had no brushes with the law are regularly stopped by
policemen and frisked, a humiliating procedure to say the least.
Indeed, the " starter " for the riots was the deaths
of two adolescents who, thinking they were being pursued by policemen,
hid in an electrical substation where they were electrocuted.
While everyone agrees there's
no excuse for damage and devastation, no one has dismissed the
reasons behind the rioting.
Suddenly the invisible face of
France, a multicultural country, became visible. France may be
multicultural but with rare "token" exceptions, you
don't see brown or black faces on TV - or in politics - or in
Massive discrimination exists
in France and that's a simple fact.
If anything positive came from
the rioting, it was a very needed wake-up call, especially for
politicians who have ignored the problems in the peripheries
of French cities for too long.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin
immediately announced an important reform of the school system
that would give minorities more opportunities to succeed. He's
brought parents into the picture, making them aware of their
responsibility for the education of their children. And he and
his government are proposing other measures they hope will remedy
a bad situation.
The "social unrest"
has stopped - for now. Here's hoping that French politicians
will stop their infighting long enough to get long-term valid
programs for all those young people who desire one thing only:
to be French and treated like the French.
Before it's too late, and Paris
really DOES burn.
On a lighter note, it's Christmas
season in Paris! Store windows are alight with all kinds of tempting,
beautifully presented goodies. Every night the Eiffel Tower winks
at the Seine, people crowd into cafés where they laugh
and drink and smoke, art exhibitions are held in swanky galleries
in swish neighborhoods or behind closed doors in hidden passages
in more "in" districts.
To catch the flavor of Paris,
a retrospective honorng the work of Willy Ronis, the last of
the great Paris photographers at age 95, is being held at the
Hotel de Ville through February 18. Looking at his famous photo
"Les Amoureux de la Bastille" takes you back to what
seemed to be a gentler time in a gentler place. Yet Ronis also
photographed down and out working districts of Paris, including
Belleville - Ménilmontant where I live. (It's becoming
gentrified but still has a certain down-at-the-heel feel).
If you're in Paris at the beginning
of the year, don't walk to see this exhibition. Run!
To French issues
Macho French politicians, French cinematheque replaces
What is generally said is
that French men are less macho than the Spanish (who invented
the term) or the Italians or even, I would think, the Greeks,
but more macho than the Swedes, the Danes, and other northern
| FRENCH POLITICIANS SHOW THEIR MACHO SIDE
Who said French men aren't macho?
Or, more to the point, did anyone
ever really say that?
It's easy to generalize, of course,
and one man may be macho on some subjects and not others. For
example, French men actually like the company of women and seek
it out, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon men who much prefer their fishing
trips or their clubs. On this count, to their credit, the French
emerge as less macho.
However, when it comes to politics,
whoa! French male politicians are right down there at the bottom
of the barrel. If you look at the number of women in government
in Europe, even "macho" Spain is way ahead of France.
In fact, almost every country in the WORLD is ahead of France
where politics has remained an exclusive men's club.
This was proved once again last
week when the beautiful, intelligent, fifty-two year old Socialist
Party leader Segolene Royal (beautiful name as well) intimated
in the weekly magazine "Paris Match" that she just
might be disposed to run for President of France in 2007 - should,
of course, she be called upon by her Party to serve the nation.
Scandal in the ranks! Even François
Hollande, Segolene's longtime partner who is the father of their
four children and the Chairman of the Socialist Party, didn't
exactly come out fighting to support her, preferring to mumble
something about how there would be "various" candidates
for the upcoming election (including himself most probably).
Well, at least he was mumbling
(although he certainly doesn't rack up any points for conjugal
solidarity). Other Socialist Party members, all high-ranking
leaders who should know better, were not so subtle.
"This isn't a beauty contest,"
said one upset Party leader, while another facetitously wondered
"who would keep the children". Worst of all was the
bad pun about a "Presidente tournante" made by yet
another apparatchik. That COULD mean a revolving Presidency but
in French a "tournante" is the exact term for gang
How could such macho remarks
not cause a major scandal?
I have no answers to that question.
But I'm fairly sure that the day there is a majority of women
in the French National Assembly, French male politicians will
stop making these kinds of abject, insulting and disparaging
comments about women in the workplace.
Or at least they won't dare to
make them out loud.
First of all, let me say
that normally I watch the evening news while reading the newspaper
and running to the kitchen to survey whatever I'm making for
supper. At best I only catch the stories that strike my fancy,
and have learned to skip all the news about strikes and social
unrest as there is so much of it.
| CORSICAN WORKERS
HIJACK A FERRY
|| And while
we're on the subject of Things That Continue to Astonish Me Despite
All My Years in France, here's another one culled from this week's
However, when I heard a report
that a group of 50 or so disgruntled employees of a state-owned
ferry company running routes from mainland France to Corsica,
Algeria, and Tunisia, had HIJACKED THE BOAT and were on their
merry way from Marseille to Corsica, I rushed to the TV and stood
in front of it with my mouth and eyes wide open.
The anchorman explained that
the unions were unhappy because the government
had informed them of its decision to sell the ailing ferry operator
to a private company. Why? Because the mismanaged company was
still running on a deficit even after the state had poured some
SEVENTY MILLION EUROS into it. Sounds logical to me!
The employees didn't think so,
preferring to castigate the French government for selling them
out (public enterprises in France are so highly revered that
it's almost unthinkable to touch them) to a private owner. The
fact that the subsidized company was a total commercial failure
was, for the soon to be fired employees, a mere detail to be
ironed out...by the state. Hey, baby, it's THEIR problem, not
Hence a union leader's bright
idea to draw attention to the workers' cause by "re-appropriating"
To French strikes
Can you imagine? It's as if unhappy
pilots of American Airlines decided they'd hijack a company airplane!
How, I wondered, would the government
react to these modern day pirates? Would they wait for the ship
to reach the port in Corsica and arrest the lawless seamen there?
Would they throw them all in jail? Would they privatize that
company even faster than initially planned?
And here's the kicker: the government
did indeed call out the troops and in a spectacular move dropped
10 commandos of black-clad specially trained policemen from a
helicopter into the boat while it was plowing through the high
seas. Once on board, the cops arrested and handcuffed the leaders
of the hijacking who reiterated that they were merely appropriating
"their" boat and bringing it back home where it belonged.
I forbid you to laugh.
Normally, one would think, the
leaders would be thrown on trial, serve their time (up to 20
years for tampering with public property) if found guilty, the
company would be sold as planned, and that would be the end of
Mais non! This is France, never
forget. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin apparently
stayed up all night putting together a proposal that would assuage
the workers and put an end to the "social unrest" (workers
blocking the Corsican ports, preventing vacationers from leaving
In other words, the government
caved in. So now we know: if you want to get anywhere in this
country, here's what to do: join a union and hijack a boat!
I don't know about you, but I'm
stymied by the sheer schizo factor of the whole episode.
And whereas you, dear reader,
can just shake your head in amazement, I have to shell out my
TAXES for these kinds of shenanigans.
Gehry himself has said that his creation reminded him of a dancer
with her "tutu" in the middle. For me, the building
resembles nothing more than the kind of house you read about
in fairy tales, with all the rooms going up, up, up to the sky
(not very practical, in fact: architects had to entirely re-do
the inside of the building to adapt it to the needs of the new
| THE FRENCH CINEMATHEQUE
REPLACES THE AMERICAN CULTURAL CENTER
|| This month the French cinematheque grandly opened
up in its new quarters in Frank Gehry's "fantastic"
building in the east of Paris right on the edge of the Parc de
This is a wonderful move for
at last the Cinematheque, a treasure trove of movie history since
its founding by Henri Langlois in 1936. After several different
moves in Paris, it's finally found a specially made home on seven
levels for its exceptional collection of 40,000 films, plus a
documentation center, exhibition halls, and 3 spanking new movie
theatres. To get off to a good start, the Cinematheque is holding
a three month exhibition "Renoir/Renoir" comparing
the works of the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir
with excerpts of various movies made by his son, filmmaker Jean
Renoir. This is a wonderful tribute to the Renoir family and
an astonishing collection of both the paintings and the scenes
from films that show the unmistakeable influence of the father
on the son.
Only one regret: the building
was originally erected to house the American Cultural Center
which for many years was located on the Boulevard Raspail in
a rambling building with a warm atmosphere that was torn down
to make room for the more modern all steel and glass Fondation
Cartier. For someone who remembers the American Cultural Center
with its downstairs pool and adjacent snack bar where you could
eat a real hamburger (remember, this was before McDonalds hit
the world), the ripping down of the American Cultural Center
was a sad day indeed. But even worse was the total shutdown of
the Cultural Center only two years after it moved to Bercy.
Does this mean American culture
is so prevalent the U.S. doesn't need a center anymore?
I for one think we need an American
cultural center more today than ever before. Europeans who didn't
grow up on Hemingway and Faulkner and who don't know America's
great thinkers or writers or artists all too often tend to see
America as one big materialistic and culturally deprived society.
From there to becoming anti-American
is just one step.
So while I'm glad the French
cinematheque has found new quarters, I would love to see an American
Cultural Center return to Paris to correct the often lamentable
and totally false image Europeans have of America.
Am I the only one?
France voting "no" and wine
tasting (Letter From Paris)
feeling groggy this morning and am trying to analyze the reasons.
Is it that spooky book on serial
killers I checked out of the American
Library and read until the wee hours of the morning?
Could it be the caffeine in two
small glasses of Diet Coke I drank?
Or is it because it's Monday
morning and Monday, to say the least, is not my favorite day?
Even the weather refuses to cooperate:
After a week-end in which
temperatures soared and Paris became one huge café with
tables spilling all over the sidewalks, the blue sky turned grey,
temperatures plummeted, and a cool rain is now falling on my
uncomprehending rose bushes.
Well, in terms of reasons to
explain the beginning of a Blue Monday, that's already a lot.
But there's more.
To add to the spooky book, a
sleepless night, and turncoat weather, last night slightly less
than 55 per cent of the French people voted a resounding "NON"
to the ratification of the European Union constitution treaty.
Is this something to get depressed
about? I mean, Sunday, the day of the vote, was also Mother's
Day in France and if my two sons hadn't called to wish me a Happy
Mother's Day, THAT would have definitely got me down.
But they did call and even if
they hadn't, they'll always be my sons...
But a "non" vote to
Europe from the country which is one of the founders and mainstays
Greece has ratified the treaty,
Hungary has ratified the treaty, Italy has
ratified the treaty, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and
ratified the treaty. (Before the constitution can take effect,
all 25 member nations must approve it.)
So why didn't France?
Maybe because "the people"
were simply stymied or stunned by the almost 200 page treaty
that every single French voter got a copy of. Many, like my hairdresser,
even read part of it. She told me that by page 60 she was convinced
she'd vote no. Her reasons weren't very clear but the one I did
get was that she fears for unemployment. For her, Europe means
Polish plumbers taking the jobs of French plumbers (or Greek
hairdressers taking the jobs of French hairdressers). In short,
in her eyes and the eyes of the majority who voted against Europe,
things are bad now with double digit unemployment in France and
can only get worse with open borders and a much-reviled free
In fact, when you get right down
to it, the 55 per cent of the French voting "non" -
and this includes the extreme right National Front party as well
as the Communists and the extreme left Trotskyists, strange bedfellows
indeed - are convinced they are saving France from a dire future
of unfettered liberalism and cutthroat capitalist competition.
Fear is their impetus: fear at
losing their much prized system of public
services, fear of free market competition, fear of bureaucracy
(when you read the voluminous text and think about all the trees
felled so that each of France's 42 million voters could have
a copy you can almost sympathize with their reasoning), fear
of unemployment, fear of being eaten up by a dog eat dog Europe
styled on the U.S.
These are the days when I think
I'll never understand the French. Or, more precisely, the French
who voted "non". It consoles me to think that the other
half of France, those who voted "oui", don't understand
In truth I don't know why I should
be shell shocked. The French love to say "non". It's
the most powerful word in the language.
They said "no" to De
Gaulle once they'd decided he was no longer in line with the
times; they've said "no" to the States for many things
including, most recently, the war in Iraq; they say "no"
everytime they think someone "above" them is trying
to pull one over on them. (Behind this latest "non"
is a clear warning: no European technocrat / bureaucrat is going
to govern MY life or take away MY privileges.)
"Non" in fact is one
of the favorite and most oft-used words in the French language.
My French husband has even said to me from time to time in a
tone of disapproval (and I'm not kidding): "You never say
'No'. You always say 'Yes'." This can be for something as
minor as ordering the chef's suggestion on the menu, some newfangled
concoction no one has ever heard of. Or buying a dress in a color
I've never worn before. This shocks him greatly. My answer is
that I say yes because I like new things and want to try them
out.. I have learned though that "new" and "yes"
in France are words that do not bear the positive connotation
they do in the U.S.
Old is tried and true. "Non"
is safe. And the French these days want nothing more than to
"The French are so selfish!"
I wailed to my dear French husband (who voted "oui")
as I stared at the results on the TV screen.
"No, we're not selfish,"
he corrected me. "Just autistic."
the French do other things than referendums. They may be Europe's
bad kids on the block when it comes to politics but no one can
beat the French when it comes to food and wine - which is why
I've been attending a 3 hour wine tasting class every
Thursday night for the past two months.
Before I signed up for the course,
I prided myself on what I considered my finetuned sense of smell.
Example: I can nose out a wet
dog a mile away. If someone lights up a
cigarette, even in the windiest spot on a cliff overlooking the
detect the smoke. Whether it's a gas leak or rancid butter or
perfume or the succulent scent of a boeuf bourguignon, my nose
Which is why I had initial pretentions
of being rather gifted when it came to describing the various
odors in a glass of wine.
After lesson number one, humility
was immediately restored.
First we jotted down information
about the different soils and grape
varieties - and let me tell you I never knew there were so many,
Pinot Noir and Sryah being old friends but Tannat, Cinsau, Carignan,
and Mourvedre to name but a few, aren't exactly names that readily
roll off my tongue.
Then our "professeur"
decided to introduce us to identifying smells. She passed out
small vials filled with mysterious liquids with characteristic
odors, odors we supposedly know from everyday life.
The English fellow picked up
one receptacle, ran it under his nose, then picked up another
and another, closed his eyes, opened them, passed all the containers
under his nose again - and almost committed suicide on the spot.
"I can't identify ANY of
them," he said, in despair.
The French fellow sniffed away
while seriously scribbling his impressions.
The Italian gaily shuffled the
little vials around, picking them up, setting them down, picking
them back up again, inhaling each one like a madman. The expression
on his face can only be described as "puzzled".
I picked up vial number 48 and
confidently wrote down "grilled almonds". Vial number
52 was very dark and had a familiar smell. I wrote: "nuts".
Then I assigned vanilla to number 13, musk to number 34, and
cloves to 42.
It turned out that the "grilled
almonds" was in fact "toast" and that what I thought
was "nuts" was coffee. My "vanilla" was raspberries
- whoa! talk about being totally off - and musk was cedar.
Cloves fortunately were cloves.
Score: one out of ten.
As I said: a true lesson in humility.
My fellow smellers didn't do
much better but this didn't stop any of us from swooning over
a marvelous 1999 Hermitage whose fragrance, we concluded (with
a lot of hints and prodding from our teacher) consisted of cherries,
leather, prune and peonies.
Leather? Peonies? Ok, I admit,
I didn't get all that the first time around.
But was the wine good?
Délicieux! Oh yes, my
assignment for our next class is to buy and bring to class a
wonderful Epoisses and an Alsatian Pinot Noir we'll all taste.
Dream homework. Non?
and to the Wine & Cheese
Tastings I organize in Paris