ParisDiary by Harriet Welty Rochefort



I've been a permanent resident of the City of Light for years, 34 years to be exact, but the seduction 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, the charm never dulls, the glow never dims.

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 one writer's musings on life in France.

And now en avant !

Harriet Welty Rochefort

Has France changed ? March 2017

One of the most frequent questions I am asked by visiting tourists and student groups is: “Has France changed?” and if so, “how?”

Since France is people by the French, it’s fairly obvious that you can’t address the question of whether France is changing without addressing the question of whether the French are changing. The late writer-diplomat Alain Peyrefitte in his book C’était de Gaulle quoted the general as saying that the French “have not changed since Julius Caesar described them. Their strengths are bravery, generosity, unselfishness, impetuosity, curiosity, creativity, the gift they have to adjust to extreme situations. Their weaknesses are a clannic spirit, mutual intolerance, brusque anger, internecine quarrels, the jealousy they feel for the advantages that the others have.”

General de Gaulle is no longer here but I would venture to say that his description of the French character still holds true. Yet, since his time, the world has become truly globalized – and many of the French have as well.

Many young French people now flock to London or the Silicon Valley or Sweden or Japan to pursue their studies and some even end up making their lives outside of France. Others return to France. All speak very good English. That was certainly not the case in de Gaulle’s time.

The American influence is all over Paris. Who ever would have thought the French would see food trucks on their streets? But they are there and everyone loves them. In traditional boulangeries, brownies comfortably nestle among the éclairs and millefeuilles. In French restaurants you’ll have no problem ordering a hamburger (pronounced hahm bourg air) or cheeseburger (see picture above).

Some of the changes are welcome. The French are no longer universally rude, although the stereotype of that famous trait continues relentlessly. Just the other day, Pamela Druckerman wrote a column in The New York Times about taking French nationality. She remarked that a friend asked her “if she felt herself getting more and more rude.” I think it’s a great laugh line but am a bit worried about her friend and all those people who remain convinced that the French are, above all other things, rude. If you turned that comment around, it would be a bit like asking someone who had taken U.S. citizenship “if she felt herself getting fatter and fatter or louder and louder.”, Ouch.

So, obviously, for some people, the French are still rude, while others find them friendlier and friendlier. It’s true, as I tell my students, that the French are sticklers for form and resent those who omit the proper ones. For example, if you walk up to a Frenchman while in Paris and ask him directions in English and without even saying “Bonjour“, you can bet he’ll be rude. In France, you preface requests and conversations with a “”Bonjour, Monsieur” or “Bonjour, Madame“. It simply means that the person is worthy of of respect and a human being (kind of our equivalent of “have a nice day”).

To continue the list of changes, the French brush their teeth more, wear deodorant more, are less rude, speak more English. That’s the good side. They also are packing on the pounds due to the change in their diet which comes from our American influence. (Sorry). French kids used to eat bread for breakfast, now they consumer sugary cereals. Go to a grocery store and you’ll see a tremendous variety of snack foods and fizzy sugary soft drinks you never would have seen before. You also see people eating sandwiches in the metro.

At the same time, and you might call this the French paradox, the interest in “bio” or organic foods has progressed by leaps and bounds and people are focusing more on vegetables and light food than heavy meat-based stews. Still, when I see ads for industrial sugar products on the tube with the warning message under it admonishing us all to “eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day” I see that the French have bought into the same mixed message we have in the States. (But that, I fear, is a worldwide phenomenon).

What remains that is really, really French? Several times during the week, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes at mid-day, I see groups of children, sometimes as young as 3 years old, walking, two by two, in an orderly line, accompanied by adults. They are being taken to some activity, maybe the pool, maybe a film, maybe a museum. When they get to that museum, they don’t move or talk while the guide explains a work of art to them. That behavior has always fascinated me, as has the French childrens’ attitude to food. They eat – or try – everything. My grandchildren, from the time they could eat solids, have dug into (and dug) everything from smelly camembert and Roquefort to mussels. Why? There’s no concept of “food for children” and “food for adults”. It’s food for everyone! That’s one thing that I hope will NOT change in changing France.

I’ve some photos to illustrate my various points. One is of an urinoir or “pissoir”, which still, unbelievably, exists in some cafés. They are going the way of the dodo – but not yet. To me, it’s so macho because you have to make your way past the guy who’s peeing to get to the toilet for women. Beurkh. The other photo is of a sign in a café telling clients they are expected to renew their drinks order every two hours. This is aimed at all the people who remain in a café all day long sipping on one cup of coffee. Well, up until now that’s what people do in cafés! Seems to be changing and that would be too bad for the number of cafés has already plummeted drastically and a lot of people like this writer depend on cafés not just for the drinks but for the conviviality.

But as I said, the French paradox reigns. Some of the French may be snacking while others stick to the traditional two main meal a day scheme. Some may feast on cheeseburgers and sandwiches while others prefer a good boeuf bourguignon. When I mentioned to a traditional French grandmother that her grandchildren could, from time to time, eat a sandwich without it killing them, she looked at me with horreur: “Mais ce n’est pas de la nourriture!” (But a sandwich isn’t food!”) she exclaimed.

So there you have it. France is changing but not for everyone and not all the time and not everywhere. A complicated answer, perhaps, but the French are complicated.
And that, I assure you, will never change

More on my blog





 French heroes (Paris Pages Feb.2007)
The most loved French personnality dies...  It was 1954 and France was not the modern, gleaming country it is now.
It was a country in tints of greys and browns and blacks, a country still marked by the ravages of war. Its buildings were dilapidated and many French men, women, and children crowded together in makeshift housing or slept in the streets. To add to the general misery, the winter of 1954 was the coldest on record.

On one of those bleak and brutal winter days a strong young voice, a voice filled with conviction and a sense of urgency, floated out on the airwaves.

" Mes amis, au secours ! ( My friends, Help ! ) " , the voice appealed, in a phrase that has since become famous. "Last night at 3 a.m. a woman died, frozen, on the Boulevard Sebastapol, clutching in her hand the paper telling her she had been expelled from her lodging. "

Listeners literally stopped in their tracks, struck by the sincerity and the urgent nature of the call for help. The rich in their limousines and the poor in their rags flocked to the site designated for the collection of whatever they had to offer : money, blankets, food. It was the largest " insurrection of goodness " France had ever seen, an enormous outpouring of generosity and solidarity.

The appeal was made in the name of the Emmaüs movement which now has 41 communities all over the world. The purpose of the association : recuperate and refurbish used furniture and clothes to be sold at a low price by " companions " who otherwise would have been sleeping in the streets. The money collected is used to fund housing for the poor.

Behind the 1954 plea for help was the founder of Emmaüs, a Roman Catholic priest called Abbé Pierre, born Henri Grouès to a pious and well-to-do Catholic family in Lyons. At the age of 19, Grouès became a Capuchin monk, pledging his life to poverty. Forced to leave the monastery for health reasons, he joined the Resistance, helping Jews escape France, and changed his name to Abbé Pierre.

Known for his cape and beret and his cane, unshaven face, mischievous eyes, radiant smile, total simplicity, rebellious spirit (disagreements with the church hierarchy on celibacy and women in the priesthood) and his outbursts of anger in the face of social injustice, Abbé Pierre topped the list of France's most popular people for so many years that he finally requested that his name be removed.

The Abbé, who died this week at the age of 94, was admired by the French, whether Catholics or non-believers. They admired the man and his life. They admired his decision to opt for a life of austerity and devotion to others when he could have opted for wealth. They admired his profound spirituality and faith which he combined with his love of humans and his knowledge of the way the world works (the Abbé could have had another life as a coach on how to work the media). They admired his simplicity. They admired his rebellion, his fight for housing for all. He was not perfect : late in his life, he defended negationist Roger Garaudy, a " mistake " for which he later apologized.

His funeral service was a reflection of the man and of the people who loved him, from the President of France, deeply moved, to other dignitaries, and throes of ordinary people, among them scores of Emmaus " Compagnons ". The three hour service was filled with the pomp and ceremony inherent to the great cathedral ­ but the Abbé's coffin was a plain wood one, placed directly on the marble floor . On it, his cape, walking stick, and beret.

You may have read a short article in the International Herald Tribune about the Abbé Pierre. In France, the coverage was immense, from pages and pages of articles in French newspapers and magazines to radio and television specials to the televised funeral service transmitted live, showing unforgettable images of the people of Paris applauding his coffin and waving good-by.

We can't always know everything about another society from reading the U.S. papers which, understandably, don't have the time or space to devote to every single person of importance in every single country.

Which is why I'm happy to tell you a bit more about the extraordinary life and legacy of the Abbé Pierre who was in a very real way the conscience of the French. He had a simple goal ­ housing for all ­ and sadly he didn't succeed. Still today, France has too many homeless and poor. But Abbé Pierre made housing for the poor an issue no French government can ever again ignore.



France without Jews is not France Jan.2015


Of all the intonations, expressions and statements flowing from the mouths of politicians and ordinary citizens in the aftermath of the terrorist killings of seventeen people in France last week, the most forthright and sincere one, in my opinion, came from France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls who proclaimed: “France without Jews is not France.”

What did he mean by this? Was it only in reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistent invitation to French Jews to flee France and come to Israel where they would be greeted with open arms, safe from anti-Semitism in France?

It was partly that, yes, but it was also a sincere conviction, that France’s Jews are an integral part of the community, that they are both Jewish and French, that they should not be the victims of despicable acts because they are Jewish and that their lives warrant greater protection.

Even before last week’s terrorist attacks which left four Jews dead in a kosher grocery store, France’s Jews have been targeted heinously and viciously and more Jews than ever are packing their bags to leave for Israel. I say “more Jews than ever” because many letters we get from the States, in particular, presume that ALL of France’s Jews or a huge percentage are fleeing France. So let’s get the real figures: there are approximately 600,000 Jews in France; of these last year approximately 7000 left for Israel. This is roughly 1 per cent – 1 per cent too many, certainly, but nothing like the much bigger figures that are being bandied around.

I am not Jewish but have many Jewish friends and am interested to see the different opinions they have on the question of making aliyah (emigrating to Israel). Two friends, both American Jewish women who has lived in France for decades, downplay the reports of massive flights, stating that those who leave more often do so because they are going to retire or because they have family in Israel or because they’ve been thinking of it for a long time or because they are very religious and think they would have a better religious life in Israel. So, of the 1 per cent of those leaving, we may be down to 0.5 per cent of people leaving because of anti-Semitism in France and fear for their lives.

I do not write this to downplay those fears nor to downplay anti-Semitisim which is real and which exists but I do think it necessary to take a cold look at the facts first. As for anti-Semitic acts, who perpetrates them? “The French”? Which French? If you look at the deplorable anti-Semitic acts that have taken place over the past years, you will see a pattern which is that the perpetrators are almost always young French men of Arab origin. They live unhappy lives many times in broken homes, are mostly unemployed, are or have been delinquents who in too many cases have been converted to radical Islam during their prison stays. Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old criminal of Algerian descent, was one of those. In March 2012, he first gunned down two uniformed soldiers, then killed four, including three children, at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school. And what was his motivation? “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.” (Yet one of the soldiers he killed was, like him, a Muslim). One cannot underestimate the weight of the Israeli-Palestine conflict when it comes to current anti-Semitic acts. The conflict in the Middle East is played out every day in France – with the tragic results that we have seen.

I think the French Prime Minister was right to say that France wouldn’t be France without its Jews. But acts follow words and the government has a huge job cut out for it to protect its Jewish population. The government should also protect its Muslim citizens, the majority of which is peaceful and law-abiding. The desecration of Mosques and anti-Muslim acts such as the throwing of a pig’s ear into the garage of a Muslim should not go unpunished.

No one asked me for my opinion but I’d start by educating young people about Israel and Palestine, putting it at the center of the school curricula. Ironically, French teachers for several years have taken high school classes to visit the deportation camps and talk about the Shoah but for the young Muslims of African or North African descent this is giving special attention to people who don’t need it – and they aren’t listening. It is indicative that during the minute of silence for all the victims of the terrorist killings last week – journalists, policemen, and Jews – students in some 70 schools around the country refused to comply. I have this for a fact from a young woman who teaches in a tough district. So, first of all: education. Education would put an end, one can hope, to the dangerous stereotypes such as “the Jews are rich” which result in odious crimes (I think of the truly awful Ilan Halimi affair in 2007 ). The people committing these crimes are barbarians of the same order as the Kouachi brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo supposedly in the name of Islam; the barbarian African and North African kidnappers of Ilan Halimi were motivated by nothing other than the sheer crass stupid stereotypes that invade the areas in which they live (“Jews are rich”). To think that a young salesman of portable phones is “rich” because he is Jewish defies the imagination. Yet, it happened and he died a martyr’s death.

I’d also do what wasn’t done after the Muslim riots in 2005 where the motivation wasn’t religion, but frustration at being shut off in poor areas with nothing to do and no hope. This was an opportunity of the first order to focus on youth training and jobs but the efforts were feeble and nothing ever came of it.

Secondly, and this is being discussed, isolation for the Islamist delinquents in prison so they cannot use their jail time to foment plots.

Thirdly, some kind of herculean effort to stop the drain of young French men and women of Arab descent from joining their “brothers in arms” in Syria – and a law forbidding them from ever re-entering France if they do choose to leave.

The French police have managed to prevent several plots from taking place. They dropped the ball on the Kaouchi brothers (they say it’s impossible to put surveillance on everyone). The government should hire more policemen, put one behind every suspect, in short, put its money where its mouth is.

The march on Sunday, January 11, was beautiful. My husband and I were there. The spirit of it was: let’s all be together to show our unity. People of every race and color and creed – Jews and Muslims, blacks and whites, people who are religious, people who are not, were all there to show by their presence their love of liberty. The curtain fell on a magic moment of national unity.

It would be nice if it signalled “The End” and all was well. Unfortunately, we’re just at the beginning, with so much left to do.

And now I’m going to write something I had not intended to write before I began this article: if I were a Jew in France, would I be afraid? Yes, I would. Would I pack my bags and leave for Israel? Perhaps not immediately but in the back of my mind I would be ever watchful. And when the day came that being constantly vigilant weighed upon me and my family, then, yes, perhaps, like the Jews who are scared, I would leave. I would keep in mind, though, that one of every five who leave returns to France. And I would know that going to Israel is not necessarily the solution as long as Israel and Palestine are in a stand-off. In fact, as long as that is the state of things, none of us, whether Jews, Catholics, Muslims or atheists will be safe, anywhere.

French anti-Semitism and the U.S. press...  Funny what editors choose ­ or not - to put in the day's news.

On Thursday, January 18, Président Jacques Chirac presided over a moving ceremony at the Pantheon to honor the 2740 French men and women honored with the title of" Righteous Among the nations " by the Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel to persons having saved Jews at the peril of their life. Most of these people were acting according to their conscience and did not even wish to be singled out. Who would know that, according to Simone Veil, the president of the Foundation for the memory of the Shoah and herself a Holocaust survivor, the greatest number of the " Righteous " are to be found in France ?

Readers of U.S. newspapers know all about French anti-Semitism, past and present. They know about Vichy and how the zealousness of France's own policemen led to the arrest and deportation of innocent Jewish men, women, and children to the death camps. In 1995, President Chirac recognized for the first time since the War " faults committed by the State " on the sad anniversary of the roundup of the Vélodrome d'hiver on July 16, 1942.

At the Pantheon, Chirac urged France to look at its history " in the face ". History is a " block " he said in his speech.

The ceremony honoring the Righteous was a solemn occasion paying tribute to the quiet and courageous French men and women who hid Jewish men, women, and children from the Nazis.

One day after the ceremony, the International Herald Tribune ran stories on the latest dissension in the French Socialist Party and the trials and tribulations of a French restaurant owner in New York.

There was not one line about the commemoration by the French President of the 2740 French people honored by the Israel memorial Yad Vashem, as " Righteous among the Nations ".

An odd omission.

For that story of hitherto untold good acts is also part of France's history.

These people are France's heroes.

To who's who

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On French drivers... (Letter From Paris)

Driving across town almost daily has given me ample opportunity and more time than I'd ever want to reflect on French drivers. The conclusion of the reflection is: the French are TERRIBLE drivers. Statistically, the Greeks and Portuguese are worse (and Italians are pretty bad as well now that I think about it). The French however have ALL spent a compulsory amount of time in driving school and I can't for the life of me what they learned there (mow 'em down? always be first to the red light and when you get there run through it?).

I'm on tenterhooks as I drive on the périphérique (ring road) around the city. Cars weave in and out of lanes, flash lights at anyone going too slowly (ie, the speed limit), and perform all kinds of totally unexpected tricks that leave you, the poor law-abiding slob, cursing or shuddering.

Warning to tourists: you'll be taking your life in your hands should you decide to rent a car. But forewarned is forearmed so read this before you make any rash decisions.

l) Do EXACTLY what you want and never worry about the other guy.
2) Make up the rules as you go along
3) If you see a parking space you want on the opposite of the street you're driving on, just cross over to get it. Don't bother to go around the block and come back the other way.

4) Drive fast ­ it's so much more fun !
5) Only buy stick shift cars. Automatics are for nerds.
6) Never pay parking tickets, especially in presidential election years when there's an amnesty.
7) If you have double-parked your car and gone shopping for a couple of hours, be sure to bawl out the people you've blocked in. NEVER say you're sorry.
8) If you're at a red light behind someone who doesn't whip off the second it's green, HONK, GET IRATE, INSULT THE CREEP !
9) If you're on the Paris ring road behind someone who's driving the speed limit, tailgate the guy, flashing your lights until he gets out of the way. What a NERVE !
10) If, after doing all these things, you have an accident, don't feel bad. You're not to blame ­ it's always the OTHER guy's fault.

Oh yes, I forgot one. Don't EVER cross the street to walk to the Arch of Triumph. There are underground passages for that. Use them!

As for me, I'm soon going "en vacances". You know where? In the backyard of my new apartment. The car will be in the garage. A great recipe for a no-stress vacation.

To driving in Paris

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A fascist rises in France, an apartment find and other reflections (Letter From Paris)
By now you've read your newspapers and know that far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen has won the first round of the French presidential elections, beating out Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. The reaction here: total surprise and horror (on the part of those who, of course, didn't actually vote Le Pen - one out of five voters did). After the reaction, it was time for analysis. How could this happen? Le Pen has been around for years and is responsible for some of the most diffamatory anti-Semitic language (the Holocaust was a "detail" of history) and acts (he aggressed a Socialist woman leader, hurting her badly) around. How could such a thug rise to such heights? To understand, you have to have been here to see the mood of the people before the elections. In a nutshell, everyone was convinced that the contest in the second round would be between incumbent President Jacques Chirac on the right and Jospin on the left. Traditionally, the first round of voting in France allows the electorate to blow off steam, express themselves, "send a message" to the candidates they'll elect in the final round two weeks later. This time there were plenty of venues for "expressing oneself" - no less than 16 candidates from the far-right to the far-left. So when voters went to the polls they voiced their dissatisfaction with the two main candidates whose campaigns were, to say the least, lackluster. One very bad sign of what was to come was that the candidate's wives were prominently featured. We learned all we ever wanted to know about Bernadette Chirac and Sylviane Jospin but no one ever got a real sense of what the candidates were actually going to do. Chirac, a political glad-hander accused of corruption, played the "insecurity" card, promising to do something about the growing rate of crime and general incivility rampant in this country. Jospin, an austere professorial type, ignored the whole issue until at one point he admitted that he had been "naive" not to address it. Meanwhile, Le Pen came out and said what he thought about the decaying state of France and what he'd do: he'd get rid of the cause of all the trouble - the immigrants. He'd also reinstate the French franc and pull out of Europe, allow only French citizens to teach in French schools, and eliminate dual nationality (hey, that's me!). In a nutshell, he would propel France right back into the safe past when it was peopled only by the French and all was well. The only problem with that is that France was never just French. Successive waves of Italians, Spanish and Portuguese have successfully integrated into France. Because they all came from Catholic cultures, this was fairly easy to do. Muslims have posed another challenge to French society and while many have also successfully integrated, others have not. Le Pen's answer to this is simplistic and hateful, but for those who voted for him, it sounded good. Get rid of them!

Fortunately, unless there's another big surprise out there, Le Pen and his detestable ideas will be trounced in the second round. But what a wake-up call. One can only hope that the traditional parties will benefit from this shock to reflect on new solutions and new ways of relating to the grass roots. It's high time.

Many people in France decided to put off buying and selling apartments as they waited for the results of the elections. We didn't and as I said in last month's column, decided to go ahead and search for an apartment in hopes we'd find the ideal one (dream on!). And we did indeed find one that fit the bill. Geographically, psychologically and sociologically, it is as far removed from where we now live as can be. We are moving from the posh suburb of Neuilly in the west of Paris to a working class (what the French call "populaire") district in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. The 20th is close to the Bastille area, which has become very gentrified, and closer still to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, We are changing proximity to one of the most beautiful lakes and woods in Paris (the Bois de Boulogne) for proximity to one of the most famous cemeteries, although I hardly think I'll do my daily fast walk there. The kicker is that to go outdoors for a walk, which I often do because I rapidly get claustrophobic in an apartment, I won't have to go anywhere. The apartment is on the ground floor and has a terrace AND a big garden with GRASS and TREES! That's, of course, what sold us on it. The country in Paris! Since nothing's perfect, there's a little bit of work to do in terms of adding a few more electrical outlets, changing the carpet, and painting the walls. This normally wouldn't be a problem but bills for such work can become astronomical. My first estimate came to a whopping 16000 euros (let's say about 16000 dollars). I think that in the U.S. one could paint the entire outside of a house for that - or less.

But maybe I won't have to worry about it. If by some fluke of fate Le Pen won the presidential election, I'd be out of here, dual nationality and all.

A reader of French Fried wrote very kindly to tell me she liked the book - and the French - and their food - but was worried about visiting Paris and Provence because of reports about anti-American sentiments and synagogue bombings. Would I persuade her to come? I wrote back and told her not to shelve her plans. Yes, bad things happen. Yes, there are and always have been French with anti-American sentiments. But when you live here, that is not what you see. On the whole, France is a safe and pleasant country to live and travel in. The majority of the French are delighted to have tourists and to share the treasures of this wonderful country. And there are so many. So I'll say to you what I said to her: don't be scared. Come and see for yourselves. I can only hope that you'll be pleasantly surprised.

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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

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