TCS Daily

A Reverse Tocquevillian Gaze

By John Schwartz - August 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Emerging from the Parc Monceau metro stop a few weeks ago, I tried to remember who said Paris is a woman. Hemingway? In any case, she's more magnificent than ever. Her meticulously kept parks are adorned with potted palms for the summer and the loveliest place on earth is still the Rue las Cases after a rain with the bells of Ste. Clothilde tolling above. Paris is the kind of woman who really is a woman -- jaded, wry, secure, chic, better with age. Our American Paris is an ersatz stage set in Nevada, so maybe that's why we love the real thing. I couldn't suppress a smile as I twisted my map, looking for the small museum that was the point of that morning's outing.

Nature was calling, so I made a detour to a well-placed little neo-classical outhouse just inside the park. One overlooked Parisian quality is the excellence of its public toilets, a sign of French public-spiritedness unreciprocated on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, I started to wonder where my countrymen do relieve themselves outside the home. Taking the Parisian-pissoir traffic as an indication, I vowed not to picnic on American grass again.

I pushed open the door and found a urinal. A bit of graffiti caught my eye, "Immigrants are the cancer of France." This annoyed me. How could troublesome politics intrude upon this dreamland? Fifty years of post-imperial immigration has rendered France ten percent Muslim, but so what? Muslims enjoy loveliness too, right? Had the scribbler not noticed the sheer magnificence of his surroundings, the attractive, bustling people patronizing an array of bookstores, concert halls, galleries, and restaurants that constitute the very idea of civilization? I shook my head in sanctimonious disapproval and left to find my museum -- which, like much else in the land of 5-week vacations, was closed.

The next morning things became ominously clearer. The papers screamed banner headlines about a 23-year-old woman with a baby who'd been attacked on the RER suburban train for "looking Jewish" by "youths of North African descent" -- read Muslim. They had harassed her, beaten her and drawn swastikas on her body, all because, while hassling her for money, they'd seen an identity card listing her as living in a very wealthy, stereotypically Jewish section of Paris, the 16th Arrondissement. The attack was a true blockbuster news event, replete with the trifecta of French demons -- anti-Semitism, colonialism, and class warfare. How exciting.

Oddly enough I'd been on that train the day before. It's not just any suburban railway, which incidentally means the reverse of what it does in the States. No John Cheever suits headed home to dry martinis in Lake Forest, but rather dark-skinned residents of "ring cities" that Parisians would forget if they didn't need their homes cleaned, children fed, construction constructed, and hospitals staffed. The RER is the main artery to the international airport named for that ur-Frenchman Charles de Gaulle and therefore the route by which the world first sees Paris. For many Americans it ironically represents something we wish we had and don't: decent, safe, and fast public transportation. While initially impressed with this French comparative advantage, I found myself wondering if I looked more Jewish than that girl, and if so, what would that have meant?

With a reverse Tocquevillian gaze, I resolved to put his land to the test to which he put ours. Well, for three days anyway. Superficial yes, but history is anecdote, and besides, the French themselves prefer abstraction, which suits me fine. Off I went, notebook in hand, the age-old spirit of the scribbling expat swirling round my head.

Radiating Brown As It Expands

Paris is not a mere museum city, frosted in a bygone era of tortes and waltzes. It is the capital of the world's fifth largest economy and the severed head of a vast imperial body. According to Fodor's, it is the world's most visited city, with double the number of yearly visitors as the next closest contender, New York. As such, it has globalized and radiates Brown as it expands outwards. Just take the metro one station past those cute Amelie canals to see firsthand. It is however pretty well integrated by American standards - absent are the black-while divisions like 96th Street in east Manhattan or the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles, and the correspondingly visible poverty and decay.

African men in suits or women in stunning dashikis are ubiquitous in the metro. On Bastille Day armored personnel carriers thundered down the genteel Blvd. St. Germain and I noticed that at least one of every three or four men on board was African. Africans seem as much an integral presence in France as African Americans are in the U.S., and just as the average Park Avenue doctor these days is likely to have Patel or Singh as a surname, so the brass nameplates outside imposing 19th century buildings on the Blvd. Malesherbes are just as likely to bear Vietnamese or Cambodian surnames. For a place that's the subject of such media hand wringing over immigrants and cultural change, it actually seems to be doing pretty well.

The stark difference is the Arabs -- or, to be more precise, the religious Muslim Arabs, because unless they're religious you don't know who they are. They aren't noticeably darker than the Mediterranean French or Italians. You know them by their women. Like shrouded penguins these women trudge through the streets, shepherded by men, never making eye contact, strangers in a strange land. They do not participate in their surroundings on a visceral level as we all do, staring at billboards or glancing at the punk kid on the curb. They have the air of abused children who inhabit inner worlds of separation and fear and are unable to tell. I don't believe it's a rational choice, or indeed a choice at all, to cover oneself from the world. Modesty is an all-too-rare quality, but this is akin to foot-binding or clitoral circumcision -- the hobbling of a human being so she can't use her innate senses to function properly in the world. In the cases of children, the outside world has no way of knowing. Here we know.

Not In France to Be Changed

Reactions to the RER attack seemed disappointingly, though predictably, spineless. President Chirac naturally condemned it but managed to throw in some "de haut en bas" pronouncements against sexism and homophobia too. The French have an annoying way of dealing with one problem with solutions to another, as if this weren't a case of a very specific perpetrator carrying out a very specific crime.

The New York Times, through its Herald Tribune subsidiary, ran a startling piece comparing Arab anti-Semitism to French anti-Arabism and condemning all with one facile flip of the hand. Granted, I had seen what I saw on that bathroom wall. But if you want to make grand judgments by what's on walls, check out the enormous posters in the metro advertising government-funded museum exhibitions celebrating the diverse worlds of Islam, as represented rather oddly by a girl attempting to play soccer in a chador. You get the feeling that they are trying so hard, the poor French, but no matter what they do, they can't satisfy anyone, not the New York Times, not themselves, and I doubt very much the Muslims.

It's especially ironic that the government should use museums to spread appreciation for Islam since the glorious museums of Paris seem to be the only place the penguins never waddle. Why?

I think it's because they are not in France to be changed. Unlike other outsiders who hope to glean a new sense of life from new experiences, these people aim to prevent it, or to turn the tables instead. The girls wear headscarves to secular schools, often, I was told, against their will, forced by brothers and uncles (Chirac has since banned them, but pundits say that will just force the girls into private schools with little state supervision). Their Imams preach separateness and disdain for French institutions with never a word of gratitude to the nation that allows them to express such feelings in the first place (and funds museum expos extolling their virtues).

Charles de Gaulle famously started his memoirs with the line, "I have always had a certain idea of France." He was referring to "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite," the central core of French self-regard by which people can be citizens without succumbing to hard-edged Anglo-Saxon capitalism. The question now is, can France apply its beloved Enlightenment ideals to religious Muslims in its midst? And in the face of resistance how hard is it willing to try?

The notion that all of this is in jeopardy terrifies the French into denying problems at all, or equating them with teapot-tempests like homophobia. But should we in the west continue to bend over backwards to accommodate such hostility and expect nothing in return? Have a hundred years of war, fascism, communism, commercialism, and cultural relativism destroyed all confidence in the idea about which de Gaulle so eloquently wrote? Could it be a matter of time, I wondered, before the treasures of the Louvre wind up like the Buddhas of Afghanistan, blown to bits by the Taliban of the RER?

Useful Comparisons?

Many of us are given to wishful thinking, comparing Muslim orthodoxy with its rigidities to the more familiar Jewish kind. Orthodox Jews also separate themselves from society, worship and learn without women, wear conservative dress, all the while managing not to blow up airplanes or attack people on trains. I stumbled across the thriving Jewish Marais district of Paris and decided to take a look.

Any first impression is helped by the fact that the Marais is one of the most charming parts of Paris. It is the center of its remaining Renaissance architecture that somehow escaped waves of urban renewal culminating in Baron Haussmann's 19th-century Grands Boulevards. When the Orthodox Jews moved in it was a slum but any urban neighborhood with the luck or foresight to keep its original architecture will eventually regenerate. So the Jews sit on staggeringly valuable property while most French Muslims make do in isolated, ugly, postwar concrete blocs.

For once Jews just got lucky, and judging from the hip boutiques and pricey cafes opening next to kosher epiceries and Hebrew bookstores, others want to share the good fortune. Through this process the Marais has also become home to a large part of Paris's gay population. Rainbow flags and archly named boutiques share narrow streets with yarmulke-clad kids trekking home from school, giving it the incongruous air of a gay pride day in Tel Aviv. And yet no one seems put off. Even with all the benefits of wealth, do we really think Orthodox Muslims could display such a tolerance? Look to Saudi Arabia for that answer.

In true tragic fashion, Islam is doomed by the very fact that gives it its appeal, its claim to represent all-encompassing Truth handed down by God through his Prophet, a truth that applies equally to all people, that those who follow it will be blessed and those who don't cursed. To the great consternation of Islam's proponents, the opposite appears to be happening. In our world today, Muslims seem among the unhappiest, angriest, and least successful. A lot of resentment stews from the bitterness of unfulfilled promises.

Socialism as Conservatism

Graham Greene remarked that all most people want from life is for one day to look like the next. The way to create such stability, as any American will recite, is with jobs. No pandering museum exhibit can suffice for the satisfaction of a job well done and a family provided for. There is truth to this, but it mistakenly assumes that the world wants to be American and solve American-style problems in American ways.

That evening, through some contacts, I had been invited to dine at the home of one of France's more influential families, one that happens, incidentally, to be Jewish. I was especially eager to see one of Paris's great private art collections. As I made my way through the quiet streets of their sumptuous neighborhood I noted that this was the same "16th" that had inflamed the RER girl's attackers. I decided to raise that subject as tactfully as possible.

The home was exquisite in a way that is particularly French, so natural and personal, without pretension, and yet intellectual, distant, and the product of years of refinement. The diverse collection of art represented the best of many styles and had been painstakingly chosen over time with deep knowledge and love. American collectors are often plagued with concerns for momentary fashion or future value. You can't blame them though. Only inherited wealth has the luxury to formulate such an impeccable sensibility.

Notwithstanding France's Revolutionary glorification, it is truly an aristocratic realm. In America, snobbery is one of a few true faux pas. These lovely, hospitable French people, however, are unreconstructed snobs and overtly discuss France in terms of rigid class hierarchies. We enjoyed a leisurely dinner in an 18th century paneled room that felt particularly sultry in the warm twilight. The wine and dim glow of a chandelier made me think of Talleyrand's quip that those who hadn't lived before the Revolution would never know the true beauty of life.

It hit me that socialism in France is not a way to help the less fortunate, but rather a way to fend off yet another round of social upheaval. If those at the bottom are kept sated with paid vacations and other freebies, the position of those at the top is preserved. Socialism as "progressive" is a red herring, cleverly distracting us from true radicalism, which exists as we oddly call conservatism.

Mrs. Thatcher's defeat of socialism in the UK brought about a level of social mobility that a hundred years of Labour governments wouldn't accomplish. Perhaps this is why my new friends particularly disparaged her -- although not without mentioning that the ambitious young French are fleeing to England and America in droves, as are those with any kind of assets subject to France's punitive taxation schemes.

America and Fear

Freedom and social mobility are essential to human dignity and make me proud to be American. But are they the only essential qualities? Some people aren't ambitious. They'd rather have five weeks off than an extra dishwasher or video game console. Others can contribute more to life by studying art, writing books, or pursuing less lucrative careers in public service, all of which is helped by generous state subsidies or inherited wealth. The lack of respect America shows to other ways of doing things exasperates the French of all political stripes. Indeed the American obsession with economic life implies that growth itself is the only objective a nation should have. But growth is chaotic and the French prefer stability. They're old and know chaos too well.

Nothing is to say that the French don't love America. They do. People in shops and restaurants seem friendly and happy to have you. The local cinema had lines out the back for "Shrek 2" and "Troy." Starbucks, the newest American fad, was jammed, as were the regular cafes on either side of it. But America also frightens the French, in two particular ways.

One is "Bush Administration meddling" in a benighted part of the world it does not understand. They think we'll muck it up and when the going gets tough just sulk back to our safe shores. They are not afraid to say they're tired of 9/11. Paris was a terrorist target for thirty years after the Algerian war. There are still no garbage containers in the streets for fear they harbor bombs. Three thousand dead Americans is terrible, but from a percentage standpoint, the Madrid bombings were just as bad and no Americans marched in the streets, unlike September 12, 2001 in Madrid when thousands turned out. America, they say, needs to grow up, move on, and try to prevent future attacks, none of which Bush's policies accomplish. My new friends see the Islamification of the Arab community as recent phenomenon that can be traced to what religious Arabs see as western attacks on Islam after 9/11. And France, not America, sits in the path of the storm.

The other big fear is the American cultural steamroller as it wantonly squashes everything interesting and original in its path. An interesting manifestation is the proliferation of American rap and sports apparel, especially among young, disaffected immigrant men. A packed store on the Blvd. Sebastopol sells team jerseys for sports that don't professionally exist in France to a near-exclusively African and Arab clientele. Rap music in unfiltered English blasts from its walls and feeds misogyny to a population already engulfed in it.

One could say that France doesn't even have an immigration problem because psychologically its immigrants aren't even there. They know France isn't the land of opportunity for them. They want to be American and being American is as ugly as it is liberating. Henry James pointed this out a hundred years ago. I think many French would be happy to see them go. Someone is putting ads all over the Paris metro instructing people how to apply for American visas and where to learn "Wall Street English." The people pictured therein do not look European.

As I bid my friends farewell on their polished marble stoop, I asked them about the RER woman. They hadn't even heard about it. Much too déclassé, I surmised. They did mention the possibility voting for LePen, a far-right candidate not known for his affinity to Jews. Your enemy's enemy, is that a French phrase too?

Some say the point of traveling is to meet yourself. I don't know if that happened, but I do know that in so far as I, as an American, represent homogenization, mediocrity, and ugliness, I will try to stand up to it. The world in its multi-hued glory is worth preserving, and if growth is an overly destructive force, I want little to do with it. Of course life is complicated and the bad is always intertwined with the good. So like Voltaire said we should probably just tend to our own gardens and enjoy the "belle vie" which incidentally is made much better with any of France's 300 cheeses.

It turned out the RER attack was a hoax. A mentally unstable girl was trying to "prove a point." Politicians were a bit flummoxed at having condemned something so vehemently with no evidence, but, as one minister publicly mused, sometimes only the insane can see the truth. This makes more sense than you'd think coming from a politician whose country keeps the loony-tune Marcel Proust's bedroom as a shrine. Vive la difference.

The author works in the independent movie industry in Los Angeles.


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