07. November 2005 · Comments Off on Brennt Paris? · Categories: European Disunion, General

And so it is, for the eleventh night running, after the serious possibility being raised by the failed artist and sometime supposed paper-hanger turned dictator and ultimately unsuccessful military strategist some six decades previous. I follow the news about the suburbs of Paris being wracked by flames and insurrection with a curious mixture of dismay and indifference, because there are two—and maybe more— Cities of Light in contention in my imagination and experience.

I make no claim to intimate knowledge of Paris in the real world; I’ve only been there twice in my life. At the age of 16 I stayed in a youth hostel outstanding in memory for grunge hitherto un-encountered in what was admittedly a fairly sheltered life. The hostel was in a newer neighborhood. I retain memories of brutally ugly neo-Corbu concrete high-rises nearby, and a skim of greasy filth floating on a bowl of coffee essence and hot milk served up for breakfast along with a length of somewhat stale baguette. The same blue melamine bowls ten hours later also contained our dinner, a stew of potatoes and stringy, curiously sweet-tasting meat that we were fairly sure was horse, although my best friend, Esther Tutwyler held out for mule. There were bugs in the bunk bed mattresses, too. But we spent a couple of days there, exploring the Louvre, and climbing the endless stairs to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, and twenty years later I visited Paris once more, driving at leisure across Europe with my daughter, dipping into the tourist delights… the Louvre again, and buying kitchenware at Dehillerhin, before heading out into the countryside.

The France that I have in memory is a country road, unfolding between autumn-tinged trees, leading to a small town where grandmotherly hotel managers cluck over my daughter and feed her soup, where there are cathedrals and ruined castles, the war cemeteries where two generations of my family are buried (or at least, memorialized), the Provencal fields painted by Van Gogh— who got it right, incidentally. Olive trees and sunflowers, starry skies and tile-roofed buildings lighted by street-lights, fields of golden stubble and distant blue mountains; there are places you can look at, and know that yes, that was what he was looking at and he painted it, just right. If you cook, or love the Impressionists, or have an appreciation for history, you are always coming back to France… even if it only through books like “A Year in Provance” or “On Rue Tatin”.

But then there are those other Frances, as many as there are other Americas. An empty highway across the Great Basin is still in the same country as an inner-city project, as opposite as they seem to be. The project and the endlessly unfolding miles of the Far West are still in the same country. And the France of my personal memories is still the place beloved of memoirists and artists and foodies , for all that the so-called suburbs (which we would call “the projects”) full of angry, unassimilated immigrants ringing Paris and other major cities… I would no more have visited them, any more than I would have visited the projects, but they— like our projects most certainly do exist.

And there is the official France; Jacques Chirac… of whom I would not be entirely surprised to read that he leaves a three-foot-wide slime-trail of political corruption behind him, wherever he slithers. The official France implicated in the Oil for Palaces… oh, sorry, the Oil for Food program. The official France who seems to take as their guiding principal and ever-bright star to be against whatever the US is for, and in favor of whatever the US is against, all the while insisting that they are our oldest and best friends. And then there is the public-intellectual France… yes, that would be the France where a best-selling book postulates that the Bush administration bombed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as a pretext for war in the Middle East. That would be the intellectual/media France that enabled the Mohammad al-Dhura media hoax.

That would be the France that slavered gloatingly over the details of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and has lectured Americans over our race-relations failings for… oh how many years has it been? James Baldwin and Josephine Baker famously and ostentatiously found a better welcome in France than they did in their native country; one wonders what kind of welcome they would have found in these latter days. And now their own outer-ring public housing projects are erupting in violence, are and have been for years veritable no-go areas for police and outsiders. There are incoherent demands from rioters that French authorities stay out of those neighborhoods, that they be left as sort of in-country independent mini-states, as alien in law, religious belief and custom from France as is possible to be.

And the French government dithers and denies, and temporizes, while night after night the “youths” from the project are emboldened and the rioting spreads. Is it orchestrated? Who knows. Are groups and personalities in the disputed neighborhoods and outside it watching intently and taking notes, trying to steer events to their own ends? Possibly. How will it all end, with a bang or a whimper? Will the French authorities crack down with the fullest force available to them— the longer it goes on, the greater the force will have to be used. Or will the French cede authority, make concessions, continue to allow independent and hostile interior colonies to continue existing… and worse yet, to metastasize. Each alternative ending is as bad as the other. There will be no good ending, either way, the France that I hold in affection will change for the worst, if has existed at all. And that conviction quite takes away any relish for a double scoop of café-au-lait schadenfraude, served up in a waffle cone with a dusting of chocolate sprinkles.

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