I had coffee the other day with a French friend on the political and cultural right, who is pessimistic about his country’s future. One thing he spoke of — and I’ve been hearing this from French people here — is the social stasis he says pervades France. N. talked about how hard it is to get ahead here, given how conservative the French economy and French society is — and by “conservative,” he doesn’t mean “free market-oriented,” but rather focused on everything staying the same.
My friend had spoken earlier about how the ideology of the 1968 generation had destroyed much of what was good about France’s culture. “They taught that every culture was good, except our own,” he said.
With that in mind, I asked N. about French racism. I told him that I had been hearing that it’s particularly difficult for French people of African or Arab Muslim origin to get ahead, because of the racism in French society.
“Oh, that’s absolutely true,” he said, without hesitating.
Later that day, I met my wife at the Luxembourg Gardens playground, where she introduced me to a New York couple she had met. They were vacationing in Paris too. He’s a scientist; she’s a business manager. He’s from Latin America, and brown-skinned. They were both chagrined by what they said is the racism they’ve encountered here in Paris.
“It definitely changed my romantic view of Paris,” she said. “I’ve always loved the aesthetics, but this is the first time I’ve had to deal with people treating my husband differently because of the color of his skin. They all think he’s an Arab.”
She said that she’d recently been reading a book about the deportation of French Jews under Nazi occupation. “So many French helped with that,” she said, visibly aggrieved. “And they wouldn’t even talk about what they did to their own people until the Mitterand era. These were their fellow Frenchmen, and they turned on them.”
To be clear, it was not my sense that this New York woman was Jewish, but rather had happened upon a history of French Jews of the Holocaust era, and read it while experiencing hostility to her husband, based on Parisians mistaking him for an Arab. This made her read the Holocaust history with a certain personal sense of immediacy. She was actually kind of shaken by it.
In 1955, James Baldwin, who had gone to live in Paris in part to escape American racism, wrote of his encounter with the French justice system after he was arrested because his guest at his hotel stole a sheet. Baldwin suddenly realized that the French could be just as racist as Americans, but this was worse because at least in America, he knew how to navigate such situations. This reduced him to a circumstance lower and more desperate than anything he experienced in Harlem. Baldwin wrote:
… I had no grasp of the French character either. I considered the French an ancient, intelligent, and cultured race, which indeed they are. I did not know, however, that ancient glories imply, at least in the middle of the present century, present fatigue and, quite probably, paranoia; that there is a limit to the role of intelligence in human affairs; and that no people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it. This price they cannot, of course, assess, but it is revealed in their personalities and in their institutions. The very word “institution,” from my side of the ocean, where, it seemed to me, we suffered so cruelly from the lack of them, had a pleasant ring, as of safety and order and common sense; one had to come into contact with these institutions in order to understand that they were also outmoded, exasperating, completely impersonal, and very often cruel. Similarly, the personality which had seemed from a distance to be so large and free had to be dealt with before one could see that, if it was large, it was also inflexible and, for the foreigner, full of strange, high, dusty rooms which could not be inhabited. One had, in short, to come into contact with an alien culture in order to understand that a culture was not a community basket-weaving project, nor yet an act of God; was something neither desirable nor undesirable in itself, being inevitable, being nothing more or less than the recorded and visible effects on a body of people of the vicissitudes with which they had been forced to deal.
(From an essay in “Americans In Paris: A Literary Anthology”)
After spending eight days in French prison, Baldwin came to understand that there is a universal difference between people who never have to live under the threat of arbitrary power being deployed against them, and those who do, and that those who live free of it cannot understand what it’s like for the rest. It’s not a French thing, it’s not an American thing. It’s just how it is with us.