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France, (Still) Steadfast and Changing

The day we were leaving France,  the TV news was full of reports of Jean-Luc Melenchon complaining of a vicious electoral tactic carried out by surreptitious supporters of Marine Le Pen. France’s most prominent far leftist and far rightist are squaring off in a legislative contest in Pas de Calais, an old industrial city that is losing a lot of jobs. (In France, you don’t  actually have to live in a place to represent it in the National Assembly.) Melenchon charged that Le Pen’s people were distributing a flyer with a quote of his, something about Arabs and Berbers being essential to France’s future, tossed in some Arabic script, and were presenting him to seem like the official Arab candidate. As ethnic politicking goes, this seems  pretty tame stuff — and less amusing than what took place in New York’s 1973 mayoral race, when Abe Beame sent out squads of young bongo drummers and salsa players into Archie Bunker neighborhoods after midnight, urging a “vote” for Beame’s main competitor Herman Badillo.

But Melenchon is playing the high-minded victim candidate for all he can get, evidence that there must be (as well as a small Arab vote) some collective sense that France now has multicultural manners in place which deserve some respect.

Which was my sense too, after five days spent in Paris. I had wondered whether in the six years since I had last been there, France would be groaning under the weight of multiculturalism and immigration. It was not. The papers were full of the financial crisis — but as it pertained to Greece and Spain. The French were enjoying the controversy IMF head (and France’s former finance minister) Christine Lagarde had provoked by saying she had more sympathy for starving African children than for Greeks who refused to pay taxes. Paris still seemed  orderly and well run; its subways safe, its parks spotless. I didn’t go everywhere in the city, but I did spend some time in Belleville, an east Paris working-class district which a generation ago had developed a sort of “South Bronx” reputation in the the French cop movies. Last Sunday evening, it was a veritable  postcard for successful multiculturalism: a plurality  of east Asians, but big blocs of Muslims, older whites, white hipsters, and Africans. All getting along pretty well, with the high number of interracial couples there and throughout Paris belying the idea of a nation riven by ethnic tensions.

I don’t know how to estimate the value to the world of a city embodying the pinnacle of style and beauty, but it seems worth something. France is supposedly deficient in many realms: economic innovation, especially. I’m sure the French have been slow to appreciate the wonders of derivatives. Yet they seem comfortable; Hollande was recently elected on the rather dubious notion that “growth” will make any further austerity or economic restructuring unnecessary. But from all I could observe, this did not seem like a country about to lose its position in the world. Predictions based upon walking around, lightly reading the newspapers and simply observing should be taken not too seriously, but I would venture than anyone predicting increased political polarization, with Marine Le Pen becoming a mainstream voice of the Right based on exploitation of  anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim fear will be disappointed. France is not undergoing a revolution, and won’t. It is muddling through, not too badly.

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#1 Comment By Narutaki On May 30, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

Really? It’s been maybe six years since I was there, but I was there a lot before that, and I think you and I just didn’t see the same Paris. The Paris I saw was grimy, had graffiti and handbills all over it, smelled like urine, and, a little away from the tourist areas, had some very unsavory neighborhoods peopled by some very scary-looking examples of “multiculturalism”. 

#2 Comment By rjstove On May 30, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

My Melbourne friend Alister Kershaw (RIP), former Paris correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (as it was then called), remembered with amusement one Friday summer evening, circa 1954, when a neophyte English journalist interpreted the mass exodus of cars from Paris as a sign that the Fourth Republic was about to collapse in a Gaullist heap.

Well, of course, it did thus collapse in 1958, but not on the occasion in question. What the neophyte journalist had hectically interpreted as a prelude to violent revolution was just … what Parisians did every Friday summer evening. They drove to the countryside en masse. Big fat hairy deal. No Gaullist coup (yet). Not even a change in the proverbially protean cabinet line-up of the time. The Foreign Minister exchanged places again with the Interior Minister next Tuesday morning, and that was that.

That’s France for you, I guess. France, where everything that’s momentous in the world, sooner or later, happens. Except when it doesn’t happen.