Two Frances

Most of us come to Paris for the beauty. We’ve heard many say it is the most beautiful city in the world. For those of us who love to flâner (walk with no purpose in mind), it is heaven. The rest of France connotes lavender, sunflowers, paté, little villages high on hillsides that have been there since the Romans attacked the Gauls and the advantage lay with whoever was highest. Though it didn’t work out well for the Gauls in the end.

But there is another France. One that is easy to ignore if you are a tourist. Ex-pats that live in the western suburbs and the lower numbered arrondissements can also turn a blind eye. It’s not difficult to do. Last Thursday, I went to see the French entry for best foreign film: Les Miserables directed by Ladj li. On Friday, it won the Cesar for best Film (the cesars are the french equivalent of the Oscars). This Les Miserables, which loosely takes it’s theme from Victor Huge, takes place in a suburb to the east of Paris. The only white person was a corrupt and brutal policeman. The film showed us two days in the lives of the police who drive the streets of the Banlieu, the blacks who live in hovels, and the Muslim Brotherhood who attract many of the young people to them. The film was a thriller paced so perfectly that I thought my heart would jump out of my body. Although I knew intellectually about many of these banlieus, it was a completely different experience seeing it visually.

On Tuesday of the week before, I went to the American Library to hear a journalist I admire speak about his book: Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France. The author, Marc Weitzmann, won the American Library book award last November. I was present at the ceremony and was disappointed that he only spoke for ten minutes. I was anxious to hear more. It took him over five years to write this book and in that time, the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Bataclan theatre took place. Weitzmann told us that there are two or three incidents of hatred on Jews a day in France. As he talked, I thought ‘I don’t like the France he is telling us about.’

Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, was stabbed and her body was burned when her apartment was set on fire in what the French authorities said was an anti-Semitic crime. from the NYTImes

When I first moved to France, people would ask (they still do) why I’m choosing to live in France over the US. It is not an easy question to answer. Often I will throw in that the US had an election and it seemed smarter for me to stay here. Inevitably someone will say ‘well, what about French politics?’ And I, truthfully, can answer that I don’t know much thought I’m learning. My grasp of the french language that involves discussing politics, isn’t strong. Living in the part of Paris that I live in, I could probably spend the rest of my life here and never know much about the banlieu of Les Misérables and be shocked at the seemingly unconnected events of 2015. By going to hear Weitzmann, I’m no longer able to do that. He strongly believes that the extremist and hate-filled muslim brotherhood and the deep rooted French conservative far-right both have their roots in the same populism that is growing in Europe. It’s not the same ‘ism’ as in the States but it is far-right, it is a growing trend that is on the rise around the globe and supported by the US.

So I’ve found myself reflecting on my choice to live here. There is no doubt that the quality of my life is much higher here in France: I don’t need to own a car, I’m close to many cultural events–so many that I’m forced to choose on many an evening. But I can no longer tell people that it’s nicer here. So far, France doesn’t have a supremacist President but it’s not unthinkable any more. Weitzmann told us, in response to a question from the floor, that Norman Mailer predicted in the 1950s that by the end of the 20th century, insanity would be the norm. And so, two decades into the 21st century, political madness and lunacy clearly are the norm. When I or my friends remark “that is unbelievable,” we are confessing to being way out of step with what is considered normal today.

I think that I am rather normal when I say I want to be comfortable. Both the movie and the talk made me very uncomfortable. So much so, that I left both just before they finished. I like my rose-colored France. I want this country to be a better place than the US is today. I can’t really compare. It’s different but she shares the same extreme hatred and native terrorism that has been brewing in the US.

There is no way to end this post. I am staying in France. I love Paris, I love France. However, just as I had to strip away my naiveté of America, I’m now having to do that with my adopted country. I can choose to be educated or choose to keep my head in the sand. I don’t think there is a turning back at this point. French municipal elections are coming up very soon. Let’s see what the French have to say.

A bientôt,

Sara PS–there are spelling errors in the second paragraph. I know, you don’t have to tell me. But, for whatever reason, WordPress is not letting me do edits. I tried once and lost two paragraphs. So some things we just have to accept!