There was an illegal demonstration for Palestine in northern Paris on Sunday, 15 May. It was quelled by 4200 police officers under the command of the city’s police chief, Didier Lallement. Protests against Israel’s bombing of Gaza had been banned on the direct order of President Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin. They might be composed of ‘risky elements’, Darmanin warned. He asked the police to be ‘particularly vigilant and firm’.
Marc Lopez and his wife have four grandchildren, aged between two and ten, who have been detained with their mother in a camp in north-east Syria for nearly three years. There are around eighty French women and two hundred children detained in camps in Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled region near the Iraqi border. All the women, alleged to have joined Islamic State, are wanted on an international arrest warrant issued by French magistrates. On 21 February, a dozen of them began a hunger strike ‘to protest against the stubborn refusal of the French authorities to organise their repatriation and the repatriation of their children’, according to a statement issued by their solicitors, Marie Dosé and Ludovic Rivière. They say the women ‘are only asking for one thing: to be put on trial for what they have done’.
The late Pierre Cardin bought the château in 2001 and the arts school was acquired the following year by the Savannah College of Art and Design. That’s when the process of ruin in Lacoste underwent a curious reversal: the dilapidated castle was rapidly refurbished while the village beneath – population in the low hundreds – became a lifestyle showcase, like Cardin's high-end prêt-à-porter, as he began buying up property. Some of it was empty, but several residents were prêt-à-partir: his offers were too good to refuse.
Lecturing at the Collège de France thirty years ago on the nature of the state, Pierre Bourdieu queried Weber’s notion that functioning states enjoy a monopoly of ‘legitimate physical violence’. Bourdieu already preferred the expression ‘legitimate and symbolic physical violence’, and in the lectures he commented: ‘One could even call it the “monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence”.’ In the last few years, the French police have overstepped the mark. The use of unreasonable force is nothing new. More worrying is the coincidence, on more than one occasion, of physical violence with sinister signals that make a mockery of the idea that the police are a ‘legitimate’ expression of symbolic violence on the part of the state. If they are, then France is in trouble.
It might seem bizarre to blame the murder of the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty on a nebulous conspiracy of leftist academics, given that the perpetrator, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, was an 18-year-old who had never been to university. But earlier this month in Le Monde, 100 French academics gave their backing to Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, when he responded to the murder with a flood of invective against universities. ‘Islamo-leftism is wreaking havoc,’ he said. Paty’s murderer had been ‘conditioned by people who encourage’ a type of ‘intellectual radicalism’ and promote ‘ideas that often come from elsewhere’, i.e. from across the Atlantic. ‘The fish rots from the head,’ he added darkly. Blanquer was following the example of the president of the republic.
Macron spoke again on Monday evening. His tone was more sombre; the time had come for a ‘general mobilisation’. ‘We are at war,’ he kept repeating. For most people, it turns out, the struggle will unfold without a trace of the martial virtues: these will be left to first-responders, medics and carers. The rest of us would simply have to crawl into the bunker and remain there ‘for at least 15 days’, effective from Tuesday noon, in the knowledge that the enemy, in Macron’s words, is ever-present, ‘invisible, elusive, making progress’. It isn’t inappropriate or tasteless to recall that in Camus, too, the plague ‘never ceased progressing’ or that it had ‘a characteristically jerky but unfaltering stride’.
In the winter of 2005, I was summoned by the French journalist Jean Daniel, who was in New York to promote his new book, The Jewish Prison. I had just published an admiring essay on his work in the New York Review of Books. Over a long lunch at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, he recalled his conversations with Ben Bella, Bourguiba, Ben-Gurion, Kennedy, Castro and Mitterrand. Daniel did not hesitate to drop names, but there was no denying that he’d won the confidence of some of history’s great men (they were nearly all men). I looked at my blazer and slacks and regretted that I hadn’t worn something more formal. Daniel was dressed in a suit and tie without a crease, and spoke with a solemnity that would have been easy to ridicule had it not been so spellbinding. I had the impression of speaking to a retired ambassador or foreign minister rather than a journalist.
I had a baby on Tuesday, a strange day to give birth in Paris. It was the 13th day of a massive strike against pension reforms, and unions had called for a big day of protest. We took an Uber to the hospital on Monday evening. Across the city, entrances to the Périphérique were at a standstill. Our driver said he wouldn’t be working the next day. ‘There’s no point. Paris is going to be blocked, with protesters going from République to Nation.’
Place Edmond Rostand in Paris was packed on Sunday 6 October. Smartly dressed families kept arriving. They had gathered to oppose a new law that will extend assisted reproduction to lesbian couples and single women. Some of the protesters wore sweatshirts with the logo of the anti-gay marriage movement La Manif pour tous (‘Protest for all’). Children waved flags saying ‘Liberté, égalité, paternité’. The sound system blared Céline Dion’s ‘Parler à mon père’ and Stromae’s ‘Papaoutai’ (‘whereareyoudad’). A series of speakers described the new law as ‘against nature’. ‘Fathers, are you there?’ they shouted.
The fire in Notre-Dame de Paris was extinguished in the small hours of 16 April. But residual heat from the blaze has left several brush fires smouldering.
On 20 January, during the anti-abortion ‘March for Life’ in Paris, Thomas Salgado and other activists from Act Up arrived at a Metro station in the 16th arrondissement to take part in a counter-demonstration. Within seconds, they had been surrounded by CRS officers, who ordered them against the wall for an ID check. Salgado asked why they were being searched. To prevent a threat to public order, he was told. ‘No rights for you; only duties.’
As the gilet jaune revolt moves forward and another destructive showdown looks imminent tomorrow in Paris, the government – and the president – have opted for the lesser of two contradictions. The greater: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you set aside progressive fiscal policy and tax rich and poor at the same rate, putting social justice – a grand French aspiration – in parenthesis. That didn't work. The lesser: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you get alongside low earners and help them through a difficult transition, even though the climate jeopardy of clapped-out diesel UVs is absurdly obvious. But that hasn't worked either.
Fighting on the Champs Elysées last weekend between French security forces and the so-called 'gilets jaunes' led to more than 100 arrests. According to the police, roughly eight thousand demonstrators took part. Barricades were built – and set alight – by what looked from a distance to be groups of rampaging lollipop people in dayglo yellow tops. But the gilets jaunes are not championing pedestrian safety: their revolt has been prompted by a sharp rise in the price of diesel and unleaded petrol at the pump, which they blame on President Macron's fossil fuel tax. This is a drivers' movement, at least at first sight, and despite the turmoil on the Champs Elysées, it is deeply provincial. Macron responded on Tuesday not with a U-turn, but with a concession enabling parliament to freeze the carbon tax – which is set to keep rising year on year – when the oil price goes up. A freeze is a very different proposition from a reduction and the gilets jaunes don't like it. They were out in force again on Wednesday and another big demonstration looks likely in Paris tomorrow.
‘La République, c’est moi!’ Jean-Luc Mélenchon shouted, face-to-face with a police officer blocking the entrance to his office as it was being raided last month. ‘Kick down the door, comrades!’ he declared. The raids – on Mélenchon’s and his associates’ homes as well as the headquarters of his party, La France insoumise – were part of an investigation into the finances of his 2017 presidential campaign.
Last week Emmanuel Macron issued a declaration acknowledging the role of the French military in the murder of a pro-independence activist in Algeria sixty years ago. The lead story in France should have been Macron's plan to break the chain of hereditary poverty with an additional €8.5 billion for children destined for a life of hardship bordering on misery. Arguments about the sums (insufficient) and the targeting (contentious) were quickly relegated to the sidebar as editors took the measure of Macron's conscientious, damning remarks on torture and disappearance during the Algerian war, a period that still clouds French sensitivities on inward migration, secular dress codes and acts of violence committed by radical Islamists.
The château at Ferney recently reopened to the public after three years of restoration and refurbishment. Except for the planes high above the lawns, flying in and out of Geneva airport, not much has changed at the château since Voltaire lived here between 1760 and his death in 1778. It’s easy to imagine him taking an afternoon stroll among the plane trees, Mont Blanc in the background, after a morning in bed dictating his voluminous correspondence to his private secretary. During his twenty years at Ferney, he wrote 6000 letters.
Sunday, late July: the small suburban towns of Persan and Beaumont-sur-Oise are almost empty. Persan, the last stop on the H line, is half an hour from the Gare du Nord, through a landscape of woodland and fields. It was a beautiful day. A man was fishing by the banks of the Oise; two others were chatting in front of a hairdresser’s salon. The day before, thousands of people from Paris and the banlieues had filled the streets; some had arrived by bus from further afield, among them party leaders from the left-wing NPA and La France Insoumise, anti-racist activists, relatives of people who had been killed by the police, girls wearing T-shirts saying ‘Justice for Adama’ or ‘Justice for Gaye’, and a man with a placard: ‘The State protects Benallas, we want to save Adamas.’ Adama Traoré died two years ago in police custody in Beaumont-sur-Oise. His family and friends had organised the march to demand justice – yet again – after his death. A few days before the protest, Le Monde revealed that a man in a police helmet who had been filmed assaulting May Day protesters in Paris was not a police officer but a close aide of Emmanuel Macron.
Nigel Farage claimed recently that ‘65 per cent of assessed “child refugees” coming to UK were actually adults’. According to Home Office figures, there were 2206 asylum applications from unaccompanied children last year. Immigration officers disputed the age of 712 of them; 634 disputes were resolved; 440 applicants were judged to be 18 or older, though that decision doesn’t necessarily mean that they ‘were actually adults’. In France last year, about 25,000 people applied for asylum as unaccompanied minors, up from around 4000 in 2010. I met Amadou – not his real name – at a Médecins Sans Frontières centre in Paris. He’d dreamed of making it to Paris to continue his education, learn French, become a bus driver. But the authorities didn’t believe he was 16 and wouldn’t offer him protection as a minor unless he could provide proof of his age.
On 9 January, Le Monde published an open letter from a hundred women calling for a reconsideration of the ‘excessive’ #MeToo campaign. Among the signatories were writers, editors, translators, academics, gynaecologists, psychotherapists, artists, filmmakers, actors, critics, journalists, photographers and radio hosts. The broadside, drafted by five writers and journalists including Catherine Millet and Catherine Robbe-Grillet, argued that the campaign, though ‘legitimate’ in its calling out of sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, had escalated into policing the relationships between men and women in a way that was detrimental to sexual freedom.
Emmanuel Macron, the eighth president of the Fifth Republic, is decked in glory; around his head a halo you could easily mistake for a crown. Youth, acumen, charisma, and now, above all, power. Having nearly doubled the vote for his rival, Marine Le Pen, in round two of the presidentials, he is likely to see a sweeping endorsement for his party, La République en Marche, when the second round of voting for seats at the National Assembly takes place on Sunday.
Emmanuel Macron’s success in France on Sunday was not the result of a consensual ‘republican front’ behind which voters could rally against Marine Le Pen in round two. In 2002, when her father reached the second round, a wave of anguish was followed by stoical nose-holding, as the many opponents of Jacques Chirac’s presidency trudged to the polls and voted him into office: anything but Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac took 82 per cent of the vote on a turnout of 80 per cent; 5 per cent spoiled their ballots or left them blank. Le Pen Sr knew a republican front when he saw one. He snarled at its huge following and told them to vote with saucepans on their heads: that way they’d look like the fools that they were.
‘It’s going to be a very interesting election. But you know some outside things have happened that maybe will change the course of that race.’ This from Trump, speculating in an interview with the Financial Times about Marine Le Pen’s prospects in the French presidential election (round one on 23 April). As far as we know, Trump has yet to meet her. She got as far as Trump Tower in January, but the president elect was indisposed and Le Pen’s people said at the time that she never intended to meet him. She linked up instead with one of his aides-de-camp. Here she is having coffee with Guido Lombardi, who has a pied-à-terre in Trump Tower and was formerly the US representative of Italy’s Northern League. Both Le Pen and Lombardi like to spare a moment to mull over the scourge of immigration.
‘I see my country falling,’ Marine Le Pen recently announced on American TV. ‘It makes me impatient … It’s impatience that motivates me today. Quick! Quick! Quick! Quick! Let’s put our beautiful, coveted country back on its feet.’ The word déclinisme entered the dictionnaire Larousse last year, and though the far right has been exploiting the spectre of decline since the 1970s, it seems to have acquired a new note of urgency. Asked why she had chosen to contest the Nord-Pas-de-Calais seat in the French regional elections of 2015 instead of focusing her energies on the approaching presidential race, Le Pen retorted: ‘The situation degrades so rapidly, that wherever I can act, I must do so at once.’
On 2 February, Théo Luhaka, a 22-year-old black youth worker, was stopped by police in the northern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where he lives. Most of the media reported that the four officers were carrying out an identity check on him, but Théo says he confronted them first, when he saw one of them slap a young person whose ID they were checking. In either case, Luhaka was doing nothing wrong. And however the encounter began, there’s no doubt how it ended: twelve days later, Luhaka is still in hospital.
After the second round of voting this weekend, Benoît Hamon has won the Socialist Party candidature for the French presidential elections. He already had the edge over his rival, the former prime minister Manuel Valls, in round one of the primaries. With Valls you always knew what you were going to get come the vote in March: total defeat. Hamon is not tipped to make it past round one either, but it would be wrong for the Vallsistes to tell themselves that their man was the realistic option. Valls's association with Hollande's disappointing term – Hollande had a popularity rating of 4 per cent last year – would have been a killer. Besides, in the unlikely event of the French electorate wanting another socialist president, it would vote for the genuine article. Valls is a New Labour lookalike.
The congenial Alain Juppé lost by a huge margin to François Fillon – roughly 66 to 34 – in the French centre-right's final round of primaries yesterday, which also saw a higher turnout than in round one. The economic policies of the candidates were close: thin down the state sector, loosen labour laws, cut taxes. Fillon’s was the harsher – and more radical – approach but the severity of his social programme was also crucial, and Marine Le Pen will be hard pressed to beat him next year. His is a face we will have to get used to.
France is still on the outskirts of Trumptown, after round one of the centre-right's first open primary to appoint a leader. To take part on Sunday you didn't have to be a member of Les Républicains (formerly the Union pour un mouvement populaire). All you had to do was show the volunteers at the polling station that you were on the electoral register, hand over two euros, sign up to Republican values, and agree on the need for political change (‘l'alternance’). Change from one centrist grouping to the other, that's to say. Even dyed-in-the-wool right-wing voters are staring down the barrel of a gun. At the other end is Marine Le Pen, the upheavalist candidate for the presidential race next year, jubilant in the aftermath of the Leave vote in the UK and Trump’s win. It was clear before the British referendum that she would go to round two of the presidentials – the left is out of the race – but afer Trump, it would be rash to rule out an FN victory. Whoever emerges from the centre-right primaries to face down Le Pen will be crucial.
Four armed police officers approached a Muslim woman on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice yesterday and demanded she remove some of her clothes. According to some news reports she was wearing a ‘burkini’, but she was in fact dressed in leggings, a tunic and a headscarf. As newspapers published photographs of the incident, L’Obs ran an interview with another woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Siam. She was asked to remove her headscarf on the beach at Cannes last week. She refused. Some fellow beachgoers took her side, but others shouted ‘go home’. She is a former flight attendant from Toulouse, whose family has been in France for three generations. She said that she had felt humiliated in front of her daughter and family, and described the incident as 'racism, pure and simple’.
Gilles Kepel, a specialist on 'Islam and the Arab world', wrote last year in Terreur dans l'Hexagone – a study of French jihadism – that the Charlie Hebdo killings were 'a sort of cultural 9/11'. The jihadism that we're now confronted with, he argued, is a third wave phenomenon, superseding the mujahidin in Afghanistan (the first) and emerging in the long twilight of al-Qaida (the second). The latest wave is specifically targeted at Europe, with its significant Muslim population (about 20 million in EU countries): the approach is 'horizontal', favouring networks rather than cells; disruption, fear and division are the tactics; the radical awakening of European Muslims, many already disaffected and marginal, is the immediate objective. The murders at Charlie Hebdo’s offices and the kosher store in Paris brought the third wave 'to a paroxysm', in Kepel's view, just as 9/11 brought the second 'to its pinnacle'. At the time of writing, no one has laid claim to the atrocity in Nice: more than eighty dead, fifty hospitalised ('between life and death', in President Hollande's words, earlier today).
The bank windows had been smashed. On a surviving pane, held with a star of white masking tape, there was an image of a girl in a white T-shirt and jeans shouting ‘Rêve Générale’ into a loudhailer, a new interpretation of the old call for a ‘Grève Générale’. Instead of a general strike, or as well as one, a communal dream. Every evening since 31 March, when there was a protest against proposed labour law reforms, there have been gatherings at place de la République in Paris to discuss new ways of doing politics, or at least of resisting the old ways.
In March 2014, Robert Ménard, one of the founders of Reporters without Borders (he isn’t involved anymore) was elected mayor of Béziers, a small city in the South of France, with the support of the Front National. Ménard is not in the FN but has said he agrees with 80 per cent of what they say.
In No Name in the Street, James Baldwin describes how, not long after he settled in France in 1948, he ‘had watched the police, one sunny afternoon, beat an old, one-armed Arab peanut vendor senseless in the streets, and I had watched the unconcerned faces of the French on the café terraces, and the congested faces of the Arabs.’ With a ‘generous smile’, Baldwin's friends reassured him that he was different from the Arabs: ‘Le noir américain est très évolué, voyons!’ He found the response perplexing, given what he knew of French views about the United States, so he asked a ‘very cunning question’:
Laurence Rossignol, the French minister for families, children and women’s rights, was asked on Wednesday by the radio station RMC for her views on the recent trend among Western fashion houses to produce clothes, such as the ‘burkini’, aimed at observant Muslim women. She said she thought it was an ‘irresponsible’ decision that encouraged ‘the imprisonment of women’s bodies’. But didn’t some women choose to dress that way? Yes, and ‘there were also American nègres who supported slavery,’ she said.
French law allows naturalised citizens to be stripped of their citizenship if they commit a serious crime. Three days after the 13 November attacks in Paris, President Hollande announced that he wanted to extend the law to all citizens with dual nationality, a measure originally advocated by the Front National. The proposal will be debated in the National Assembly at the beginning of February. Rachid Ait El Haj, Bachir Ghoumid, Attila Turk, Fouad Charouali et Redouane Aberbri are in their late thirties or early forties. Four of them were born Moroccan, one Turkish, but they have all spent most of their lives in France and acquired French nationality. Last October they found out they’d lost it. ‘I was at home with my daughter, watching BFM TV,’ Attila told me. ‘They said five men – including one Franco-Turk – had been stripped of their French citizenship. It had to be us.’
The defeat of the Front National in every mainland region on Sunday has given France a welcome respite from extremity. Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, which has taken seven out of 12, is in good spirits, as it was on the eve of the contest. Surveying the field before round one, a centre-right MP concluded that François Hollande’s party had done two things well: stealing Sarkozy’s ideas and losing the socialist vote. ‘If you agree with Gramsci,’ he said, ‘it’s an intellectual victory for the right that will end in electoral victory.’
Sunday mid-afternoon at our nearest polling station – a modest mairie which now opens only a couple of times a week –the voting in the first round of France’s regional elections was desultory. The deputy mayor had reckoned on 40 per cent of the voters turning out by teatime, but they hadn’t. In a flower border where the council planted out a few perennials earlier this year, some of the shrubs had been removed during the night. Three gendarmes were hard at work on forensics, taking photos of the holes.
‘Terrorism and immigration are not the same,’ an Afghan migrant in his thirties tells me. Self-evident facts need to be reiterated in a state of emergency. He’s married to a French person – no names at this point – and expecting a French passport shortly. He’s worried, like all migrants of Muslim origin, about the next step in the confrontation with Isis: migrants were regarded with suspicion long before last week’s attacks in Paris. He’s with friends, new arrivals from Kabul and Jalalabad, queuing in the drizzle outside the offices of a refugee support NGO, Terre d’Asile, in the 18th arrondissement. They have folders of documents to help them make asylum claims, but they’re confused, and so am I: procedures have changed since I last lent a hand with a claim.
Nearly a week after the killings, business-as-usual is the banner flying over Paris. The return to normal, with its flavour of defiance, can be observed in action anywhere from Châtelet as far as the city gates. (At Château Rouge, three stops from Porte de Clignancourt, the pace of African street trade is undiminished – phone cards, groundnuts, roasted corn cobs – as dense crowds gather round the vendors.) But normal is highly circumscribed and the siege yesterday in St Denis illustrates how elusive ordinary life can be on the other side of the Boulevard Périphérique: scores of armed police and soldiers deployed; 5000 rounds discharged; an explosives-suicide in the apartment under siege; the suspected ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, shot dead; eight arrests. Worse, perhaps, than the immediate fear among residents is the fact that the suspects were tracked to a neighbourhood with a conspicuous migrant culture. Roughly 60 per cent of under-18s in the department of Seine-St Denis are descended from immigrants. Through no fault of the residents or the security forces, we can if we like make a reductive association between the killers and a diverse group of citizens who nonetheless look much the same in the bleak light of emergency: ‘Muslims’.
‘The most bloodthirsty line in the French national anthem was written with the English in mind,’ David Bell wrote in the LRB in 1998. Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the military engineer who composed the words to the ‘Marseillaise’ in 1792, took the line about watering furrows with ‘sang impur’ from a poem which was much more specific about whose impure blood it should be.
After a busy night for the police, France woke on Monday to news that more than 20 people had been taken into custody and 104 placed under house arrest. In the evening Hollande proposed a raft of measures to the General Assembly and the Senate involving tweaks to the constitution that enable the government ‘to manage a state of crisis’ and deal with the new reality (‘we are at war’). He also proposed 5000 more police and soldiers on the payroll by 2017, 1000 more border staff, 2500 new prison staff. More citizens with dual nationality would have their French nationality removed and be subject to ‘expulsion’.
Sunday: we wake under blue skies to Nicolas Sarkozy calling for ‘the whole world’ to destroy Isis and demanding a ‘new’ immigration policy, as he steps away from a meeting with Hollande. Stern words on the first day of national mourning declared by the president. Last night Paris was half a city, maybe less. In the capital where the world’s first public audience paid to see a motion picture, the art house cinemas were closed like bakeries, the foyers of the multiplexes dark behind their plate-glass entrances. Few people on the streets, fewer on the metro: twenty passengers at most in a carriage on the Ligne 4; seven in a carriage on the little line from Châtelet to Mairie des Lilas. Nine o’clock, or thereabouts. One hundred and thirty dead, a hundred more with critical injuries in hospitals around the city: Lariboisière, St Louis, La Pitié-Salpêtrière, others.
Mediapart, the French online journal known for its investigative scoops and the quality of its analytical pieces, is in trouble. The problem is to do with VAT – the tax collector has decided the journal owes €4.1 million – but it goes much deeper. At the root is an argument of principle, conducted in the open by the editors for several years, about fair competition between print and online newspapers. Mediapart insists it should be entitled to the preferential VAT rate reserved for print media: a derisory 2.1 per cent as against the standard rate, which rose last year from 19.6 to 20 per cent.
The Jardin des Olieux is a small park just off the Boulevard Victor Hugo in Lille. Twenty-five or so homeless migrants have been camping there for a couple of months. Several of them are teenagers. Mamadé from Guinea, who is 16, told me that every morning they walk to a day centre near the train station for a meal, coffee and a wash. But they have nowhere to sleep except the park, and the police have taken away their mattresses. The French state in theory guarantees appropriate accommodation and support for unaccompanied migrant children, but there is an effective ‘presumption of majority’, according to a local lawyer, as well as long delays in the process which leave many on the streets for weeks.
In November 2011, Bocar, a teacher in his early thirties, had just had dinner with his parents and was leaving their flat in the centre of Saint-Ouen, a suburb of Paris, accompanied by his two younger sisters, aged 16 and 21. ‘I saw a group of eight or nine police officers, from the BAC,’ he told me (Brigade anti-criminalité). ‘One hurried towards me, took my arm and pushed me to the side. I asked him what he was doing. “Police,” he said, and shoved me to the wall. I tried turning and he shouted: “Police! Do you want me to taser you?” So I told him to do whatever he had to and that I would do the same and file a complaint to Internal Affairs. He realised there was something wrong then – saw that I was educated and knew what my rights were. I could feel his colleagues were embarrassed. Some were keeping my sisters to the side. The officer kept behaving in an intimidating way, checked my ID, didn’t find anything – I have no criminal record – searched me, and after 20 minutes he let me go.’
Riad Sattouf’s father travelled from a small Syrian village to Paris in the 1970s. He met Sattouf’s French mother at university there. After they graduated and their son was born, the family went first to Libya under Gaddafi and then to Syria under Assad. L’Arabe du futur, Sattouf’s autobiographical graphic novel, tells of his strange childhood spent in the shadow of Arab dictators and his father’s delusions. Two more volumes are forthcoming, and an English translation is under way.
I don’t know when ‘banlieue’ became a word in English, but it’s in a 1990 edition of Chambers as ‘precinct, extra-mural area, suburb’. Many people living in the rougher outskirts of France’s cities prefer the expression ‘quartiers populaires’; others use the word ‘cités’: working-class neighbourhoods where architects, planners and commissioning bodies created huge, affordable housing projects half a century ago (long horizontal ‘barres’ and grandiose high rise set the tone). The rundown cités at the margins of Paris, Marseille, Lyon and other major cities are once again under inspection after the 7-9 January killings: Amady Coulibaly, who murdered the policewoman in Montrouge and the four Jews in Paris, grew up in a dismal estate south of the capital. ‘Ghetto’ and ‘apartheid’, words already murmured whenever France talks to itself about these places, are now spoken openly. The prime minister, Manuel Valls, used ‘apartheid’ in a recent speech about urban segregation.
Last week François Hollande wished teachers in France a happy new year and announced a plan to create ‘citizen reserves’ for schools: volunteers drafted in to inculcate a proper sense, in the wake of the 7-9 January killings, of how the country’s meant to work. Who would these reservists be? Journalists, lawyers and unspecified ‘cultural actors’. The president talked up secularism (la laïcité) and reminded teachers, if they hadn’t known before, that religion has no place in schools. Though ‘there can be lay instruction about religions.’
A hundred pages into Soumission by Michel Houellebecq the narrator’s on-off sexual partner announces that she and her parents are leaving France for Israel. We’re between the two rounds of the 2022 French presidential elections, with the Front National out ahead in a run-off against the Muslim Brothers; it looks as if the old parties – big centrist machines – are about to be mothballed along with the Fifth Republic.
The march in Paris on Sunday was called originally in honour of the dead at Charlie Hebdo’s offices. In the meantime the dead had become more numerous. By the time the marchers reached Place de la Nation yesterday many were carrying A4 print-outs reading ‘Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis flic.’ In addition to three dead police officers, four Jewish French citizens had died in the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes. The mood among yesterday’s vast crowds was quietly upbeat and self-assured. We were all ‘Charlie’ and we knew we were marching in step. Occasionally you saw the name Yoav (son of the chief rabbi in Tunis who was killed in Porte de Vincennes) on a home print-out. Often, when the crowd passed the rows of police vans lining the route there was spontaneous applause. By the time participants arrived at the destination and solemnity was no longer in order, a group of Syrian oppositionists began chanting: ‘Je suis Syrien, je suis Charlie.’ There were large pencils everywhere in evidence, one mutating into a Kalashnikov, with a shoulder-butt and magazine clip. A desultory teenager – 15 at most – strolled beside his parents with a placard reading: ‘Culture murdered by barbarians.’ A niggling wind got up but the Place de la Nation was becoming a happy-sad party by the time I left, around seven. Everyone was Charlie, for a day.
After 9/11, Le Monde declared: ‘Nous sommes tous Américains.’ The love affair was short-lived: as soon as the French declined to join the war against Iraq, American pundits called them ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and French fries were renamed ‘freedom fries’. When Obama took office, relations warmed, but the tables were turned: the new administration in Washington shied from foreign adventures, while the Elysée adopted a muscular stance in Libya and Mali, and promoted a more aggressive response to Bashar al-Assad's assault on the Syrian rebellion. Neoconservatives who had vilified the surrender monkeys now looked at them with envy. Today a new cry can be heard among intellectuals in the US: ‘Je suis Charlie.’ It is a curious slogan, all the more so since few of the Americans reciting it had ever heard of, much less read, Charlie Hebdo before the 7 January massacre. What does it mean, exactly? Seen in the best light, it means simply that we abhor violence against people exercising their democratic right to express their views. But it may also be creating what the French would call an amalgame, or confusion, between Charlie Hebdo and the open society of the West. In this sense, the slogan ‘je suis Charlie’ is less an expression of outrage and sympathy than a declaration of allegiance, with the implication that those who aren't Charlie Hebdo are on the other side, with the killers, with the Islamic enemy that threatens life in the modern, democratic West, both from outside and from within.
At the time of writing, ten of Charlie Hebdo’s staff are reported dead following this morning’s attack on the paper’s offices off the Boulevard Richard Lenoir. They include the editor Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu) and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous). Two police officers are dead and five other people are seriously wounded. Only a narrow provincialism imagines that blasphemy is not a dangerous pastime. But Charlie Hebdo isn’t a cosy backwater: it has always blasphemed in earnest, as a vocational duty with high attendant risks; the signs are pretty clear so far that this terrible attack was carried out as a lesson of some kind.
Escalope de foie gras à la Cambacérès, roughly speaking, is a piece of toast covered with an apple purée and a slice of foie gras placed on top, the escalope already dusted with flour and briskly fried without oil or butter. A Madeira sauce – reduced beef stock with some of that fortified wine – is poured over it all. (A warning: this completely misrepresents the dish. There shouldn't be anything rough about it. A Madeira sauce isn’t something you can rustle up in moments.)
On 22 October, the French journalist and LGBT activist Caroline Fourest was convicted of slandering a young woman called Rabia Bentot during her weekly slot on France Culture, a public radio station. She has said she will appeal.
In case you haven’t been able to get your hands on Merci pour ce moment, Valérie Trierweiler’s sellout tract about President Hollande, herself and her feelings, here it is, accelerated and reduced in the first available English translation. I No choice but to take up the pen. I didn’t smash the crockery AS WAS ALLEGED when FH told me, on the bed, in the Elysée apartments, about Julie Gayet. Does a real man in charge of a country have an affair with an actress – that’s actress, not actor – when factories are closing and unemployment is rising?
The European elections in France have produced an ‘earthquake’ outcome, according to the new prime minister Manuel Valls, who stepped in after the recent municipal vote gave the Parti Socialiste the drubbing it deserved. Nine weeks later here’s another humiliation, despite President Hollande’s efforts to assure the French they’re heading for terra firma. Turns out there’s no such thing: the whole continent, according to Valls, is trembling in the aftermath; he clearly thinks the epicentre was somewhere in France, perhaps the Front National headquarters in Nanterre, where Marine Le Pen and her party broke out the champagne on Sunday night. The results: 25 per cent of the vote to the Front National, and 25 MEPs; 21 per cent to the right-wing UMP and 20 MEPs; 14 per cent for the Parti Socialiste and its campaign partner the Parti Radical de Gauche, which equals 13 MEPs. Where I live – a moderate, steady-eddie electorate – the FN came in on top with 30 per cent of the vote, followed by the UMP. Well behind both came the Union de la Gauche.
A hallucination, or maybe the nearest thing in politics to the pathetic fallacy: you come back after two weeks to a country where there’s just been an election – the extreme right has made a fair showing – and at once you read changes into the landscape. From the window of the train, ramshackle, low-income farmsteads that you’ve passed a hundred times take on a forbidding quality: there are voters in there, along with the livestock. The moribund hotel at the station where you’re waiting half an hour for a local connection now looks like it was requisitioned long ago as an HQ by sinister people who’ve been plotting for years, right under your nose. How come you never noticed?
‘There are two Trappes,’ Myriam said. ‘There’s the nice bit you’ve seen – with individual houses and gardens – and the bit where we live. If you ever want to come back I can show you around.’ Trappes is a suburban town 30 kilometres west of Paris. Last week, around a hundred women and men marched there in protest against islamophobia. A few days before, a 16-year-old girl wearing a hijab had reportedly been attacked by two men.
In August, Paris is empty. The roads are empty, the metro is empty, a few stoical employees are left to run offices where the phone doesn't ring. Le 15 août, the feast of the assumption, is a national holiday. Journalists worry they will run out of stories. On 5 August, Le Monderevealed that the High Council for Integration had recommended to the Observatory of Secularism that a headscarf ban be extended to French universities, ‘as a result of numerous disputes in all sectors of university life’. Le Figaroreported on its front page three days later that ‘78 per cent of French people oppose the wearing of the veil in university’. Manuel Valls, the interior minister, said that he found the HCI propositions ‘worthy of interest’. But the mission on secularism of the High Council for Integration, created by Nicolas Sarkozy in April 2010, has been dismissed.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Clément Méric, a 19-year-old university student, was punched by a skinhead wearing brass knuckles on rue Caumartin in Paris. He fell and his head hit a pole. He was declared dead the following afternoon.
A French tribunal decreed in February that all copies of Marcela Iacub’s latest book, Belle et Bête, carry a notice ‘informant le lecteur de ce que le livre porte atteinte à la vie privée de Dominique STRAUSS-KAHN’. Belle et Bête is written entirely in the second person, addressed to an unnamed man whose presidential aspirations had been brought to an end by a series of scandalous revelations starting with the accusations of a New York chambermaid. It begins ‘Tu étais vieux, tu étais gros, tu étais petit et tu étais moche,’ and continues in the same vein, recounting the narrator’s affair with the man, ‘le roi des cochons’, who likes to lick off her eye make-up and pour oil into her right ear so he can tongue it out. In another scene he asks her to suck his thumb while he talks on the phone with his wife. She ends their liaison, which does not involve more canonical forms of sexual intercourse, after he bites off her left ear and swallows it.
In the age of Bradley Manning and girls in Vegas with cameraphones, it seems quaint that France should be getting its political gossip from the literary invention of 1641, the roman à clef. Le Monarque, son fils, son fief: Hauts-de-Seine – chronique d'un règlement des comptes by Marie-Célie Guillaume has stayed on the non-fiction (nobody's fooled) bestseller lists since it was published earlier in the summer and has sold thirty thousand copies in France. Not content with having caught Sarkozy leering at the Israeli model Bar Rafaeli, complaining to Obama about Netanyahu, getting pissed with Putin, stealing a pen from Romania's president and calling a group of journalists his 'amis pédophiles', France wants to read about their ex-president accepting blowjobs for subsidies, stabbing political allies in the back and giving his son one of the most powerful positions in his old fiefdom.
In round one of the French presidentials the argument was about the new, dirty style of global capitalism. Could you talk to it or propitiate it or were governments now defenceless creatures in the wild, whose only option was to stay on the run? Once the fringe candidates who wanted France to turn and face it were eliminated, the debate should have moved on to France’s debt. Instead, Sarkozy and Hollande fought about the moral tone of Sarkozy’s presidency (money, friends, influence), ‘Republican values’, nuclear energy, immigration, identity and the ritual preparation of meat. With Hollande’s investiture next week, we’ll be back to the debt. We’re there already.
Sunday: by noon on voting day, the national turn-out promised to be even higher than it was in the first round. But it looked much slacker at the two polling stations I visited in Bordeaux, side by side, in separate classrooms at an elementary school in a modest part of town. At 7 p.m. there were still a few stragglers. By eight, when the clock stopped, there were only the officials and the volunteers for the count. One of them was keen to be in on the kill. She’d waited five years, she said with a broad smile. For what? To be heard, she said.
Provincial life begins where Paris ends. Beyond the provincial town is the green belt and beyond that the deeper countryside. The nation’s ailing villages, hundreds of them, stipple the hinterlands. I live in a sparsely populated rural area sustained by a firm that produces industrial valves and pumps (for ships, waste, petroleum, nuclear reactors and desalination plants). It has four branches in China. There are goats on the hillside just above the company premises, cattle in the meadows below.
Wednesday, early p.m.: New emails arrive from the UMP, asking for support. (I’ve been on various party mailing lists for a while.) Here’s one just in from Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Sarkozy’s spokesperson, a note about the rally in Paris on May Day. ‘It was a great, a beautiful day, thanks to you all.’ Now she wants us to tweet the televised debate – Hollande v. Sarkozy – which starts at 9 p.m. She signs off: ‘I’m counting on you.’
The Front National use May Day to commemorate Joan of Arc, a zealous patriot. In Paris they like to lay a wreath at the foot of a gilt bronze statue of the Maid on horseback in the place des Pyramides. For French politicians it pays to have Joan in your church and the FN were especially touchy this year about Sarkozy’s attempt to drag her away from the Le Pen ‘clan’ in January. I arrived in Paris moments too late for the wreath-laying yesterday. Not that it mattered: anyone who wants to see a far-right politician laying a wreath in honour of Joan can watch propaganda footage of Pétain in the bombed city of Rouen – hit by British and American ‘terrorist raids’ – a few weeks before D-Day.
Four hundred up for the King James Bible and David Cameron has this to say: Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France. Why? Because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too. And because many of the values of a Christian country are shared by people of all faiths and indeed by people of no faith at all. The French say bad things about our economy. We respond that we’re not the sort to sneer at people for their religion or tell them what they shouldn’t wear. Ours is a big tent full of believers and unbelievers, with an altar at the far end, the bailiffs at the entrance and Group 4 Security on the perimeter. Theirs is a profane republic, with an army of sapeurs-pompiers hosing down the bright flame of multiculturalism wherever it appears.
Edward Jay Epstein’s piece on Dominque Strauss-Kahn and the Sofitel affair for the New York Review of Books was in such demand at the weekend that the website was often inaccessible with the weight of traffic. It is a clinical narrative of events on 14 May between 10.07 a.m. New York time, when Strauss-Kahn put in a call to his wife, and 4.45 p.m., when he was summoned off his flight to Europe by police at JFK. It lends support to the theory, still popular in France, that the likely challenger to Sarkozy’s presidency was set up in Manhattan by friends of the incumbent.
L’état, c’est Jacques. In a moving peroration at the end of the ex-president’s recent corruption trial, his lawyer Georges Kiejman declared: ‘You can’t drag down Jacques Chirac, who embodied France for twelve years, without dragging down France itself.’ The jowly satyr, pronounced too gaga to appear in court, makes for one of Marianne’s unlikelier incarnations. But Kiejman’s cri de coeur captures the fusion of executive, judicial and administrative power in French politics. Fuelling the process is, of course, wonga.
As Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s humiliation in New York levels out into web-chat and news about the news, the undead are on the move. You saw nothing with fangs, in a cape, hovering in the near distance when the fourth estate held up the mirror to human nature in the wake of the gruesome Sofitel encounter? That’s because it didn’t cast a reflection. The internet, which never sleeps, has made it clearer now: the real beast in this story is racism. Earlier this month, SlateAfrique asked a range of punters and luminaries in the US and France what would have happened if Nafissatou Diallo, the Sofitel maid, had been ‘a blue-eyed blonde’. Two Diallos, one of them a cousin, another who runs a café in Harlem, were confident things would have come out differently. Diallo 1: ‘They wouldn’t have thrown her in the dustbin the way they did.’ Diallo 2: ‘If she’d been white and Jewish, she wouldn’t have had that kind of treatment.’ And later: ‘The whole Jewish lobby is behind it.’
I recently got back from la Creuse in central France, where the annual local treasure hunt has been glossed by an insanely elaborate, cross-disciplinary polytext. The instructions for ‘Sherlock Holmes enquête à Boussac’ come on a double-sided sheet of A3 done up to look like an old newspaper, l’Eclaireur. About 15 square inches of it are taken up by the rules; the rest – six fat columns of newsprint (c.3300 words) – is devoted to explaining the game’s back story. Holmes and Watson have been summoned to the small Creusois town of Boussac by a painter friend, who has been tipped off by one of his more famous painter friends (Gauguin) that there’s buried treasure in the region.
When do empires die? The late François-Xavier Verschave, economist and founder of the pressure group Survie, coined the term Françafrique to denote the Fifth Republic’s suffocating relation to its former African colonies. The pun – France a fric – was intended. With Jacques Chirac on trial for municipal corruption while mayor of Paris, the Franco-Lebanese lawyer Robert Bourgi has alleged that the ex-president and his Gaullist sidekick Dominique de Villepin helped themselves to some $20 million in bungs from African dictators between 1995 and 2005. Both men have denied the allegations and issued writs. Chirac has pleaded memory loss to avoid having to show his face at the corruption trial, but remembers enough to know that Bourgi’s allegations are false in all details.
French law requires that a purebred dog or cat – that is, an animal belonging to one of the breeds listed in the Livre des origines français or the Livre officiel des origins felines – be given a name beginning with a prescribed letter of the alphabet, determined by the year of its birth, rather like the way British car registration plates used to be organised.
Here is a confusing parable for prospective IMF staffers: Chapter 1. A wealthy entrepreneur in a large, resource-rich country sees an expensive toy and sets his heart on it. With close ties to the regime and a seat in the dusty lower chamber of the assembly, he swings a loan from the public coffers. A little later he becomes minister for such-and-such, but his toy turns out to be high maintenance. As it threatens to eat into his personal fortune, the big man harrumphs and leans on the state agency that lent him the money in the first place to buy it off him. Moral: Patronage and corruption: the state as an open goal for plundering elites. Punish and constrain. Chapter 2. The agency, which now has a controlling interest in the toy, sells it on for roughly twice as much as the big man owes. Moral: Success! In the murk of public ownership, a dazzling shaft of light, originating from within! Rewards for enterprising dissidents! The big man is history.
Sunday. My landlady accosts me: have you heard what’s happened in America? ‘Histoire de fesses!’ She is agitated. Whose business is it that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF and hot tip for the Elysée in 2012, has lunged at an employee of Sofitel in midtown Manhattan? What do they think they’re doing arresting him? Who was she, after all? A chambermaid! So, it’s an engraving in an 18th-century romance for gentlemen. Or if you read the New York Post, a ‘perv bust’, following ‘alleged sodomy of hotel maid’. Not such bad news for the right in France, despite the national disgrace.
Last week Chantal Brunel, the right-wing UMP deputy for Seine-et-Marne, told the press that it was time to stick immigrants back in the boat. She was thinking of the large numbers, mostly Tunisian, who came ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa in February. But her real worry was the fizzing popularity of the Front National – a champagne bubble bath lovingly filled by the pollsters for the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, in which she’s continued to bask as the rest of the political class queue up for cold showers.
The two agreements struck by Britain and France on defence co-operation this week have not brought citizens out on the streets of Paris. There were worries – expressions of anger even – about Sarkozy’s decision to take France back into Nato’s integrated command structure last year, but this is different. The fresh-faced Cameron and the embattled, less rosy-cheeked Sarkozy are like two sons whose parents have frittered away their family fortunes: they must now find common cause and drastic economies, which means moving in together if they wish to remain in the ritzy part of town reserved for big military spenders.
A grim truce prevails in my commune, in South-West France, between the travellers who live here – ‘gens du voyage’, ‘Tziganes’, ‘Gitans’ – and the indigenous French. The expulsions (none in these parts) have changed little. Like most truces that work, it’s founded on lack of trust and there are any number of assertions doing the rounds. A favourite is that out of fear for their own families, police don’t intervene when crimes are committed by travellers. Last year I was tending the bar at a fundraiser when a fight erupted at the door. A friend was badly injured. As it happened, and it often does, the incident involved travellers. The gendarmes were slow to fetch up but quick, in the weeks that followed, to pursue their suspects.
From an interview to be published in the next issue of the 'LRB': One of the most expensive programmes in France, the retirement system for railway workers, was established in the years after World War Two. Its powerful Communist trade union negotiated a very good deal, particularly for train drivers. They could retire at the age of 54 on full salary until their death. At the time it was a very reasonable deal. These men normally started working when they were 13, and they had been working on steam trains all their life, which was physically difficult and dangerous work. When they reached 54, they were exhausted. Their life expectancy after that was about eight years. The pension was therefore not all that expensive for the state. Today their sons and grandsons have the same deal. But they leave school at 16, they go to work on the TGVs, where they sit on comfortable chairs, air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, and the most demanding thing they do is push a button; they retire at 54 on full salary and their life expectancy is another 24 years.
Last Thursday Nicolas Sarkozy gave a long speech at La Chapelle-en-Vercors. It was supposed to be in support of farming, but Sarkozy turned on his heel at the cowshed and launched into a lively exposition of French identity, republican identity, and the identity of everything and nothing. That’s a winning formula. Or it was in 2007 when he campaigned for the presidency on the same combination. It’s probably an opener for the regional elections in March 2010. Sarkozy may well be drawing a pension by the time anyone can say what this great piece of oratory about culture and values really adds up to. Is it worth the struggle? For those who don’t want to find out the hard way, here’s a 17-point résumé: 1. You’re really French when you grasp that the Girondins and the Jacobins were two sides of the same coin. 2. Yes, coins.
'There is,' the BBC reports, 'a deepening row in France over the alleged lengths gone to by President Nicolas Sarkozy's aides in order to conceal his short stature.' But it's not just about height. General de Gaulle was well over six feet tall. At the liberation parade in Paris in 1944, de Gaulle was heard whispering to an aide that the other officers and cilivians leading the march down the Champs-Elysées should allow the general to go forward on his own. 'Back a little,' the general said. It wasn't as if he didn't already stand out.
I paid my electricity bill today, and spent some time trying to work out how much of my bill goes to the French government to defray the costs of running that large, complex and hexagonal country. I don't live in France. I live in London and, like millions of other Britons, buy my electricity from EDF, aka Electricité de France, which snapped up three of England's privatised electricity minnows in 2002. Privatisation, a policy supposed to liberate us from the burden of allegedly inefficient state-owned industries, has led to more than five million households and businesses in this country buying electricity and gas from a state-owned industry in that country.
Any self-respecting electorate in an EU member-state prefers a presidential to a European parliamentary. In France, enthusiasm and interest were at fever pitch. The challenger to the incumbent looked impressive. According to Le Figaro, he was a winner with younger voters, and an instinctive liberal in ways that matter – an aerosol solution to the fug in the country's political institutions and the clammy hold of the Republic on the lives of its citizens. His wife was said to be 'a star' in the political firmament. If the French had been eligible to vote in Iran, they'd have turned out in force for Hossein Mousavi and his non-singing, non-dancing not Carla Bruni. And they'd have wanted to be on the streets of Tehran denouncing the rigged results.