A last-second report from Paris

Today’s the last day of a two-month research trip to Paris. It’s been a great success in most ways, but a blogging disaster– it’s almost four weeks since my last post. That’s not at all what I was expecting. The plan was, with teaching on hold for a few months, I could refocus on blogging-type writing, especially since it’s a great moment for thinking about the contemporary scene. I don’t know if France is ready to compete with our own home-grown US craziness, but it’s really been stepping up, with one of its all-time wildest presidential elections. I described the candidate line-up a few weeks ago– it includes one crook (until the crookedness came out, he was the traditional values guy), one hard-line back-to-the-fifties (or maybe the forties…) type, two socialists (one a nice guy, the other a fire-breather), and a dynamic, appealing, youthful, content-free ex-banker. Since it’s 2017, the odds-makers have their money on Mr No-Content. (In my last post, I had the hard-line leftist as a no-hope candidate, but he’s been moving up fast, and has a good chance to finish at least third. That’s pretty typical of the crazy surprises the election has provided.)

But except for that one post, I couldn’t get myself focused on writing about the France scene. It’s partly because I got really into my research project, so I didn’t have a lot of energy for other writing, and partly the high-intensity Paris doings, the seminars, concerts, seeing old friends, and such like. Even walking down the street is a high intensity activity here.

But it’s also partly because I’ve just had trouble figuring out what’s going on here, or at least I don’t feel the confidence I’ve sometimes felt that I understand what I’m seeing.

The look is pretty much what it’s always been, for better and for worse. On the bad news side, there’s Paris’s heavy-duty ethnic segregation. The Château Rouge neighborhood where I usually stay seems even more heavily-immigrant (mainly from Africa) than last year, and it has the same rowdy, mystery-filled street scenes it’s had since I first came here, in 2011. Then you cross the city, and you find yourself in an almost completely white neighborhood; even in those, by North American standards the streets are packed, but neither the numbers nor the noise compares to Château Rouge. There are also mainly South Asian and mainly East Asian neighborhoods, and they don’t get the model minority benefits they get in North America. Last week the cops killed a fifty-something Chinese immigrant in his own apartment, after busting down his door; he was holding a pair of scissors, which they mistook for a knife….

On the other hand, the delightful sides of Paris life are also going strong as ever.   No matter what the ethnicity or even the immigration status, everyone takes delight in speaking well, and all the minor-league daily interactions take on a fun quality. The café waiters still bring high level theatricality to serving you (see here for the J.-P. Sartre take on this), the intellectuals still have the Paris intellectual look; the cafés and restaurants all seem full– clearly a lot of good times are being had. In the shops, interaction rituals still surround every act of buying. Nobody’s hyper-friendly, in fact the shopping scene can look pretty severe, but then nobody’s pushing you out the door with a purchase, either– endless, dithering consumer questions don’t frazzle anyone. It’s hard to describe, because there’s a also lot of insane rushing around here. But the basic mood is still that everyone has more time to spare than we Americans are used to. Despite all the strains Paris life imposes, the basic feeling is of people who want to be where they are, and even take pleasure in having all those other people packed in around them. Like the theatrical waiter, all sorts of people here enjoy the “I’m a Parisian” role.

So in all those ways, the basic story is that not much seems to be changing– it’s the same old Paris.

But I also got a sense from this visit that the anger levels are higher than I’ve seen before, and it made me wonder how well the “we’re all-Parisians” thing can hold up. For one thing the presidential voting is looking wilder than in previous years. I already mentioned how the hard-left guy is moving up, and so also is the hard-right candidate, Marine LePen– it’s even conceivable they’ll face each other in the final election round. It’s extremely unlikely that there’ll be a finalist candidate from either of the two standard-issue political parties, the Socialists (who ran the government the last five years and are wildly detested) and the center-right Les Républcains, a new brand name for the political group that was in power the five years before that (and actually for most years since 1958).

Just like with Brexit and Trump, this year basically nobody wants the standard political flavors– they’re pissed off enough to try just about anything else.

Also like in the US, the lesser evil argument seems to be losing some of its grip on people. In the circles I frequent, of course, it’s the hard right that’s the big evil, and having them come to power really will be big trouble– the French constitution gives the president tons of power. But I had several people tell me, there are some of the other candidates they still wouldn’t vote for, no matter what disasters abstention might bring. The statistics go the same way. Whatever else this election brings, it’s apparently going to set records for the number of people who just say no to all the above and stay home.

If I were in the prediction biz, I’d encourage worry that the polls don’t take the abstention mood sufficiently seriously, and that the hard right candidate has a more serious shot than the statistics say.

In the background to all this is another reality that I never really picked up on until this visit: despite all the visible comforts and pleasures of Paris life, incomes here are really low. Of course the estimates vary depending on who’s talking, but one respectable outfit puts the average salary after taxes at about $2,000 a month– and these aren’t minimum wage jobs, it’s what teachers and civil servants are making. Remember, that’s for a city where you can easily pay $300,000 for a one-bedroom apartment in a sketchy neighborhood, and where nice, non-flashy places are heading toward the million-dollar level.

It means there’s another level to the Paris theater feeling, which connects it to some of the other nice places I occasionally visit:  people aren’t just enacting being Parisians, they’re also enacting leading ordinary lives, at a time when ordinary itself is actually a privilege.  Paris does better than most places at making that work, but I don’t see how that keeps working over the long haul.

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