France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

November 16, 2009

Identité Nationale: Déja vu

C’est typique. Quand les choses vas pas bien, voila que les diregeants veut qu’on change le sujet. It’s typical: When things aren’t going well, political leaders try to change the subject. And too often, this amounts to trying to re-direct our attention from themselves to ‘them’ — the foreigner. Voila que three major figures from the governing UMP party find themselves either sentenced to prison (Charles Pasqua, senator and former interior minister), awaiting a verdict (former prime minister Dominique Villepin) or soon to be tried (former president Jacques Chirac) — and just four months before regional elections in which the UMP would like to take at least some of the regions (20 of 22 of which are currently controlled by the Socialists) — and President Sarkozy… tries to change the subject. And the national, government-run media more or less complies, notwithstanding a few commentators who question his motives. Of course, we have learned some things since 1940, so we no longer say, “Look at them, they’re different” (well, except in the case of the bourka), but frame the question as “What does it mean to be French?” or “Identité national,” the implication being that some of us foreigners identify more with the countries we came from than the one that — graciously, it needs to be said — has welcomed us.

I’m not against valuing French traditions and values — indeed they are the main reason I’m here. Even the main reason I stay here. And I’m not just talking about the French cultural icons in film, music, literature and art many of whom I’ve worshipped all my life, but basic political, social, and moral values and practices.
Just to give you one example: In the last major elections here, for the European Parliament, 26 parties contested for the French vote. 26! And they all had more or less equal access to the public. For each election, metal panels go up before schools and other public places, each of which features a poster from from a party. So in the European Parliamentary elections, the anti-Zionist party was placed on equal footing with the UMP. Olivier Besancenot, leader of the New Anti-capitalist Party, is regularly included in televised debates. (It’s no accident that in the last presidential election, disputed among 11 parties — 11 parties! — Besancenot got 5 percent of the vote. In the U.S., by contrast, the two main parties, and their allies in the corporate controlled media, do everything they can to exclude other parties from the debate. Some television networks even exclude too liberal Democratic candidates from presidential and senatorial debates. So in contrast to Besancenot, U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader — hardly a radical by even U.S. standards — got 1 percent after effectively being blocked from the national corporate-controlled media.

So I absolutely agree that those who come here should prize French tradition, language, culture, lifestyle, and values. I don’t even disagree that a reasoned debate on what it means to be French, and to live in France, and French values, would be useful. That’s not the question. I return to motive, timing, and historical context. When political leaders start talking about national identity — a conversation a subset of which is usually ‘they’re not like us’ — during a time when things aren’t going well, we need to be alarmed. And in France, there’s an additional particularity: I would argue that a knowledge of French history includes awareness of the chapter of that history in which the Vichy government, in the name of France, did what no other occupied country did in not just allowing the Germans to round up Jews and deport them to the death camp, but in many times taking the initiative in IDENTIFYING who was Jewish and having the French police do the rounding up. What made this easier for them to do was the idea that, “Well, they’re not French anyway. They are the other. They act different. They look different.”

This past Saturday in Perigueux, the highlight of the second Salon régional Memoire Résistance et Deportation was a projection and debate, featuring the live participation of Holocaust survivor Marie-José Chambart de Lauwe, who was deported to Ravensbruck, and the film “La deportation des Femmes.” Most of the stories were horrible: Chambart de Lauwe recalled that sometimes new arrivals were marched directly from the train to the gas chambers, without any ‘selection,’ and that each morning, the women had to race from their sleeping quarters outside the camp to the gates of the camp. Any that fell were bludgeoned to death immediately. Newborns were simply thrown against the wall until they were dead. But at least one of the stories was inspirational — and, in the current context, instructive. One of the markers of national identity suggested by some has been the obligatory daily singing of the Marseillaise in schools. In the film shown Saturday, one of the deported women recalled that when her group arrived at Auschwitz — after, no doubt, being localised by French Vichy authorities and rounded up by French policemen, many of whom no doubt justified their actions because ‘they’re not French, anyway’ — as they were entering the camp the women spontaneously broke out in the Marseillaise. France had sent them to their deaths, but they still sang for France — and as Frenchwomen.

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April 30, 2009

A Paris

Sous le ciel de Paris
S’envole une chanson
Elle est née d’aujourd’hui
Dans le coeur d’un garçon.

“Sous le ciel de Paris,” lyrics Jean Dréjac

I just looked up the word ‘accablement’ to be absolutely sure I understood the implications of host Ali Badou assigning that trait to the ‘patrimoine’ or heritage and history of Paris on today’s France Culture morning program, whose focus was the future of “Grande Paris,” a project for which the state has gathered 10 proposals from ten architects. Here’s what my Roberts-Collins says: “despondency, depression (oppression), exhaustion.” Mais je reve! Car pour moi, the patrimoine of Paris has the opposite effect. It lifts me every time.

I stroll the Grands Boulevards and suddenly their present grime, the garbage on the street is obscured by a vision of Pissarro’s “Boulevard Montmatre on a Winter Morning,” as he saw it from a window of the Hotel Russe at the turn of the 19th/20th century, accompanied by Montand singing their eloge in the piss-poor 1950s. I sit down on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis, facing Notre Dame and watching the Sun glint off the dappled Seine and suddenly I hear Greco or Francois singing “Sous le Ciel de Paris.” I gaze dreamily across the River at the Rive Gauche, and there I see Kelly courting Caron at the exact spot where they had their dance in “An American in Paris.” The airs of some of this music drifts over from the bridge joining the Ile St. Louis to the Ile de Cité and I make sure, when I leave, to drop a Euro in the case of the man playing the accordion — who seems more likely to be there in cold weather than hot. I’m deflated if, on the way to my nightly picnic on the Ile, my bouquiniste friend Luques’s stand is closed, because the bouqunistes, who struggle — man, do they struggle — they, too are the patrimoine. I climb up to Montmartre on the 14th of July and it’s not the pomp recalling the Revolution that stirs me, but the strains of Satie I hear coming from the single-etage on a winding backstreet where he composed that music.

But when I hear the host of the morning program on the national radio chain which in theory should be placing the most value on French culture describe his own patrimoine, his own heritage as imposing an ‘accablement’; when I hear the program give free reign to a snotty Belgian cartoonist to sniff that ‘history takes too much place’ in Paris, when I hear the program give space to one of the very same (self-interested) architects to proclaim that “that which interests me is the patrimoine of today”– ignoring that patrimoine is not something you buy like a fast-food hamburger and fast track, but something acquired with the richness of history and the events and people which animate it — when I hear all this I wonder if the cultural elite of Paris realize the jewel they have in their hands. They often like to describe Paris as “a museum.” Exactement. Mais c’est une musee vivant, avec, as Montant chants, tant de choses. Everyone wants to leave their mark, I know; but in doing so, do the architects, political and professional, of “Grande Paris” risk erasing their own history? (Roland Castro, the architect accabling his own tradition on France Culture this morning, also apparently has three philosophers on his team; do historians have their place in the equipe?)

Mais si! Il y a une patrimoine, et c’est ca qui fait de Paris une grande ville.

PS Another thing Mr. Castro tried to obscure this morning was that Paris’s eternal gift is its light. So the problem people have with the sky-scrapers whose potential virtue he was extolling is not just that they can be ugly to view or stifling to work and live in, but that they block the Sun and, in Paris, would cast serious shadows over the City of Light.

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