When I lived in Paris (1986), young Algerians, especially men, were the most despised members of the city’s society. They hung out, smoking cigarettes on streets and trying to chat up girls in public plazas like Trocadero because what else could they do? No one would hire them. Neighbourhoods like Clichy, where the North and Central African immigrant population was high, were scary and considered unsafe at night, in the same way that parts of New York City at around the same time were considered dangerous at night. I was warned to avoid the Algerian men because they might be pickpockets, and to ignore (“don’t encourage”) the ‘gypsies’ –Arabic speaking women begging outside banks and in the Metro. Nevertheless, I saw many people gave them cash, and many of us living there participated in anti-racism events, just as much as we visited galleries and museums and bookstore-cafes. It was a complicated, beautiful, confusing, compelling place. Most certainly a Moveable Feast, as Hemmingway called it, Paris has continued to nourish me ever since.
When I was last in France (2013), in the south the contrast between communities like Arles, Aix and Orange, and Beziers and Marseilles was striking: The local economy was clearly suffering. It was palpable where the Front National and Marine LePen were strong, and where those of Algerian/North African (multi-generational) ethnicity were discriminated against. It reminded me at the time of the work of anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, who wrote about the rise of French fascism in the south of France, and of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who studied both post-war Algeria and French notions of identity and ‘distinctions’ between classes of people.
Even though there have been major attempts to counter racism from within French society —Touche pas à mon pote for example– as anthropologist Keith Hart describes in his open letter to his daughter (Nov 14’15), France laid the groundwork for radicalization of Daesh/ISIS/ISIL type terrorism with its foreign policies and unacknowledged role as a colonial aggressor. This includes massacres in Mali and Vichy, militarism and colonization in the Pacific and Central Africa, and partnering with Americans in attacks against Islam-dominant areas, including the current campaign against Syria. Various domestic policies, like banning non-officially recognized francophone names and face veils, while intending to support secularism, have actually not helped. Sadly, l’horreur of Paris 13 Nov. 2015 will, probably, lead to greater political support for the hawks: the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, pro-militaristic, pro-fascist and neo-Nazi elements in France and other parts of the EU. We will hear that it is necessary to relinquish freedoms in order to protect liberté, and solidarité will be purchased with rhetorics of anti-immigration and victim-blaming.
Poor Paris! A city which so celebrates life and light, but has suffered so much violence and death –from the Viking invasions, to the French Revolution to the Nazi occupation to the Student Riots to Charlie Hebdo and now the Bataclan.
Poor Paris! A city which showcases beauty and art, whose striking urban plan –streets running into and from central intersections like multipointed stars– was intended by planner Haussmann in part to allow for policing of mobs and military defense of multiple zones from a single position. That beautiful plan, which means each intersection provides locations for monuments and vistas to others, required massive expropriation and depopulation of low-income communities.
Pauvre Paris. The city known for love of life and beauty, as devoted to bookstores, music, philosophy and feminism as to fashion, capital of a nation whose motto espouses fraternité, egalité and liberté, is built on a seamy, bloody, history of destruction, discrimination and the profits of colonialism.
What does it say about me, about we, who knowing all this, still mourn for Paris-the-place as well as murdered and shocked Parisiens-the-dwellers? For me it says that the ideals of fraternité, égalité, liberté, des belles lettres and des beaux arts are *important*. Mythic they may be in much of everyday reality, but they are important. And for that–not the colonialism in Africa, not the Nuclear testing in the Pacific, not the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, not France the militaristic hawk– but for that Other, mythic, romantic, ideal of love, life, light, books, thought, beauty, art, democracy, liberty, fraternity, equality; for that dove, that moveable feast, I say #ViveLaFrance.