Special Report

A Busy August in Paris

History doesn't need a vacation here.

By 8.19.08

PARIS -- My friend Antoine is very much a man of affairs or, in French, un homme d'affaires. This means in plain English that he is a businessman and a damn good one, buying, selling, trading, investing, even as he organizes little companies on the outer limits of innovation and takes them public, cedes the reins, begins anew. He is a man after George Gilder's heart. He is rich. He is generous.

Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the Republic, likes people like Antoine, whom he considers a credit to France and when he lies in bed unable to sleep because of what he knows about the country he leads he probably breaks out in a sweat and thinks, "Antoine!" and calms down with a mental note to call him in the morning, if morning ever comes. Truth is, whether they, themselves, know each other I do not know and have not asked. I will when I need an in for writing the definitive poop on this man, but which one do you think I consider more interesting?

At any rate, President Sarkozy has had a busy summer, winning an approval of his proposed reforms of the constitution of the Fifth Republic by the slimmest margin in the legislature (Assembly plus Senate), kicking off the Mediterranean Union, and being received with honors in Beijing despite having said mean things about the Han leaders a few months ago, relative to their treatment of certain smaller fry. It appears they are all pals again, the formidable French and the mighty Chinese, two races that have much in common. I once suggested to Antoine he find a way to get French chefs to emulate Chinese fast food and take it global. He said, "I don't do kitchens." He was right, too. Chinese fast food has been uneatable for at least 25 years and with French food, it has got to the point where you are taking your life, or at least your guts, in your hands if you walk into the corner bistrot -- if there still is a corner bistrot -- and ask for a simple meal. Luckily for me, la Petite Perigourine down the street at the corner of the rue des Ecoles -- yo, this is not product placement -- is one of the few left in this city that is the way they used to be, you can walk in and shake hands with the patron and nod at the garcon and whatever he brings you to eat you eat and whatever he pours into your glass you drink and you go home a couple hours later after discussing the elections -- in Argentina -- with the patron and you are satisfied. But this is rare.

TO BE HONEST, I am unsure about this constitutional reform. De Gaulle's constitution has been reformed several times, and it seems that in this latest stab at it, they actually devolved power away from the executive toward the parliament, which does not make sense since it was Sarkozy's idea and the opposition voted against. However, I think the point was to move in the same direction all Sarkozy's reforms tend, namely toward making people more responsible for what they do. He wants, notably, the president's war and peace decisions -- which de Gaulle felt should be the exclusive domain of the president -- to be submitted to parliament. Accountability and all that -- the buzzword of U.S. public education these last few years, and we know just what good that did, principals faking test scores and third grade classrooms becoming cram boxes. But seriously, Sarkozy's big idea is that there are too few Antoine's in France. Make them accountable and give them incentives -- money -- to be accountable, and the country will take off. I remember a Hudson Institute report from the 1980s, maybe even earlier, titled, "The French Takeoff." No one else does, not even, as best I know, its authors.

They did take off, however, as usual, in successive waves, as soon as the first glimmers of summer arrived. This is in fact the principal reason I come to Paris in August: it's nearly empty. People complain that the past two or three summers have been pourri, rotten, in the northern half of the country. It has not stopped anyone from getting into his vehicle on the dot of the hour work stopped (early) and getting into backed up traffic for hundreds of miles. A few summers ago when they had an unusual killer heat wave, cases were reported of people refusing to turn around or make detours to rescue their a.r.'s, because it interfered with their six weeks of conges payes, and the aged relatives, my friends, they died.

In fact, there is something in the air that is different this summer. Someone pointed out to me that notwithstanding the kinds of people who live in the neighborhoods where the garbage is collected regularly, even when, as now, they are not around, something like half the French salaried class, which is most people since, as per above, there are only a handful of Antoine's in this country despite Sarkozy's encouragement, half the people, I say, are not going anywhere this summer. Downturn in the economy, price of petrol, war fever -- I don't know. What I do notice is that in the suburb which I visit during France's magical shrinking work hours (actually, legislation passed recently allowing them to expand back beyond 35 hours weekly, though as it is said, certain conditions may apply so read the small print), I notice a lot of veiled women and even some in chadors, those mysterious outfits they wear. Some of them you cannot even see the eyes -- large, slanted, black, tempting -- because they are wearing (designer) sunglasses, unless they are knockoffs of same.

Now a few years ago when I came out in these parts on this seasonal job, they did not. I mean the women did not make this particular fashion statement, certainly not in such numbers. This suburb is fairly typical in that it has on one side of the tracks nice little houses, some with small courts or yards and a little garage and it's the traditional old fashioned middle class life style, very comfy, with a small downtown main street with all the traditional French shops that all close down as tradition warrants at lunch time and reopen in the late afternoon and it's just the way it was, always. In the bistrots here you have rather better odds if you order blind than in the Paris ones.

ON THE OTHER SIDE of the tracks, the people first of all are darker and speak guttural languages and at the butcher across the street from me, who began as a whole in the wall with a refrigerator and a delivery truck and now looks more like a supermarket, it smells somewhat like the kosher shops I used to know on Second Avenue and the residential streets are visibly less prosperous. On some blocks rise what we call projects and they call cites. The young men look lean and hard and the young women used to look gorgeous. Now you can only guess. On the other hand, the young women who looked gorgeous, they seem to all be downtown, I mean in town. You see them in the Paris neighborhoods where young people hang out, and this summer, as I was saying, more of them are (still) around than usual. Dressed in jeans and cutoffs and the flimsy tops with layers of accidentally on purpose exposed lingerie favored by pretty young things the world over, they add a dash of color downtown Paris's austere and ancient streets. They want to be noticed and they sure are. What I think is happening is what we used to call miscegenation.

Mind, I am not just thinking -- Paris is Paris and the evidence is plain enough on boulevards and park benches and the terraces of the cafes that are still in business. Some of these girls are entering the mainstream. For years observers have said that the instruction kids receive in public schools would offer girls a way out of their traditional situations. It became apparent throughout the 1990s and now it is becoming, I dare say, a banality, as they do well and enter university and become lawyers or graduates of the grandes ecoles that produce France's elites. Whether Sarkozy's reforms have a chance or are merely an example of a brave man spitting in the wind depends, to a surprising degree, on this, because your typical French French person, girl or boy, seems too intent on immediately entering the leisure class to take part even part-time in running the country.

To the extent all this depends on education makes it, you might say, a race against time. On paper, you go to school and get a degree and make your way and become a minister. Two of Sarkozy's top people, the minister of Justice, Rachida Dati, and the minister of social affairs, Fadela Amara, are girls from the wrong side of the tracks in the 'burbs (as we would say, inner cities) who made good against incredible odds (Sarkozy himself, though he grew up in a fancy neighborhood, came from a broken home and his mother struggled), and not the least of these odds were that the boys did what they could to stand in their way. This is why, in fact, Ms. Amara, now 40, was the founder of an organization, Ni putes ni soumises, a civil rights organization whose position was that it is not in the natural or legal order of things that girls of the African background should have no other choices but to end up in the sack of the homeboys or at the service of their husbands, who might or might not be homeboys grown a little older.

But the way it works on paper and the way it works in real life are not the same. The family pressures against which these kids had to rebel remain formidable, and just to add to the mix, the public schools are falling down. The grand old ecoles de la Republique, which had formed generation after generation of white French kids whose boys, and this is important, were no less traditionally brutal in their attitudes toward the female of the species than these imports from the former empire, caved to a whole catalogue of cultural and political pressures. What had been a machine to civilize and integrate the French working class -- half of whom did not even speak French in the late 19th century -- became instead a bastion of reactionary tribalism.

KEEP IN MIND the boys had to fight against this too. Most adolescent boys are stupid -- case in point, right here -- but they know hanging out with the gangs lowers your chances of having a life after your teens. The fact that immigrant boys understand this is shown by the fantastic entrepreneurial spirit of young African males. For every Antoine in this country, there must be 20 Ahmed's and Amadou's.

In France at least 10 percent of the population is of immigrant background, and more are pouring in by the day and there is the rapidly spreading phenomenon of boys and girls falling in love without regard to national origin. So it is really very simple. It is either the end, or the beginning.

Sarkozy's reform program is a bold gamble on the latter. It is not true he had no choice. His predecessor had a choice, and the choice was to cave. Sarkozy wants the schools to do their job and he wants French foreign policy to not only hold the line, but help the rest of the free world (guess who be dat) push it back. The Mediterranean Union, which exists only in dreams and drawing boards and at appallingly showy and expensive and corrupt conferences such as the one that kicked it off last July 14, is, everyone says, doomed to failure.

In a subsequent dispatch I shall explain why, and why, as usual, it is quite likely everyone is mistaken. While it is of course possible the whole thing will just fizz out, or be torpedoed by events beyond the Mediterranean such as World War III (take that, Norman!), it is arguably the most important French foreign policy initiative since the linked decisions, half a century ago, to abandon Algeria and give up the Empire. And it is founded, as was Charles de Gaulle's foreign policy, on one idea and only one: grandeur et continuite de la France.

Roger Kaplan is the author of Conservative Socialism: The Decline of Radicalism and the Triumph of the Left in France.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.