Paris — April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, but also cold and windy, and sometimes it rains. Pas de difference! Paris is still enchanting, while the Parisians themselves, once famous for their rudeness and disdain for those who did not speak their language properly, are now nice to strangers. Obviously one must not make too make too much of this. The Parisian motorist is, as always, a menace, and since queues are virtually unknown here, there is still pushing and shoving. But the remarkable thing is how many Parisians now speak, even eagerly, at least some rudimentary English. Twice in cafes I have ordered coffee in my execrable French, and been told, “No problem.”
Meanwhile you enjoy Paris in the time-honored way. Mostly you walk with no destination in mind. Paris — all broad boulevards and twisty little streets — is a serendipiter’s delight. So you walk, and then sit in a café, and drink coffee and smoke. Everyone smokes, and Paris is free of smoke Nazis telling you to put it out. There is also the food. Somewhere in Paris you may get a bad meal, but you would have to look hard to find it.
And there are also, of course, the chic and attractive women. This year they favor pashmina scarves and shoes with pointed toes. As usual the chic women are mostly in black, although chartreuse and burnt orange are now creeping in.
There is an additional bonus in Paris this year. The intellectuals and members of the chattering classes are having a nervous breakdown. Their public agonizing is intense, and they seem to think the fate of the Republic is at stake.
Their crisis began on April 21, when Jean-Marie Le Pen ran well behind incumbent President Jacques Chirac, but just in front of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential election. Jospin is a socialist, although apparently he was not socialist enough, and many of his old supporters deserted him and voted instead for the Trotskyist candidate. Their suffering has been intense ever since.
Only the first two finishers in the first round qualified for the presidential run-off on May 5, and when they voted for the Trotskyist they allowed Le Pen to make the run-off.
Mon Dieu, if only they had known.
Le Pen, in fact, is an authentic right-wing thug. He dismisses the Holocaust as inconsequential, and while he may not be in Heinrich Himmler’s class, it would be reasonable to compare him with the Brown Shirt Ernest Roehm. Anyway he is not a nice man, and while he does not have the slightest chance of beating Chirac in the run-off, the mere fact that he is in the run-off gives the intellectuals and members of the chattering classes something to do.
They agonize, they worry, they keep turning the issue around. How could such a thing have happened? On Monday Le Monde, the prestigious center-left daily, devoted all of its front-page stories except one — a pop music review — to Le Pen under a big all-purpose headline: “What will the extreme right wing do if…” This was followed by 22 pages inside the paper with nothing else on them except Le Pen, the crisis and the election.
Ah, but yet. The intellectuals and the members of the chattering classes seem to have a dirty little secret. None of them are likely to admit it, not even to one another, but they are enjoying themselves very much. I was nowhere near the big anti-Le Pen demonstration here last Friday, but I saw it on CNN. The demonstrators were having a fine time, and most of them were smiling. They were proving to themselves and everyone else that they were not racist or anti-Semitic, and that in this troubled word, France, all appearances notwithstanding, is a humanitarian beacon of light.
This is a country, after all, that does not treat its own Muslim immigrants very well. Most live in the high-crime, rundown outlying districts of Paris, and a great many of them are unemployed. You see them on the Metro looking unhappy, angry and shabby.
The government, however, denies there is a problem. Meanwhile, along with the intellectuals, it bleeds for the Palestinians no matter how murderously any of them may behave, and it criticizes the Israelis whenever it can. But this has nothing to do with France’s ancient anti-Semitism, of course, or its neglect of the Muslims who live within is own borders. God forbid you should think it is anything like that. The intellectuals give the lie to that by condemning Le Pen.