French Paradox

Paris is still the same, it seems. Women are skinny(er), their make-up is more discreet and yes, there are boulangeries and patisseries at every corner and I fed on pains au chocolat for two days before feeling the need to have some greens. I also wasn’t there for two days that I already felt the urge to leave for a quieter place, anywhere, elsewhere, where people wouldn’t be so much in a hurry, where I had a little bit more of room for myself and most importantly, a place where my mom wouldn’t be so rude towards other people. Definitely, France is not a country of service, but Parisians luckily aren’t expecting any and keep a very firm attitude towards salesmen, as if they knew no amount of politeness would ever be sufficient to softened these hearts of steel. Even more, being too nice is still a sign of weakness in this tough city.

But is it the same, really ? The first surprise I had coming home, is the diversity of Paris population. Paris is almost as colorful as Toronto, but the interactions between people are completely different. It’s just as if white people go on with their lives, feeling like they rule the city of course, acknowledging the visible minorities and enjoying the cultural richness, but in a very French, very blasé way. It’s almost as if minorities agreed on letting them think that —la France éternelle— will never change, as long as they can live there. Paris has to remain French, and French still means white for most of the people. They don’t want to be remembered that, as a world class city, Paris doesn’t only belong to the French but also to everyone who has a connection with the city. At the same time, they really take pride in the reputation of their city. Another french paradox.

Of course, a little bit like Toronto and rural Canada, the rest of France is pretty white, as I remembered in the TGV, the fast speed train, I took to Bordeaux. And as we are in a country that doesn’t want to define itself as a mosaic of minorities, even the visible minorities start acting “white” to fit in. In the brand new streetcar of Bordeaux, I overheard this young woman telling her friend proudly that, now, she didn’t have to speak arabic anymore, as her grand-mother died last year. Obviously, it sounded like a good thing for her that helped her to feel more french.

It’s an other illustration of what I discovered while I was in a bilingual country (as in : Canada) : being French is speaking French. Technically, people will treat you like one of them if you’re able to be rude to them (to a certain degree) and to answer in a flawless French.

French medias are a big part of the problem also : newspapers are still obsesed with President Sarkozy when it’s not indirectly control by him and the main figures are undoubtably white.

But I have seen other stuffs too that complicate my analysis. There is Nicolas and his lebanese background, almost taking personal offense in me criticizing French society. There were all those brown skinned engineers in the subway, working on laptops, in their very serious grey suits. There is my mum, treating everyone the same way, bluntly, no matter how dark their skin is, and her again, not mentioning her boyfriend was biracial, when they started dating, because it was not relevant for her.

Obviously, even though I have been extremely careful about that, I let the North American vision of old Europe change the idea I had of France. Like it was very hard to explain that you couldn’t oversimplified and sum up the riots we had a few years ago only as a religious problem (I don’t think we can call them “young muslins riots” for instance), I started to think about France as a angry racist old lady who couldn’t stand loosing her beauty queen crown to a younger Miss (in that case, the rest of the world).

But of course, nothing is as simple. People use laptop everywhere here as free wi-fi is available in public parks. Bordeaux new streetcars system, running on these grass filled trails, put to shame any TTC vehicle in Toronto. There is definitely something changing in France; and as I look down, through the window at the people passing by on the boulevard Bonne Nouvelle (the Good News Boulevard, where my friend Maxime lives), I realize that even though those people live in a dying museum, the future is happening everywhere. Like the crude green leaves on the trees, life is blossoming on the street of Paris, in this mixed raced crowd and people are, slowly, learning to live together.

I’m just starting to wonder if it’s so different now or if my experience in Toronto changed the way I look and live with minorities. It was a very cold, harsh epiphany : May be I was racist, may be I was the one unable to see the integration of visible minorities in everyday life because when I saw a black man, the first thing i saw was his color, not the fact that he was a man. My friend Antonio used to tell me, once you left, you never come back. Definitely, the “I” that came back is not the “I” that left the country, two and a half years ago. Je est un autre, as Rimbaud used to say. (Yes, I’m practicing my written English skills. Please be understanding! ^__^ )