Thursday, August 7, 2008

Conversations

We are taught to be wary of anecdotal evidence, yet we often live by it. What is dangerous, it has been said, is not what we don't know but what we think we know that isn't true. In France I talked to many people from different walks of life: professors, engineers, schoolteachers, farmers, waiters, hoteliers, chance acquaintances in a train or café. I heard many different stories, often contradictory. On the whole I found little evidence of obsession with Sarkozy. Though some observers of France, including some readers of this blog, had told me that the French could talk of nothing else, this wasn't the case with my interlocutors. Most were neither passionately for nor passionately against him. Some found him faintly ridiculous. Others, willing initially to give him the benefit of the doubt, expressed disappointment that so little appeared to have changed: whether they voted for him or not, they had hoped that he would shake things up. Underlying this disappointment was what one might take to be a positive sign: a dawning appreciation that even a president who claimed all powers and enjoyed an insuperable majority could not make things happen, so that real change would have to come from somewhere other than the top.

People everywhere, not just in France, are willing to believe many things that cannot possibly be proved. Sometimes these stories are pernicious, as when they pertain to the alleged behavior of minority groups, reported third-hand but taken as gospel. Sometimes they are merely amusing. Often they involve gossip about public figures. Did you know, for instance, the story of how Sarko wound up on Bolloré's yacht immediately after his election? I have it from someone who purports to know someone who purports to know someone who knows somebody else who allegedly witnessed the scene at Fouquet's on the night of the election, when Sarko announced to Cécilia that he wasn't going to a monastery after all but rather to the villa of his buddy Christian Clavier, the actor. Now, my informant claimed to know from her informant, etc. etc., that at this point Cécilia threw a fit, because it was at Clavier's, supposedly, that Sarko had initiated another affair ... So Bolloré offered up his yacht to put an end to the first couple's spat.

Well, you know, it could have happened like that. It's one of those stories too good to go untold, even if it happens to be untrue. Such are the hazards of public life. Everyone is willing to speculate about the reasons for your behavior, and may the best story win. At a certain point the boundary between fact and fiction dissolves as fully as the boundary between liquid and gas in the phase known as critical opalescence. In the end, all that remains is a blur, a misty glow that reveals more about the speaker's state of mind more than about the person who is the story's object. I would like to know whether some of the things I was told are true or not, but the nature of Sarkozy's relationship to Christian Clavier or his ex-wife is not one of them.

Egg Cities


In the United States we have "edge cities," the agglomerations that begin as suburbs or exurbs of a major city and then develop into metropolitan centers in their own right. In France I discern a somewhat different pattern of new urban development, the "egg city." Historic city centers--places of beauty touched by the grace of a bygone era--retain their attractiveness but become increasingly impractical as vital centers of a modern economy. The costs of maintenance and new infrastructure in these ancient places become prohibitive, but their attractiveness remains--such is the centripetal potency of the French model. So new growth surrounds old beauty. Paris is the locus classicus of the egg city, but it has now been joined by every other important French urban center. In Paris the development of the area outside the périphérique over the last 25 years has been prodigious. A place like Neuilly, once a relatively tranquil seat of old money, looks like a boom town of glass-and-steel high-rises. No wonder the opportunities for corruption in the Hauts-de-Seine proved irresistible: land development is the nexus where the world of politics meets the world of cash (see Zola's La Curée for an earlier instance, though beware of the element of fantasy in his wild imaginings--a warning that we should beware of fantasy in our own deliriums).

The egg city represents a triumph of political will over market forces. The market, left to its own devices, would develop dense networks of lateral transportation in the outer ring of the egg. But politics funnels the flow of vital nourishment to the center. Try to get from Vincennes to Montreuil by public transportation: a short distance as the crow flies, but the crow doesn't fly that way. The result is that the suburbs are fragmented, compartmentalized, dependent on the center for the good things of life just as the center is dependent on the periphery for the stuff that makes the good life possible: labor, services, commodities.

In Paris, the center is beginning to show its age. The tone of the town was set in the Belle Epoque, which was not yet a century old when I began visiting Paris but which is now well over the century mark. And the remarkable growth of the periphery has meant that much of what is spent in Paris has gone to the maintenance of the old rather than the creation of the new. One enjoys the immense beauty of the place, of course, but a nagging sense of museumification remains. Paris is still a long way from Venice, but it is the yolk that risks being crushed by the pressure of its ever-swelling white (large sections of which are of course distinguished precisely for being "non-white"). The consequences of this developmental pattern are visible everywhere: in real-estate prices, residential patterns, commuter flows, traffic jams, youth culture (see the suburban youths gather until past midnight around hot spots such as the Place de la Contrescarpe or the Gare du Nord)--and, of course, la fracture sociale. It's a problem that seems oddly underdiscussed in France. The country that pioneered urban planning (witness the Place des Vosges) seems to be giving little thought to the perverse effects of its current planning model.

Calembours


I admire the French way with puns. My two favorites from this trip: Le Sarkophage--un journal consacré à tous les anti-Sarkozysmes, which I saw in Bollène and still kick myself for not buying, and a bookshop in Paris named "Mona lisait" (see photo).

Balancing Act


President Sarkozy won't meet the Dalai Lama after all, but Mme Sarkozy will stand in for "Mon Mari," as Le Canard Enchaîné has her referring to him in its consistently amusing feature, "Carla Bruni's Diary." We thus have a shrewd dosage of symbolic gestures: Tibet ("How many divisions has the Dalai Lama?") reaps according to its capabilities, while China ("How many nuclear power plants can the world's fastest-growing economy absorb?) is rewarded in proportion to its wherewithal. Even George Bush, finding that old Republican strings are still available to be plucked, managed a somewhat more robust denunciation of Chinese human-rights abuses than has thus far been heard from France, which has been princely in its compliments for China's "accomplishments." In the end, I suppose, it hardly matters whether a country adopts a policy of fainthearted realpolitik or dilute moralism. Still, Sarko had made his freedom to meet with the Dalai Lama if he so chose an issue of manhood ("Who are the Chinese to tell the president of France what he can or cannot do?"), so it is particularly ironic that he has chosen to use his wife as his proxy. This of course leaves him free to go to the Games--surely the most politicized in recent memory--and mingle with the discus throwers and speed swimmers.

The Little Things


The traveler is a fox as well as a hedgehog. He notices not only the one big thing (see previous post) but also many small things. Take the petty inefficiencies of French life. At Carrefour gas stations, for example, there is one entry and one exit, both gated, with the gates controlled by a single cashier, who has too many other responsibilities, such as resetting the pumps, which consequently sit idle for precious seconds when she is too busy to monitor them all. When entering, drivers must fan out from the choke point into, say, a dozen lanes to refuel. But only half of the lanes have diesel fuel, and when the service station is crowded, it's impossible to see which ones these are. Confusion ensues. Then the twelve lanes must converge again into one at the cashier's station, and when there is a crowd, the delay backs up into the pumps, so that some stand idle when they could be pumping. On a high-traffic day, the waste--in time and fuel consumed by idling engines--is considerable. Does it never occur to anyone to change such practices?

Or, again, take the national phobia concerning the supposedly lethal courant d'air. As a result, everything is underventilated. The heat in the Métro is unbearable even on cool days. On Tuesday it was 65 in Paris but in the RER B to the airport it must have been 110, even though the woefully small movable window panels in the car were open.

Even the TGV, admirable as it is, has too little air circulation, but even worse is the inadequate space provided for luggage. Admittedly, I was traveling by train on the weekend that Bison futé tagged as the worst of the year, but surely one designs a railroad car to accommodate a full load of passengers with luggage. Or so one would think. And the SNCF seems to have adopted le service minimum as its full-time labor-saving standard. Agents on the trains are scarce, and nowhere to be found at boarding time, so that inevitably TGV passengers end up in the wrong car or the wrong seat. I had to displace a bewildered foreigner who spoke no French (or English) and had no idea what the writing on his reservation meant (he was in car 15 rather than car 7). Even worse, I also had to displace a Frenchman whose ticket read "car 16" and who refused to admit that he was actually in car 15. Since there was no conductor in sight to adjudicate this dispute, it became a collective altercation, with other passengers chiming in to insist that it was indeed the fifteenth car, while entering passengers, dragging suitcases down narrow aisles because the luggage rack was full, fumed that the aisle was blocked.

Still, the rail system is a marvel that the US ought to envy. Even with the drastically undervalued dollar, I was able to travel from Paris to Lyon at 1/3 the cost and in 1/3 the time of a trip from Boston to New York, and Avignon to Paris was almost as good a bargain even on the year's peak travel day.