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Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Politics

An American in Paris


I had packed lightly this time. Traveling back and forth from Paris to Boston to care for my mother, I now had a routine. The 15:55 Air France flight. The 13:00 departure from the Gobelins taxi-stand. Depositing my gardenia for care with my florist. This time, however, there was a hitch: to wear or not to wear a mask? With a mother whose immune system was compromised, with a French media made more anxious by SARS than by war, I had polled my French and American friends for advice. The answer was unanimous: Wear a mask. Wash your hands whenever possible. Avoid doorknobs. Don’t touch your face. (I made a bet with a friend to see if I could keep my hands out of my month for more than five minutes.)

Were things normal since SARS? Yes and no. Everyone had stopped talking about potential terrorist attacks on trains, planes, and metros because of the Americans’ war. Airport staff was opening suitcases with gloved hands whose purpose was now double: to search for bombs and to protect themselves from germs. From underneath their masks, you could see only French, Moroccan, Chinese, Pilipino, and Kenyan eyes. I kept asking where they had gotten their masks. Information was not forthcoming.

The French press has declared that this is what biochemical warfare will look like. SARS has brought the fear home. A vial of toxins discovered a few weeks before in the Gare du Lyon only assured most French of the efficiency of their intelligence and police (the story barely made the front pages). Crossing the street was still more hazardous than vacationing in Algeria. Right now, an epidemic was on its way out of control. Friends had cancelled trips to Vietnam to avoid the mandatory quarantine upon return. Let the Americans continue their war — sale et triste — the adjectives most French associate immediately with Bush’s war and which I have now appropriated mimetically whenever I am asked my sentiments about it. In short, the French can again sing — even if Americans won’t — “Vive la France.” French pride returns in this act of resistance and symbolic cleanliness: French hands have not been dirtied by war. War has left them clean, cleaner than ever before (even if their consumption of soap is still one of the lowest in what is now termed the “old” Europe).

And yet, my taxi driver to Charles de Gaulle Airport was excited to hear that I was traveling to Boston. “Can I change places with you?” I was rather amazed at such a desire because either from paranoia or objective reality or because “paranoids are always right,” I have been nervous about revealing my nationality and destinations. On the one hand, anti-Americanism has taken its toll in Paris. Graffiti dirties the city: “No to America’s War!” “Americans go home!” Windows on McDonald’s are broken and scratched weekly. Demonstrators by the thousands hold forth their hatred of Bush and American imperialism. The American embassy has instructed expatriates to be on alert: to stay away from places — like malls — where Americans are known to gather. Even my Hispano-French hairdresser, an unreconstructed Americanophile, has taken down the American flag that she proudly draped in her living-room, for fear that passersby would vent their hatred on her domestic paradise. On the other hand, French children still have their long-awaited birthday parties or weekend lunches at McDonald’s, and the French have not banned Coca-Cola or renamed their foods in retaliation for “freedom fries.” Translations of American novels abound this spring while essays on the rise of anti-Americanism — last autumn’s trend — have abated.

Let there be no mistake, however: the French, on the whole, seem to be unabashedly opposed to the war. But — I return to my cabdriver — himself an Algerian, the French are nonetheless certain to distinguish between their hatred of Bush’s government and their love of American individuals. My taxi driver is convinced that the Americans will topple Saddam’s vicious regime (and he turns out to be right). Peace will come and liberty will reign. And when I ask him what he thinks freedom is, he answers directly: “Not to have fear of the Other.” Fearful that I, too, have inevitably become a victim of ideology, I dare to ask if he thinks Americans are free. Silence reigns, especially when I — afraid of not quite stating the case accurately, or of having stated it too rhetorically (perhaps the same error) — explain how, since September 11, American media have agreed to self-censorship, while Americans, staring at their televisions with eyes blank from anxiety, are scared by the Other in a war of selective images and prefab ideology that breeds more ignorance and impotence. There is nothing but a regime of fear and anxiety, where the object of both is unknown, and the possibility of distinguishing what is and is not illusion, assuming such distinctions remain, is nearly impossible.

Before the war began, I had indeed learned from an unexpected source the difference between the American government and the American people. A group of friends — all Americans but for one — were dining at a well-known Italian restaurant in the very Americanized neighborhood of the sixth arrondissement. After having failed the French popular culture test of identifying the actor Daniel Auteuil, I found victory in another place. I recognized the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, sitting next to us. France’s resistance to war had been made clear to the world that very day by this very man. In my excitement to toast the antiwar movement, I convinced my friends to send him a bottle of champagne. (Had I become too French in thinking champagne served a political purpose?) The wine was duly ordered and sent “de la part des américains.”

De Villepin arrived at our table with speech in mouth (and briefcase in hand, containing perhaps his manuscript on Napoleon, his recent poetry, and the UN file on the war). In accented but perfect English, he began: “I love the Americans. I send my daughter to America each summer. Colin Powell is a good friend. But this time, the American government has gone too far. It must be stopped.” We toasted this desire to arrest an unstoppable war machine, and the intelligence and political courage behind it. De Villepin left, but, before finishing his meal, he returned to our table to reiterate the stakes in France’s policy of nonintervention. No bodyguards surrounded him; except for our interruption, de Villepin dined quietly with his daughter, whom papers say he rarely sees because of his long working hours. Nevertheless, following the rules of politesse even during this French-American freeze, he systematically explained French foreign policy to five awestruck Americans. Was this normal?

In these past weeks, even if life goes on as normal in France, war talk follows me during the day. A few stories suffice. A week before the war began, I was at my usual café, having my usual coffee at the usual hour. A group of five old men arrived, regulars at the café, but this time excited and talkative. They ordered with abandon a bottle of wine. The toast: À la guerre. They drank the bottle, exclaiming that war was coming but they were not going: they were too old, and Iraq was too far away. I moved away to leave these veterans more space for celebration. They thanked me and bought me a coffee for being an American (and since, as an American, I wasn’t drinking wine at 9:00 in the morning).

At another café near the Centre Pompidou, every Friday morning I spoke about the war — its arrival, end, and aim — with a stranger whose name I will never know. And who has now disappeared. I think of Hegel, who said he hailed reality each day by reading the morning newspaper. This French stranger allowed me to salute reality when he so readily engaged me in talk about the war and nothing else.

In the elevator of my building, an elderly woman turned to me without prompting the other day and asked: “When will this war end? How can the Americans kill all those innocent Iraqis? How many will die?” Not till I opened my mouth did she know I was American: my “u”s pronounced in the distinctly incorrect American style revealed my maternal tongue and land. It didn’t seem to matter to this senior citizen, as we Americans call them, that I was from the land of Bush. Before separating, we predicted the weather for the coming weekend.

And, finally, an event that haunts me to this day, one that is another side of France’s anti-Americanism, from a people whose lives may not feel normal either, before, during, or after the war. This incident makes my skin crawl because, in fact, I am not only an American but an Arab American — although for some, perhaps for many, this truth does not excuse me. For Americans are a part of their government as much as Bush is.

Another cab driver. Another cab ride. This time I was with my four-year-old son and his father. We entered the cab. The radio was reporting recent bombings in Iraq. My son wanted to know how a building got destroyed. He asked in English even though his French is now impeccable. The driver, an Arab (I never found out from where), turned the radio on even louder as the reports of devastation continued. My husband requested that he turn the volume down. The cab driver turned it up even louder. I kept signaling to my husband to stop speaking English. To no avail. Angered by our presence, the taxi driver drove faster and faster, swerving wildly through traffic, avoiding crashing into two cars by just a hair’s breadth. With the radio blaring, I was certain that there was nothing normal in this. And yet, this anger and hatred was nothing but normal. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I could do or say because as he drove, the driver looked at us in his rearview mirror — with a smile on his face — making clear that, like it or not, we were, we are, the American government.

My Algerian cab driver had told me that, during the civil war in Lebanon, his friends had an expression: it was better to apologize than to be killed. There was of course no possibility of death in the cab of one angry Arab. But I still wish I had the occasion to apologize, to ask, in this one moment of war, for forgiveness. De la part d’une américaine.

Ramona Naddaff is an assistant professor in the rhetoric department at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also co-director of Zone Books in New York and author of Exiling the Poets: The Production of Censorship in Plato’s Republic.
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