This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Friday, August 23, 2013


The French novelist and poet Victor Hugo once wrote that "Paris is the capital city of every educated man." The African-American singer and dancer Josephine Baker proclaimed "I have two loves, my country and Paris." Ever since the French Revolution, Paris has been a magnet and a refuge for foreigners rich and poor. Since the independence movements of the 1950's and 60's, natives of the former French colonies in Africa, Indochina, and the West Indies have flocked to Paris and other French cities in search of work, social benefits, and a better life than they left behind. As a result, some 11% of the French population is now of immigrant origin. Paris has become a cosmopolitan city with an ethnic mix that frightens some—witness the rise of the far-right, anti-immigrant Front National party (20% in the polls)—but strikes others as as a source of cultural richness. Sylvaine and I observed this fascinating human patchwork on a recent trek from the Buttes Chaumont park in the east of the capital to the Gare de l'Est in the center (see map). Along this promenade, Sylvaine snapped pictures as part of a photo project showing various aspects of Paris. Highlights:

Belleville, located on a hill south of the Buttes Chaumont park, dates back to the 16th century and was incorporated into Paris only in 1860. In the 19th century, it was such a source of working-class ferment that the Baron Haussmann, who redrew the map of Paris under Napoleon III, drove the Boulevard de Belleville through its centre to allow for troop movements and buffer the bourgeois quarters from the revolutionary masses. Today, it is dominated by Arab and Asian immigrants whose languages and native dress give it a Third World tinge that contrasts sharply with the traditional French architecture. The southern part of Belleville, largely inhabited by Asians, is particularly striking with its ubiquitous Chinese and Korean ideograms emblazoned over shops selling everything from Peking duck and egg rolls to Chinese vegetables, computers and cell phones. Were it not for the view of the Eiffel Tower visible in the distance, it would be hard to guess that this bustling quarter was part of Paris.

Chateau d'Eau, near the Porte Saint Denis, is a transported slice of Africa. Black youths dressed in flat-billed baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts like American gangstas congregate on street corners and exchange rapid chatter in various indecipherable (to us) languages, while older immigrants in native dress stroll down the street with shopping bags or pushcarts, stopping to munch on ears of grilled corn sold by a sidewalk vendor who cooks them over open coals.

Place de la République, one of Paris's best-known landmarks, is a towering stone column encircled by haut-relief bronze plaques depicting various historic chapters in the march of French liberté, égalité, and fraternité from the storming of the Bastille prison in July 1789, to the proclamation of the Third Republic in September 1870. It is surrounded by a fountain and an immense open square where hundreds of people congregate on these hot summer days to sip coffee and beer at outdoor tables or cool off by wading in the fountain. Fittingly enough, the ethnic mix here is a snapshot of the modern French republic, from Français de souche (those with French roots), to Asians, Africans, Arabs and of course backpacking tourists from around the world. Unlike the feeling of separateness one gets in certain ethnic neighbourhoods, the atmosphere here is one of people coming together, or at least enjoying a peaceful coexistence. The illusion of the Front National xenophobes is that somehow the "foreigners"—most of whom are actually French citizens—can be sent home and France can reclaim its racial and cultural purity. Like it or not, these diverse ethnic communities are permanent strands of the modern French tapestry.

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