Paris Dispatch: More Than Snow Chilling France
A snowy Champs-de-Mars in Paris. (Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS | If you want to find a world capital in the Northern Hemisphere less ready than Washington to cope with a sudden snowstorm, try Paris. A record December snow (up to 4 inches) suddenly landed in the city and suburbs last week, but as the flakes fell nowhere in sight were the usually-ubiquitous, green-suited municipal workers and certainly no plows. The few shopkeepers who bothered were trying to clear foot-wide paths with implements better suited to scraping car windows than shoveling sidewalks.
“We just aren’t prepared to deal with this,” said a Paris friend, but he at least had a good time skiing in the park opposite his house.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux was more plaintive but perhaps more realistic, responding to declarations from the prime minister and agitated commentary:
“We cannot have a system designed for the Northern Territories of Canada,” he said.
The real risks loomed the day after, the prospect of snow-covered streets and sidewalks turning overnight into sheets of ice. But the unofficial Paris policy — akin to that of Washington for clearing side streets — appeared to work: pray for sunshine.
An unseasonal and improbably picturesque blue sky dawned, and pedestrians only had to cope with mushy sidewalks, not ice. The clear day also revealed what the little blizzard had hidden, a street-level Paris that is at once drawn to and repelled by globalization. Major intersections are dominated by McDonald’s and its European imitators. Starbucks stand alongside Ben & Jerry’s, and even in the shadow of the Pantheon there’s a Subway sandwich shop. Two doors down from Brasserie Lipp, made famous by Hemingway, an old tavern is being re-fitted into a karaoke club.
On the streets and Metro, a more cosmopolitan Paris is ever present — Africans, North Africans and Asians, more the city of Edmund White’s “The Flaneur” than of Balzac’s dinner parties, even as Cabinet ministers promise almost daily to crack down on illegal immigration.
Some restaurants are still bustling; others appear more forlorn amid a cranky economy, government austerity measures (and promises of even more to come), and the growing crisis with the euro currency.
But there remain diversions from economic and political news in shrinking newspapers and still-numerous and popular weekly magazines — especially the doings of the rich and famous, in this case the very rich and quite famous. There was the seemingly sudden decision of the 88-year-old billionaire owner of the L’Oreal cosmetics conglomerate, Liliane Bettencourt, to end a two-year feud with her daughter who had been trying to have Mama declared incompetent. Such a “happy ending” reported Le Figaro, in another example of anglicisms creeping into the French language.
A happy ending may prove more elusive for one of Paris’s major power couples, the founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) Bernard Kouchner and his journalist wife Christine Ockrent, an occasional NewsHour guest. At France 24, the country’s venture into all-news cable television, official investigations are under way and lurid accusations being made about computer espionage between news director Ockrent and her corporate bosses.
Kouchner already has lost his job as foreign minister, victim of a Cabinet re-shuffle by President Nicolas Sarkozy and part of the jockeying among politicians preparing for a presidential election, which like that in the Untied States, takes place in 2012.
Sarkozy faces two possible challenges, first from the Gaullist right of his ruling conservative party, including from his mortal enemy former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Even more menacing are the rising poll ratings of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front, likely to be led in 2012 by Marine Le Pen. Some polls already show the National Front could repeat its performance in the 2002 presidential elections, coming in second place and forcing its way into a runoff. Le Pen has attempted to put a softer face on the National Front founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, but she made clear over the weekend that the party’s view of immigrants remains the same. She compared the spread of women in burqas and imams calling for Sharia law to the equivalent of the Nazi occupation.
Whether the opposition left can unite into an effective force remains to be seen. Segolene Royal, the loser of the last election, is running again, as is former Labor Minister Martine Aubry, author of the 35-hour work week. And waiting in the wings from his perch at the International Monetary Fund in Washington is former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Strauss-Kahn’s future may well be determined by the outcome of what has turned out to be a long-running drama — in which the IMF is playing an ever larger role — to bail out debtor nations from Greece to Ireland and maybe beyond and to salvage the euro, the common currency of 16 European Union nations.
French officials so far have managed to convince many French commentators that the euro will hold — a view increasingly challenged in the more skeptical Anglo-Saxon press (Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune), and their readership among bond traders who are roiling European debt markets.
Removed from daily decision-making, one of Europe’s elder sages offered a view that was both reassuring and chilling. This associate of Jean Monnet, the intellectual father of the European community, estimated that Europe’s leaders have five years to work through the current problems, to breathe new life into the common currency and the European project. But if they don’t, he warned, catastrophe on the scale of the 1930s could ensue.
Even amid these prevailing ill-winds, there are signs that for some citizens of this country the term solidarity is still more than a slogan. On a small street off the Boulevard Sebastapol, a homeless man was huddled against the evening snowstorm, protected only by a thin blanket. A car driving by suddenly applied the brakes. Out of the passenger side, a woman in a long, elegant coat emerged and placed a bill in the man’s hand. And just as quickly, the car disappeared into the snowy dusk.