Paris In May

I cannot think of a more fortunate coincidence: this is the first time I have visited Paris in May and the show is extraordinary. I know somebody who keeps a dried chestnut flower between the covers of a notebook, a flower that he has picked up from the sidewalk in Cluny Square, on St. Michel Boulevard, a long time ago, in spring. Meanwhile some history has been written. In the shuttle bus that brings me from the airport Charles de Gaulle to the Triumphal Arch, a very encouraging video programme is running on the monitor: an ordinary day in the life of some Parisian workers. The movie shows the men perched on the EiffelTower, painting sectors of the huge scaffolding. We then see them back on the ground, after work, drinking beer and having a good time. They all are dark-haired and many of them have a moustache; most of them are Maghrebis, one is Spanish and another one has an Italian accent, if I get it right. In the background, Edith Piaf is singing Paris, c'est une blonde / Elle plait a tout le monde. Actually, I left for Paris as if I had run away from Kossovo. I thought I could thus avoid the echo of the war. I didn't succeed, for Paris seems closer to Kossovo than Bucharest. Le Monde has published an article by Regis Debray that inflamed the spirits. Bernard-Henri Levi and Alain Joxe struck back right away, accusing him of being pro-Milosevic. Others, quite a lot, are on his side; Lilly Marcou even retorts in Le Monde: Merci, Regis, for having opened our eyes. Though I am not familiar with all the articles written by Mrs. Marcou, last time I felt her so passionate about something was when she was fighting against a book by Karel Bartosek, a book that discredited the French Communist Party. You cannot escape talk-shows, not even in Paris: every evening after 11 p.m., either TF1 or France2 serve you a broadcast débat. For the moment, there are exactly three hot subjects. One of them is obviously Kossovo. The second one is just as obvious, it's the Cannes festival. Especially one of the most disputed movies, Pola X. Parenthesis: in a broadcast from the Riviera, somebody notices slightly malicious: Wherever you turn your head, you see Catherine Deneuve. And finally, the hottest media subject is the demonstration of the autonomists in Corsica. The independence of the island, that's what they want. According to the numbers given by the organizers there were twenty thousand people; according to the police, there were three or four thousand. The truth is somewhere in the middle, says a TV announcer on the evening news. At the reception thrown at the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme by the organizers of the colloquium I participate in, one of the hosts explains me the relationship between France and Germany after the departure of the two great friends, Mitterand and Kohl. Rumour has it, I am told, that Helmut Kohl used to drink Moselle wine (a little city close to the German border), while Schroeder is now drinking only Hamburg beer. For a real Frenchman, the mistrust of the Americans goes hand in hand with his Third World passions. On Raspail Boulevard, on a huge advertising board showing a model smiling nicely, a hasty hand wrote in black: USA, des gros cons [morons]. My Canadian friend (from the French-speaking region of Canada) is highly amused. I see the same graffiti on rue de Sevres, on a mailbox. Our colloquium has two parts, one dedicated to post-colonial Africa, and one dedicated to post-communist Eastern Europe. Obviously, we Africans and Eastern Europeans have parallel discourses. How can we talk about equality?, somebody reproaches me. There are more telephone lines in Manhattan than on the whole African continent. At lunchtime, all the bistros are crowded. It is said that it's the only meal of the day because all the Parisians are concerned with their physique. One day, on the ground floor of the Samaritain store, at the perfume department, I suddenly hear people talking in Romanian. I look up and notice two men in their late thirties, decently dressed; I think we've been here once before, says one of them, and they both disappear behind the stands. A suivre, that is, to be continued.Excerpted from: Ashes of a Century, Curtea veche, 2001

by Adrian Cioroianu