Where to Avoid in Paris

While we're on the subject of neighborhoods you might not want to visit in the USA, here's a long and well-written post by Ms. French Mystique on TripAdvisor about places you might wish to avoid in (or more accurately around) Paris:

Now it seems like I am the only true life long Paris suburbanite here so I suppose it qualifies me to comment in further detail about living in the Paris suburbs. Which I do happily and by choice. However I must warn you that it is VERY LONG to read even though I will only say a fraction of what I could say about the suburbs. It will include some family history as my family is quite typical of an era that shaped Paris's recent urban/suburban history.

As someone from a working class family who grew up in a bourgeois suburb, all I can say is I am grateful my parents did not decide to move to one of the these northern "bad" suburbs. In the 1950's my mother lived in Saint-Germain-des-Prés while my father had moved from central France to the 9th arrondissement. At the time there was full employment in Paris but the housing situation was terrible following WWII. There was a big housing crisis due to the massive WWII destruction and the babyboom, there were slums in Paris and a lot of apartments did not have modern comfort or much hygiene. The 6th may have become the most expensive arrondissement in Paris now but it wasn't always this way. My mother was dirt poor when she lived there with a roommate. Needless to say she wasn't hanging out with Sartre and Beauvoir who despite their so-called social commitment wouldn't have touched people of her class with a ten-foot pole. She was attending an Ecole Ménagère, where you learn cleaning, sewing, ironing, in other words she was learning how to become a servant (she indeed worked as a servant in her late teens), not to become part of the ruling class. Both my parents moved to the working-class southern suburb of Ivry in the early 1960's and that is how they met as they were neighbors.

At that time, the 'cités hlm' (the vast high rise subsidized housing blocks of flats that give some neighborhoods a bad reputation) were built as an answer to the housing crisis. Both inside and outside Paris. But the largest ensembles were built in the previously semi-rural zones of northern Paris inSeine Saint-Denis and Val d'Oise. Others replaced vast shantytowns that existed outside Paris. When these huge apartment buildings were built people were overjoyed at the possibility of living there. They were coming from no home of their own or terrible housing and the prospect of having better lodging was appealing. Compared to what they would have had in Paris or just outside the périphérique, these new apartments offered everything they could dream of: they were large, bright, clean, had central heating and bathrooms. Something that the poorer classes in Paris did not have.

Now for most of you the bad housing projects of northern Paris (and to a lesser extent other suburbs) are just something you read about or hear about in the news. But for me I can't help wondering what my life would have been like if my parents had made the terrible mistake of moving to one of these brand new neighborhoods (built in the middle of nowhere in the middle of fields far away from any town center, cultural life or services) and I had been born and raised there. They instead moved to Ivry, an old run down industrial town and when they got together they decided they wanted to move to a better neighborhood. They looked into the bourgeois town of Nogent but ended up buying a small condo in Saint-Maur which took them over 30 years to pay off. I grew up in a 60 sq.meter condo with no balcony and where my parents didn't have a bedroom and had to sleep in the sofa bed in the living-room but at least I grew up in a safe, geographically beautiful and culturally stimulating environment.

Now another reason these bad suburbs ring a little too close to home is my job. As a middle-school teacher I am in one of the professional categories that are the most exposed to urban/youth violence. Public school teachers in France are public servants employed by the state, as such we don't choose where we work. We are sent where we are needed. School districts throughout France are divided into 'académies' and mine is the académie of Créteil which includes 3 départements: Val-de-Marne (zip code 94), Seine-et-Marne (77) and the infamous Seine Saint-Denis (93), the most "dangerous" part of France. While the other two départements have their share of bad areas, they are still the minority, whereas they are particularly prevalent in the 93. So when you are a young teacher, your biggest fear is to be sent there. When at age 23 I received my appointment letter and the first thing I saw in the letter was the dreaded 93 figure, I immediately had a big lump in my throat, I could feel my face flush, my heart thumping and my eyes water. In France when you tell people you have taught middle-school in Seine Saint-Denis they look at you as if you were just back from fighting inIraq or Afghanistan. And the reputation of Seine Saint-Denis being a war zone is not unjustified. Ask the many teachers who have been victims of physical abuse.

Now luckily I have never been one of them. When I called my parents to tell them where I had been appointed my father quickly reassured me as he knew it well. The town I was going to spend the next 9 years of my career, Gournay-sur-Marne, is actually not typical of the département and despite its zip code is one of the safest suburbs around Paris. That put an end to a prejudice lumping all the towns of Seine-Saint-Denis into one undiscriminate category. Actually 60% of Seine Saint-Denis's 40 communes enjoy a much lower violent crime rate than Paris. However the violent crime rate of Seine Saint-Denis as a département is very high, but the violence is highly concentrated into certain zones. As a teacher in Gournay I got to set foot in several towns of Seine Saint-Denis either for work (meetings, workshops, etc) or to visit co-workers who lived there so I have a decent idea of the variety of neighborhoods. I also have relatives living in Pierrefitte sur Seine that I visit occasionally. As much as I love my cousin I dread driving there: it is so depressing. Last time I went was a few weeks ago, traffic had been exceptionally smooth and I arrived really early for lunch. Since it was a beautiful sunny day I decided to walk in the neighborhood for half an hour. I was seeing it in the best conditions possible, gorgeous weather and all, yet all the while I was wondering how anyone could live there by choice. I have no desire whatsoever to live in Paris or in rural areas for instance but I can at least see what appeal it could hold for others, but there, I failed to find any appeal: a few blocks of charmless suburban houses surrounded by ugly high rise buildings, a train track cutting you from the rest of the town and the only shopping available was a mini-mart at the end of a parking lot at the foot of a cité. Not a single market street in sight, nothing that felt like a city with a town center, no bus stop or métro or RER station or service of any kind and above all, no beauty anywhere. Not my idea of a pleasant neighborhood and the complete opposite of where I live. This cousin is from Saint-Ouen and she grew up in a cité at first and then in a small condo near the town hall. Her father, my uncle, worked at the car factory in Boulogne-Billancourt, was an active unionist, so I can see how people with strong left wing political values can feel ideologically attached to working class neighborhoods and do not want to leave a sinking ship. But even they sometimes admit things haven't been changing for the better and I know they feel a little trapped now, as pleasant as their house may be. As someone who has lived and worked in the suburbs all my life and who knows people who live in very different neighborhoods from mine including the cités hlm there are dozens of other anecdotes I could tell you but it would be too long. In any case, my experience is well beyond just 'setting foot' there.

Now in this thread phread and I have expressed disagreement with kerouac's introductory sentence to his report in regards to the media. I don't blame the media for depicting some of the northern suburbs as dangerous. Some districts are indeed dangerous there. That being said, let's keep in mind that danger can mean different things to different people depending on where they are from and what type of crime is prevalent in their country. Here homicide is extremely rare compared to North America for instance. There are dangerous districts in Paris itself despite what is often reported on this forum (good luck enjoying your midnight stroll on Place Stalingrad) and elsewhere in the suburbs, including the safest départements where you can have very isolated but violent pockets of crime. For instance the Yvelines, west of Paris is extremely safe, posh and beautiful overall but it has some of France's worst cités (in Trappes and Mantes-la-Jolie). What I blame the media for since the 1990's is lumping anything outside the périphérique as being bad and unsafe when statistically you are much safer from violent crime outside the Paris city boundaries than inside. Or they depict suburban living as boring, as if the towns outside Paris were not real towns with jobs, market streets, cinemas, theatres and artistic or cultural events within walking distance. We have all that in most of the urban suburbs, thank you. And settlements going back to prehistory, town centers from the Middle Ages and historic monuments galore. The suburbs are real living cities, not bedroom communities depending on Paris for employment and culture. The only thing the suburbs don't have is night life. Which for some people is an advantage.

I live in the suburbs by choice because I have a passion for the riverside atmosphere and guinguette culture in the towns around me, because I am surrounded by natural beauty where I can enjoy lovely walks, because I can have a little backyard of my own to enjoy with my animals (remember I grew up in a tiny condo with no personal outdoor space) while having absolutely everything within walking distance and yes, because it is very safe.

Drawing conclusions on the safety of the suburbs from listening to incidents in the news is akin to declaring air travel extremely dangerous because the only times it makes the news is when a plane crashes. Almost 100% of the time it is safe to fly. It's the same thing in the suburbs. Drawing conclusions about what the suburbs look like from driving along a route nationale lined with strip malls or getting off the RER in a soul-less modern district is as if I was commenting on the beauty of Paris seen from the périphérique. Because when you drive on the périphérique on the Parisian side apart from the occasional glimpse of the Eiffel Tower or Sacré Coeur, all you see is Paris's high rise housing projects whereas on the other side (that would be the suburban side) all you see is office buildings. These views would hardly define what is on either side of the périphérique, would it?

Working in and visiting Seine-Saint-Denis on several occasions has put an end to some of the prejudice I had against the place as a whole and has also confirmed that there is serious ground for the ill reputation in some areas. The suburbs of Paris are way too varied for me to describe in detail (and I obviously don't know them all) but most of them are very pretty and interesting with a rich history (not just local history but major national events), some are charmless, some are ghettos, some are urban, some are quaint rural villages with no direct transportation link with Paris, some are grand royal suburbs or UNESCO heritage cities visited by international visitors. Overall most are great for residents to live in but would not be worth a trip for tourists unless they are interested in getting a bigger picture of Paris within its region. But the suburbs are for the most part what 9 million of us call home.

Full disclosure: I like to get off the beaten track, so I've wandered around in many of the bad neighborhoods in Paris and nothing happened to me. Did get stared at a lot, though.


The French Say 'Shove Your Love Locks, Mon Ami'

The French are some of the least sentimental people in the world -- one reason I admire them.

Jim Morrison died in Paris and formerly had a grave plot in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. I'm so old I once visited the cemetery while the grave was still there. Fans from all over the world strode blissfully past the resting places of actual geniuses to try to find Morrison's grave. To help them, despicable hominids had defaced dozens of monuments with scratched arrows pointing the way to 'Jim's Grave'. The headstone of Morrison's grave had been chipped away by souvenir-seeking fans, and the surroundings were littered with beer cans, used condoms, joints, scrawled confessions of eternal adoration for the Doors frontman, and quotations from his regrettable poetry.

Paris eventually had enough, so they dug him up and reburied him in an undisclosed location. I applauded the move.

Now the Parisian authorities are finally taking bold action against the idiotic scourge of love locks, a phenomenon I have deplored in these pixels before:

Any hope that the love locks clinging to Paris' famed Pont des Arts bridge would last forever will be unromantically dashed by the city council's plan to dismantle them Monday — for good.

The padlocks — signed and locked by lovers on the metal grills on the bridge's sides by lovers — are widely regarded as an eyesore on Paris' most picturesque bridge, which overlooks the Eiffel Tower.

Last summer, they also became symbol of danger after a chunk of fencing fell off under their weight.

The city council said this week that the several hundred thousand padlocks in places around Paris cause "long-term heritage degradation and a risk for visitors' security."

Padlock-proof plexiglass panels will soon replace the Pont des Arts bridge's metal grills.

Let's hope all other cities follow suit.


Race Does Not Exist in France, Says the Front National

In a long piece on the National Front, Susan Dominus interviews the mayor of Fréjus, National Front politician David Rachline: 

I recalled a conversation we had earlier in the day in his office, when I asked him to describe the racial makeup of his high school. “I never count French people based on their origins or their religion,” he said. “I always just consider French people as French.”

It was strange to hear this liberal sensitivity from Rachline, of all people. He advocates the death penalty for rapists.

But Rachline’s deflection on the question of race was not at all surprising to Vincent Pons, a French academic I met in Paris the next day. Pons, a campaign expert — a company he founded provides technological support to candidates — reminded me how difficult it is to map basic American assumptions onto the French political landscape. “In France, officially, we don’t have race,” he said; it is illegal, for example, to ask about race or religion on any government form. “We just pretend that race does not matter, but it’s this crazy thing — of course it matters,” he said. “There are no statistics, so you can make no policy around it. But even if you tried, you’d be accused of making too much of race.”

Citizenship in France is supposed to confer complete equality, but the National Front, and many French all over the political spectrum, believe that privilege comes with the expectation of strict assimilation — no head scarves in school, no race-based interest groups, no questioning of the baby Jesus in the galette, no balking at the school’s lunch of roast pork. When it comes to laïcité, the differences between those on the left, the right and the far right are sometimes most apparent in the varying hostility with which they deliver remarkably similar views.

I'm pretty sure this see-no-evil policy on race and religion in France is on its last legs. Just about every non-Frenchman recognizes the absurdity of pretending  race and religion don't matter, and a growing number of the French are seeing it too. The politics are interesting, though: the National Front seizes upon the irrelevance of race to avoid accusations of racism, and the left believes ignoring race serves its interests as well, especially since members of ethnic and religious minorities are almost certainly overrepresented among prison inmates and welfare recipients. But the other side of the coin is that without reliable statistics, there is no way to reliably quantify the level of racial discrimination in French society. So far the left seems to have concluded that framing discussions in non-ethnic terms brings more benefits than drawbacks, but I wonder how long that will hold out, especially as the French left watches the Front National gleefully seize on the see-no-evil policy.


Letter Published in London Review of Books

In the July 17th London Review of Books, Judith Butler reviewed Jacques Derrida's On the Death Penalty, Vol. 1. She noted Derrida's reliance on a key passage in Freud's Civilization and its Discontents:

A brief passage in [Freud's] book proves quite important for Derrida’s argument. Freud is writing about the death penalty: ‘One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated.’ (I take it that this is the 1790s.) ‘A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out: “Que messieurs les assassins commencent!”’ It is as if the call to let the assassins begin their work is of a part with the passions aroused by abolitionist discourse itself. Are abolitionists like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of the porn they would get rid of? Abolitionism has a different problem, since here it isn’t so much desire but the death drive that cloaks itself in moral opposition to its own expressions. Does Derrida’s reading suggest that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness?

I hadn't read Freud's book in quite a while, and had forgotten that he had discussed the death penalty in it. In any case, I was quite sure Freud's interpretation of this quotation was seriously wrong, since I had encountered the phrase several times in research for my death penalty book. I did a bit of research, and located the quotation. The London Review of Books just published my letter correcting Butler, Derrida, and most importantly Freud, who started the whole journey into erroneousness. Here it is, along with another letter which might be of interest to German readers: 

The Death Penalty

Judith Butler repeats a mistake first made by Freud about the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent’ (LRB, 17 July). It was not ‘called out’ during a debate in the ‘French Chamber’ in the 1790s in response to arguments against capital punishment. In fact, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase in an 1849 issue of his serial Les Guêpes. Further, the phrase was hardly intended as a cry of encouragement to murderers. The full passage (my translation) reads: ‘The law of the land kills those who have killed. If one wishes to abolish the death penalty in such cases, let the murderers begin – if they do not kill, we will not kill them.’ In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud reproduces only the five-word exhortation. He seems to interpret it as a frenzied expression of bloodlust, and follows it with meditations on the violence inherent in human nature. In context, of course, it’s just a snappy retort to death-penalty abolitionists – and sometimes a retort is just a retort.

Andrew Hammel
Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf

Both in Nietzsche Zur Genealogie der Moral and in the translation of Derrida quoted by Judith Butler, the text reads ‘der kategorische Imperativ riecht nach Grausamkeit,’ not ‘reicht von’. ‘Riecht nach’ means ‘reeks of’; ‘reicht von’ means ‘ranges from’. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale, as well as the 1994 Cambridge translation by Carol Diethe, give ‘smells of cruelty’, but (as Peggy Kamuf, the translator of The Death Penalty, notes) in the French original Derrida actually uses the English word ‘stinks’ – neither ‘reeks’ nor ‘smells’ – to translate the German.

Michael Robertson

Augsburg


National Scorpions in a European Bottle

The Washington Post examines the chances of a right-wing block in the European Parliament and uncovers a few interesting cross-currents among European Euroskeptic parties:

With France’s National Front the likely anchor of any nationalist coalition, it has been up to Le Pen to try to forge a legislative bloc. Success would mean winning at least 25 seats from seven countries. Though almost assured of enough seats, Le Pen appears to be at least one nation shy of the country threshold.

Meanwhile, one nationalist group, the United Kingdom Independence Party, has refused to work with her. Like Le Pen, UKIP chief Nigel Farage has sought to position his party as sane moderates who happen to have an anti-E.U., anti-immigration bent. While he touts his party as mainstream, Le Pen’s National Front, he insists, is just faking it.

“Our view is that whatever Marine Le Pen is trying to do with the Front National, anti-Semitism is still imbedded in that party, and we’re not going to work with them now or at any point in the future,” Farage told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

But even her critics concede that Le Pen has determinedly sought to distance herself from her controversial father and has made strides toward steering the party away from explicit racism. In October, the National Front ejected a mayoral candidate, Anne-Sophie Leclere, after she publicly compared France’s French Guiana-born justice minister, Christiane Taubira, to a monkey.

In fact, Le Pen is portraying the party as the best ally French Jews could have against a common enemy.

“Not only am I not anti-Semitic, but I have explained to my Jewish compatriots that the movement most able to protect them is the Front National,” she said. “For the greatest danger today is the rise of an anti-Semitism in the suburbs, stemming from Muslim fundamentalists.”

It seems to me the European nationalist right can be traced to two factors, the first being the economic distress in many southern and Eastern European countries. But that doesn't explain the rise of the right in Scandinavia or Britain.

What we're seeing, I think, is proof of the uncomfortable fact that as Robert Putnam reluctantly concluded, "[i]n the short to medium run, … immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital." It appears impossible to induce ethnically homogeneous societies like those in Europe to harmoniously integrate people from radically different cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds. The best we can hope for is a largely peaceful but not static-free co-existence. 

Another factor is the often-feckless response of the pro-diversity crowd. No matter how much outrage or sarcasm you direct at the latest racist comment from a Front National member, their message will still resound with millions of people. And this is where many European social democrats turn to counterproctive responses:

  1. lecturing voters who keep stubbornly voting for the "wrong" parties;
  2. even more patronizingly, searching for the 'real' reasons behind anti-immigrant sentiment; and/or
  3. blaming the 'rat-catchers' and 'demagogues' and 'populists' for 'fanning the flames' of anti-immigrant sentiment (as if were somehow dishonest to address your clientele's genuine concerns).

The approaches seem to posit that there might still be a way to 're-educate' ordinary Europeans to embrace diversity. If only we could get rid of the demagogues! If only we could find the perfect way to showcase the benefits of diversity! But I suspect lots of European voters say they don't like foreigners because they don't like foreigners. And they never will, no matter how often you remind them that they really, really should

I'm not sure this particular problem has a solution. But as long as anti-immigrant parties are in the minority, it probably doesn't need one. The vast majority of Europeans, whether they're uncomfortable with immigrants or not, are still unwilling to vote for parties whose main focus is immigrant-bashing. Preserving that status quo is probably the best Europe can do.


The Kevins are Failing in France

A French sociologist has released a study showing that French students with English names get worse scores on the bac: 

What jumps out is the high frequency of English language names on the left hand side of the picture. People named Kevin, Anthony, Jordan, Cindy, or Dylan were much less likely to receive high scores. Although there is some evidence that names can affect how children perform in school, this more likely reflects naming preferences: parents in lower social classes are more likely to name their kids after characters from American tv shows or music groups than parents from higher social classes.

via.


The Charlemagne Division

The last troops to fight for Germany during World War II weren't German:

The 33. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS Charlemagne (französische Nr. 1) and Charlemagne Regiment are collective names used for units of French volunteers in the Wehrmacht and later Waffen-SS during World War II. From 7,340 at its peak in 1944, the strength of the division fell to just sixty men in May 1945.

They were arguably the last German unit to see action in a pitched battle during World War II, where they held central Berlin and the Führerbunker against the onslaught of Soviet infantry.

 


Tapez 3615 pour des Entretiens Lubricieuses

Minitel1
This week's German Rule of the Week is French. Matthew Fraser, proud 'Anglo-Saxon' he, splutters at the recent decision of the French broadcast regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, to ban the mention of Facebook or Twitter on French radio and television:

Anglo-Saxons who live in France, as I do, constantly struggle with the puzzling paradox in a society universally admired for its splendid “joie de vivre” — yet infamous for its oppressive bureaucratic culture of legalistic codes and decrees. The term “French bureaucracy” is shorthand for the worst imaginable Kafkaesque nightmare.

In France you cannot put up awnings in your own home without first obtaining permission from some government department, which will officiously stipulate what colours are allowed. One could easily draw up a list of French micro-regulations that, to the Anglo-Saxon disposition, seem utterly absurd, if not totally objectionable.

The latest one doubtless would rank high on that list. This week we learned that France’s broadcasting regulator had just issued another decree: henceforth, hosts of television and radio programmes must refrain from uttering the words “Facebook” and “Twitter” on the air.

If this had happened in any self-respecting Anglo-Saxon country, Fraser states, it would be met with disbelief and mockery, and quickly reversed, but

in France, after the sages inside the CSA bureaucratic bunker handed down their ruling, there was scarcely any reaction at all in the French media. Some newspapers published fairly straightforward news articles on the decision, a couple provided more detailed analysis. Coverage on websites was somewhat more probing, and French bloggers questioned the decision. But the story came and went. No stupefaction, no outrage, no fulminating columns in the mainstream press. Business as usual. 

French regulators, needless to say, were armed with a rationale for their meddling. The CSA maintained that any on-air mention of a programme’s Facebook page or Twitter feed constitutes ”clandestine advertising” for these social networks because they are commercial operations. In a word, French television and radio programmes cannot be seen to be promoting Facebook and Twitter as commercial brands. 

Fraser then argues that anti-Anglo-Saxon bias was probably another driving factor for the decision. And then he provides a delightful historical interlude:

A relevant historical comparison makes my point. Before the explosion of the Internet in the 1990s, the French were infatuated with their leading-edge electronic information system called Minitel. During the 1980s, when I first moved to France, the Minitel was the object of tremendous national pride. Nearly everyone in this country had a Minitel terminal in their home. The plastic terminals were easy to procure because the Minitel was a state-backed technology made available through the state-owned telephone company, France Telecom. I picked up my Minitel terminal (see image below), free of charge at my local Post Office. 

In those days, you couldn’t watch a television programme in France without the host urging you to “tapez 3615” on your Minitel to connect and get more information or express your opinion. The numbers “3615”, for reasons I never understood, were the standard code to access the Minitel system. The French government made billions on the Minitel because time spent logged on was tariffed by state-owned France Telecom. The Minitel’s dirty secret was that text-based porn services like “Ulla” — famous for its lascivious poster adverts on the back of Parisian buses — were by far the most profitable. Through “Minitel Rose”, the French government was in the porn business.

Now, I couldn't let this go without trying to locate one of those famously 'lascivious' ads. Here is one, found in this delightful blog post (f) about advertisements for defunct technologies:

36_15_ulla

My God, what I would give for just one transcription of an Ulla service chat from, say, 1983. If only there was a serious, respectable Histoire de la pornographie francaise that could help me satisfy my lust for knowledge.

To end this rambling post, I can only ask the question that is on every reader's mind: why has the nation which has given us, for instance, Emmanuelle Béart, given its national text-porn service a German woman's name and a Teutonic-looking avatar?


Early Email in Europe

Fax-machine
A highly-placed source relates this anecdote about the puzzlement caused at the French Finance Ministry when email was finally introduced there in August of 2009*:

They were all puzzled about whether ministry staff could send an email to their own superiors, and if they did, whether that superior could answer by email or would they have to answer by letter? Also, to communicate with a staffer in another agency, normally you'd escalate the letter within your agency, and it would be signed by a chain going upward, then laterally move to the other agency, and downward again to the right person -- how do you do that over email? If you get an email from the general public -- do you answer by letter? He told me they used to do a lot of printing out of emails, and faxing them around. :) Ahhh... good old French bureaucracy.

* Sorry, couldn't help myself.