Diverse City: On the Cultural and Racial Politics of the World Cup

When France won the World Cup this July, their second win in twenty years, Paris leapt to its feet and marched in mass to the Arc de Triomphe. We streamed in the hundreds of thousands into the street, compelled by a force greater than any individual will, the kind of collective spirit that fuels a protest, a rebellion, a revolution. By the time the impromptu parade turned west onto the Rue de Rivoli, I starting looking around at my fellow revelers. I wanted to know who “we” were, that pernicious pronoun that is so often deployed to distinguish between “us” and “them,” to identify who belongs, to determine whether our spontaneous assembly would read as a parade or a riot. We were French of every color and stripe, nationals and expats and immigrants, singing the national anthem in accents that spoke only of our camaraderie, our exuberance, and our pride.

The day after France’s victory, Trevor Noah, the host of the American political comedy program “The Daily Show,” congratulated “Africa”—the continent—on its historic World Cup win. Citing the disproportionate representation of people of color on the French national football team, Noah quipped, “You don’t get that tan by hanging out in the south of France, my friends.” The audience laughed and applauded.

Noah’s joke was ill received in France, to the extent that Gérard Araud, the outspoken French ambassador to the United States, felt compelled to respond. “By calling them an African team, it seems you are denying their Frenchness,” Araud wrote in a formal letter to the late night host. “This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French.” For Araud, Noah’s innocent comment ironically recalled the nativist rhetoric of the French far right, which has routinely condemned the national football team as an “unworthy” representative of France.

By imposing a uniform “African” identity on the French national football team, Noah also ignored the players’ explicit self-identification as French and only French. Araud continued: “As many of the players have stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country, but the great majority of them—all but two out of twenty-three—were born in France. They were educated in France. They learned to play soccer in France. They are French citizens. They are proud of their country: France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.”

Noah, who is of South African descent, was not convinced. In a web-exclusive “between the scenes” segment filmed on Wednesday, Noah responded to Araud’s criticism, claiming that the cosmopolitan ideal to which the ambassador aspired was contingent on the effacement of France’s violent colonial past. For Noah, the players’ “rich and various backgrounds” were in fact “a reflection of France’s colonialism.”

Khaled Beydoun, a law professor and the author of a recent book on Islamophobia, concurred with Noah in an opinion piece published late last week in The Guardian. For Beydoun, the “romantic ideal” of racial colorblindness belies the dismal reality of racial relations in contemporary France, which he describes apocalyptically as “a nation ripped apart by explosive race riots in the overpopulated immigrant suburbs of Paris, Marseille and other metropolises; a state that institutionalized Islamophobia and orients Muslim identity as antithetical to French identity; a political landscape where the xenophobic and white supremacist Front National is a mainstream political party.”

As a scholar of the Algerian War of Independence and what I describe in my dissertation as the “traumatic reverberations” of decolonization in contemporary France, I have to admit that Noah has a valid point. Yet his comments nevertheless reveal a critical misunderstanding of cultural and racial politics in contemporary France (as well as, I would argue, a misleading and idealized misrepresentation of the American “melting pot” myth, but I will leave that argument to the good folks at Back Story).

In Noah’s understanding, assimilation into the French national identity requires the renunciation or erasure of one’s cultural, ethnic, or racial origins. For Noah, the French model of assimilation is intolerant of difference and blithely ignorant of the colonial conflicts that have shaped contemporary France. By contrast, American multiculturalism, commonly known as the “melting pot” model, celebrates difference and hyphenated identities (although this was not always the case; President Theodore Roosevelt, in an address to the Knights of Columbus at Carnegie Hall in 1915, famously argued that “a hyphenated American is not an American at all,” but rather “a traitor to American institutions”).

Contrary to Noah’s assumption, however, the objective of assimilation is not necessarily to suppress cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, racial, or religious diversity in France, but rather to celebrate the civic values that constitute the French community as a whole. Forged by revolution, this notion of national identity emanates from the founding ideology of modern France. Following the overthrow of the French monarchy in 1792, it was necessary for the founders of the First French Republic to articulate a notion of national belonging derived from “a voluntary commitment to common political values” and “an adherence to the Republican ideal.” As the political scientist William Safran has argued, “membership in the French national community meant being heirs of the people of the Enlightenment, the makers of revolution, and the promoters of the rights of man.”

The enduring cleavage between the French assimilation model and American multiculturalism comes down to the contested legacy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution(s), and the expansion of the French colonial empire throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. It hardly takes a historian to recognize that the universal ideals of the French Enlightenment did not apply to the indigenous or otherwise racialized populations of France’s colonies, where colonized peoples were denied equal legal protections while simultaneously made subject to the full force of the law. And France, the nation responsible for the revolutionary “Declaration of the Rights of Man” in 1789, also has a sordid history of human rights abuses, including the mass extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, the participation in the Transatlantic slave trade, the complicity of the Vichy Regime in the deportation of French Jews under the German Occupation, the systematic use of torture against Algerian combatants during the Algerian War of Independence, and the ongoing pervasiveness of racial profiling and police brutality in communities of color.

This contradiction is at the core of Noah’s controversial comments on the World Cup. For Noah, the question is not simply, “Why can’t the football players express pride in their French identity while also commemorating their immigrant roots?” but rather, “What is it about the racial or religious identity of these players that the French find so particularly threatening to their notion of national belonging?” Put another way, why is it considered an insult or a threat to identify as an African or an Arab or a Muslim in France?

In his 2007 book, Le communautarisme: Mythes et réalités, the French sociologist Laurent Bouvet addresses this issue through an analysis of communautarisme, or “communitarianism,” in contemporary France. In his introduction, Bouvet distinguishes between two notions of community, one singular and the other plural. In his 1782 book Considerations on the Government of Poland, the Enlightenment-era thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose political writings inspired the founders of the First French Republic, defines community in the singular as the unanimity “requisite to the formation of the body politic and of the fundamental laws necessary to its existence.” In its ideal incarnation, this idea of community constitutes the condition of possibility and legitimacy for the exercise of popular sovereignty, which is rooted in the rational and volitional participation of its members in a shared sociopolitical sphere defined by common civic values.

Community in the plural, however, evokes conditions of belonging based on multiple (often exclusionary) criteria of cultural identification, such as race, religion, or region. Similar to identity politics, communitarianism emphasizes the constitutive role of specific community structures in the subjective formation of the individual, contesting the idea of an autonomous political subject, impervious to the influence of culture, ideology, or class. Beyond identity-based claims to greater inclusion and visibility, communitarianism challenges the representative capacity of existing institutions and political assemblages. Consequently, communitarianism calls into question not only who counts as French, but also what it means, essentially, to be French.

Far from frivolous, then, this quarrel between a South African comedian and the French ambassador to the United States touches on a number of the core problems concerning cultural and racial politics in contemporary France. To debate the origins and identity of the French national football team is to engage in a philosophical inquiry into the autonomy of the subject and the relation between the self and society. But beyond the abstract concerns of ontology, the debate also reveals a cleavage in sociological conceptions of multiculturalism and pluralism in liberal democracies. And from a political perspective, the debate interrogates the role and impact of identity in strategic coalition building.

I am reminded of a story from Homer’s Odyssey. After twenty years at sea, Odysseus returns home alone after all of his companions have been slaughtered. He puts his house in order, he kills the men who plundered his stores, and he makes love with his beloved wife, Penelope. He is tired, and it is dark. But his journey is not over, and he cannot yet rest in peace. The prophet Tiresius tells his Odysseus that he must make one final sacrifice to Poseidon, the vengeful god of the sea:

“‘Go forth once more, you must . . . carry your well-planed oar until you come to a race of people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign—unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea, Poseidon. . . .’”

Odysseus will not know peace until the tools of war go unrecognized. And I cannot help but wonder how many decades, how many generations, how many centuries, it will take for race in France to shed its status as a weapon, a threat, a constant reminder of French colonialism. When will a hyphenated identity cease to cut as a knife across the symbolic unity of France? What will it mean to be French in a nation that has neither forgotten nor effaced its colonial past, but has truly embraced its once colonized subjects to build a better future together, for all?

But the sad fact of the matter is that race and religion remain weapons of division in contemporary France, and to bury them now, before we are ready, would be to sow the bad seeds of resentment. I opened this post with a triumphant image of national unity—a cheering crowd of football fans all striding confidently down the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe—but I left out the part about the smoke bombs exploding in clouds of blue and red on the pavement, and how I thought in that moment about the unthinkable: what would happen to us all in the case of a terrorist attack, at a time and place when we were at our most proud, and our most vulnerable.

France may have won the World Cup, but its fight against the forces that would destroy it from within—the racism, the xenophobia, the bigotry—is far from over.

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Pig City: On the #MeToo Movement and the Fractures of French Feminism

I was nineteen and living in the south of France when it happened the first time. A man whom I had briefly met at a birthday party followed me into the women’s restroom at a pub in Avignon, blocked the bathroom door with his body, grabbed me by the wrists, and groped me. Two weeks later, it happened again. I was standing on the sidewalk outside of a seedy nightclub near the university when a stranger lifted me up, flung me onto the ground, and then straddled me with his legs and held me down with one hand while he reached up my skirt with the other.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, public discussions about the prevalence of sexual violence have forced these painful memories into the front of my mind. Since early October, the #MeToo movement has dominated social media with displays of solidarity for the survivors of sexual violence and, perhaps more problematically, the naming and public shaming of its perpetrators.

A few days after the #MeToo movement surfaced on social media, a French journalist named Sandra Muller followed suit, publicly accusing Eric Brion, the former head of a French television channel, of having sent her salacious messages in a professional context. Inspired by a two-page spread in the French newspaper Le Parisien that referred to Weinstein as the porc, or “pig,” of Hollywood, Muller invented her own hashtag, #BalanceTonPorc, and invited her followers to name their harassers.

As thousands of women (and some men) have taken to social media to share their experiences of sexual violence, the #MeToo movement has quickly transformed from an expression of individual outrage into a collective consciousness-raising campaign. In this sense, the #MeToo movement has revived one of the core tenets of American second-wave feminism, which sought to recast the private or personal concerns of women as the products of sociopolitical structures of oppression. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminist activists and scholars like Betty Friedan argued that one of the primary impediments to female solidarity was the social isolation of women in modern capitalist societies. One of the explicit goals of early feminist consciousness-raising campaigns was therefore to provide spaces of civic deliberation that would allow women to understand their own experiences and emotions as part of a shared system of oppression.

The #MeToo movement shares a similar dynamic and objective. By transforming the personal into the political, the #MeToo movement has demonstrated that isolated instances of sexual violence—from lewd comments from a taxi driver to the abuse of asymmetrical power relations in the workplace—constitute a widespread cultural phenomenon that stems from sociopolitical structures of systemic inequality.

Yet for the signatories of an open letter published in Le Monde on January 9, 2018, the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent, #BalanceTonPorc, have gone too far. The letter (an English translation can be found here), signed by the French actress Catherine Deneuve and dozens of other notable Frenchwomen, denounces the #MeToo movement as a “puritanical” form of feminism that infantilizes women and denies them their sexual power.

“As women,” they write, “we do not recognize ourselves in this feminism, which goes beyond denouncing abuse of power and has turned into a hatred of men and of sexuality.” Comparing the denunciation of perpetrators of sexual violence to a “witch hunt” (a profoundly ironic appropriation of a term that once referred to the baseless persecution of women), the writers continue, “It is the nature of Puritanism to borrow, in the name of the supposed collective good, the arguments of the protection of women and of their emancipation to better chain them to their status as eternal victims; poor little things under the control of demonic phallocrats, like in the good old days of witchcraft.”

Further criticizing the “purging wave” that has swept perpetrators of sexual violence from positions of power, the writers regret that the #MeToo movement has contributed to a climate of “totalitarianism” where public shaming has eclipsed due process. Yet in their disingenuous defense of due process, the writers seem to prop up the perpetrators of sexual violence while dismissing their accusers as prudish or puerile. “Today we are educated enough to understand that sexual impulses are, by nature, offensive and primitive,” they write, “but we are also able to tell the difference between an awkward attempt to pick someone up and what constitutes a sexual assault.” The writers criticize what they see as a culture of victimhood that has coddled women to such an extent that they can no longer recognize the difference between gallantry and chauvinist aggression.

In their conclusion, Deneuve and her fellow signatories call on women to resist the appeal of victimization and accept the potential pitfalls that have come with liberation. “Accidents that can affect a woman’s body do not necessarily affect her dignity and must not, as hard as they can be, necessary make her a perpetual victim,” they write. “Because we are not reducible to our bodies, our inner freedom is inviolable. And this freedom that we cherish is not without risks and responsibilities.” In this paradoxical conclusion, the authors appropriate a classic feminist argument opposing biological determinism (“we are not reducible to our bodies”) with an existentialist iteration of feminine agency (“our inner freedom is inviolable”), while simultaneously absolving men of their own agency in and responsibility for the “accidents” that befall women.

Finally, the writers of the letter defend the droit d’importuner, or the “right to bother,” as “indispensable” to both sexual and artistic freedom. But by reducing sexuality to a “naturally primitive drive,” the writers’ defense of the droit d’importuner naturalizes the misogynistic and violent behavior of men. True feminism, to the contrary, “believes that sexuality is a cultural construction,” which is what allows mentalities about acceptable sexual behavior to evolve over time. In this sense, argues Christine Bard, the stance adopted by the writers of the letter is inherently “antifeminist.”

Similarly, in an editorial entitled “Un porc, tu nais?” (“Are you born a pig?”), a clever reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s famous dictum (“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”), the Franco-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani criticizes the letter’s latent essentialism. She writes, “not all men . . . are pigs. . . . Lurking behind this generalization, behind this so-called ‘right to seduce,’ is a terribly deterministic view of masculinity: ‘you are born a pig.’”

Slimani, whose first novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre (“In the Garden of the Ogre”), sympathetically portrays a female nymphomaniac, goes on to argue that the writers’ defense of sexual liberation paradoxically disenfranchises the very same women they purport to empower. “I am not a fragile little thing. I am not asking to be protected but rather to assert my right to security and respect. I am not a victim,” she writes. “But that millions of women are victims [of sexual violence] is a fact and not a moral judgment or an essentialism.” Concisely argued and justifiably outraged, Slimani’s response insists on the fact that sexual liberation and sexual violence are coextensive in contemporary Western societies.

While I find the writers’ diminutive attitude towards sexual violence reprehensible, it is their devaluation of the discourse of liberation that I consider the most disturbing element of their argument. In this respect, the writers’ argument is surprisingly complex, and it requires some cultural context and rhetorical unpacking to understand its subtleties. Underpinning the writers’ argument is an understanding of sexual liberation that has long divided schools of feminist thought in America and France.

A decade before the sexual revolution in France, Simone de Beauvoir criticized her American counterparts for their sexual intolerance and misandry, or hatred of men, ideological positions that de Beauvoir saw as contributing to the persistence of the gender divide and counterproductive to the liberation of women. In her essay “America Day by Day,” which de Beauvoir wrote during a stay in the United States in 1947, de Beauvoir observes, “American women have only contempt for French women, [who are] always too happy to please their men and too accepting of their whims.”

In the 1960s and 70s, when feminist activists were organizing clandestine consciousness-raising campaigns in living rooms and coffee shops across America to educate American women about the political nature of unpaid domestic labor, French feminists were openly celebrating their sexual agency and autonomy as a source of sociopolitical empowerment.

This decades-old divide between schools of feminist thought continues to inform discussions of feminism in France today.

Following de Beauvoir, mainstream feminism in France has continued to champion female sexual empowerment in the feminist fight against cultural chauvinism, gender inequality, and the inherent misogyny of religion. But as Agnès Poirier has observed, “there is also a rather recent American import of feminism, one that often comes across [in France] as opportunistic and ‘man-hating,’ one that turns a blind eye to religious misogyny. . . . They present themselves at the new vanguard of French feminism, the new blood, except they can sound to some like Stalinist commissars, or Robespierre in culottes, passing edicts about what is acceptable conduct.”

For Deneuve and her fellow signatories, the #MeToo movement represents the risk of “an insidious moral order” that polices sexuality in the name of the women’s protection. According to the French historian Michelle Perrot, “the authors of the letter fear that the “MeToo movement diminishes [faire reculer] creative, artistic, and sexual freedom, that a moralistic backlash comes and destroys what liberation thinking has fought hard to obtain, that women’s bodies and sex become again this forbidden territory and that a new moral order introduces a new censorship against the free movement of desire.” And for Perrot, “There is indeed reason to share their fear.”

I would argue, however, that by framing female sexual empowerment as an issue of free speech, Deneuve and her fellow signatories adopt a conservative rhetorical stance that conflates women’s liberation with the French principle of laïcité, or secularism. In recent years, French conservatives have deployed the rhetoric of women’s liberation to promote policies prohibiting “ostentatious” displays of religious affiliation in public places, including sidewalks, schools, and even beaches. These policies have focused primarily on the sartorial practices of Muslim women, whose choice to wear a veil or dress modestly has been portrayed as antithetical to both women’s liberation and secularism in France.

In the summer of 2016, for example, when a number of municipalities in the south of France banned the wearing of the “burkini,” a modest beachwear favored by Muslim women, conservatives deployed the rhetoric of women’s liberation to justify the religiously discriminatory policy. Manuel Valls, then Prime Minister of President François Hollande’s ostensibly socialist administration, came out in favor of the municipal policies, arguing, “The ‘burkini’ is not a new swimwear fashion; it is the transmission of a political project, against society, founded notably upon the subjection of women.” Although the French Council of State ultimately ruled against the municipal ‘burkini’ bans, the incident remains a poignant reminder of how the rhetoric of women’s liberation has been deployed to justify racism and Islamophobia in France.

Similarly, in their critique of the #MeToo movement, the writers single out “religious extremists” as enemies of sexual liberation. They write, “Instead of helping women empower themselves,” they argue, “this frenzy for sending the ‘pigs’ to the slaughterhouse . . . serves the interests of the enemies of sexual liberation, religious extremists, the worst of the reactionaries, and those who believe, in their righteousness and the Victorian values that go alone with it, that women are species ‘apart,’ children parading as adults, asking to be protected.”

In November 2017, Alain Finkielkraut similarly denounced the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent, #BalanceTonPorc, for distracting from the misogyny of Arab and Muslim-majority cultures. He writes, “One of the objectives of the #BalanceTonPorc movement was to elude [noyer le poisson] the problem of Islam.” Finkielkraut goes on to cite a number of recent events where European women have been attacked or subjugated by Muslim men, including the New Years Eve attacks in Cologne, the sexual harassment of women in the Parisian neighborhood of Chapelle-Pajol, and cafés in Sevran and Rillieux-la-Pape, suburbs of Paris and Lyon, respectively, where the presence of women has been deemed “undesirable” by male patrons. Although they do not cite Finkielkraut directly, the writers of the letter similarly scapegoat “religious extremists” for the subjugation of women.

Since the publication of the letter last week, Deneuve has since publicly apologized and distanced herself from some of her fellow signatories, stating that while she stood by her original position, she did not condone sexual violence. “I’m a free woman and I will remain one,” writes Deneuve in Libération. “I fraternally salute all women victims of odious acts who may have felt aggrieved by the letter in Le Monde. It is to them, and them alone, that I apologize.”

Despite Deneuve’s apology, the initial letter and the vociferous response it provoked have exposed deep fractures in French feminism; their resolution will determine the future of feminism in France. If French feminism is to remain viable, it must recognize and rectify structures of inequality in French culture rather than scapegoating its foreign imports. The liberation of women in France, I believe, will require a fundamental revision of what it means to be free and what it means to be French.

Unhappy City: On the Cultural Dimensions of Happiness, or the French ‘Joie de Malheur’

“Imagine dying and being grateful you’d gone to heaven, until one day (or one century) it dawned on you that your main mood was melancholy, although you were constantly convinced that happiness lay just around the next corner.” This, writes the American expatriate writer Edmund White in his 2001 book, The Flâneur, is what it is like to live in Paris for years, or in his case, even decades. “It’s a mild hell so comfortable that it resembles heaven.”

The French have such an attractive and sophisticated civilization, and their taste in every domain—from gastronomy to fashion and philosophy—is so sharp and yet subtle, that the foreigner can easily be seduced into believing that mastering the French way of life is a sure although jealously guarded path to existential happiness. But if this true about France, White continues, “then why is [the foreigner] so lonely? So sad? Why is there such an elegiac feeling hanging over this city with the gilded cupola gleaming over the Emperor’s Tomb and the foaming, wild horses prancing out of a sea of verdigris on the roof of the Grand Palais? . . . Why is he unhappy . . . even when he strolls past the barnacled towers of Notre Dame soaring above the Seine and a steep wall so dense with ivy it looks like the side of a galleon sinking under moss-laden chains?”

Even by European standards, the French enjoy a relatively high quality of life, ensured by a liberal welfare state, universal healthcare, free access to higher education, and generous labor benefits, including a minimum of five weeks of paid vacation a year and a mandatory thirty-five hour workweek. And for someone from chaotic yet obstinately optimistic America—where an entire generation of college graduates has been crippled by debt and an unexpected illness or accident can bankrupt the uninsured—France appears an idyllic hamlet of sanity and social comfort.

But despite their cultural affluence and material prosperity, the French remain notoriously unhappy. In a recent poll conducted by the European Social Survey group, France consistently obtained “high scores in negative dimensions of mental health, such as psychological distress and mental disorders.” Among thirteen European countries surveyed between 2002 and 2010, France ranked second-to-last in perceived wellbeing and life satisfaction, trailed only by Portugal. Similarly, in 2011, a WIN-Gallop poll revealed that expectations for the coming year ranked lower in France than in Iraq or Afghanistan. The prevalence of depressive tendencies in France correlates to one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, constituting the primary cause of death among French adults between the ages of 30 and 39, and an exceptionally high consumption of psychotropic drugs.

The economic implications of these findings are paramount. While American enterprises like have gone to exorbitant lengths to ensure the happiness of their employees, the French continue to languish in an idiosyncratic gloom, reinforcing concerns about the declining influence of the French nation in an increasingly globalized world.

In a study published in 2011, the French economist Claudia Senik describes the apparent contradiction between material prosperity and perceived wellbeing in France as the French happiness paradox. In her study, Senik attempts to disentangle the influence of objective circumstances versus cultural factors by comparing levels of perceived wellbeing among immigrants and French expatriates. She found that while immigrants who move to France report higher levels of happiness than their French counterparts, the longer immigrants live in France, the less happy they claim to be. Meanwhile, individuals native to France who have emigrated to other countries continue to report comparatively low levels of happiness. These findings are consistent across different socioeconomic strata, suggesting that there is something peculiar about French culture—that is, “the ensemble of psychological and ideological mechanisms and dispositions that constitute the process of the transformation of experiences into wellbeing”—that is making France’s population miserable. The mere fact of living in France, writes Senik, “reduces by twenty percept the probability of declaring oneself happy.”

Senik concludes by arguing that the French education system and other instances of early socialization are largely to blame for the unhappiness of the French. In stark contrast to the liberal education system in America, education in France is characterized by its conservatism and severity. In the year I spent teaching English in a high school in southwestern France, I was shocked by the austerity of my colleagues, who were quick to deliver criticism and discipline yet withholding of counsel and encouragement.

Writing for The New Yorker in response to Senik’s article, Richard Brody instead attributes the characteristic malheur, or unhappiness, of the French to the critical content rather than the formal structure of the education system in France. Put another way, Brody suggests that it is the what rather than the how of French education that is responsible for the ennui of the French. “Unhappiness,” Brody writes, “often implies the desire for change—in circumstances, or even in oneself—and so dissatisfaction with life despite its material benefits suggests a kind of idealism—of intellectual vision of possibilities beyond the actual.” From this perspective, Brody suggests, the collective discontent of the French might be the expression of an idealistic intellectualism invested in introspection and ideological critique.

Indeed, French philosophy has long explored the intersection between the private and the public, the personal and the political. As early as the sixteenth century, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne examined subjective experience as a form of ideological critique; his innovative essays combine introspection with sociopolitical commentary. Similarly, in the eighteenth century, the radical political philosophy of the French Enlightenment coincided with an increased focus on self-reflection; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who contributed to the constitution of modern political thought with the publication of Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité (“Discourse on Inequality”) and Du contrat social (“The Social Contract”), also revolutionized the autobiographical mode with his Confessions, and later, Les rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire (“Reveries of a Solitary Walker”).

While France is known for its decadent aestheticism and joie de vivre, an international reputation that further complicates the French happiness paradox, Brody suggests that the French instead revel in a kind of “joie de penser, a joy of thinking that derives pleasure from its [own] displeasure and derives constructive energy from its self-conscious sense of resistance.” In other words, if the introspective skepticism constitutive of French culture is a constant source of “self-renewing, self-critical, self-affirming unhappiness,” it also produces a peculiar kind of pleasure in and of itself, an auto-affection that Brody terms joie de malheur, or a “joy of unhappiness.”

The apparent contradiction between material comfort and existential ennui is an absurdity that suits the French like a well-tailored jacket, and for centuries, the French have refined their paradoxical joie de malheur into an unparalleled artistic expression. Indeed, argues Brody, “rhetorical pessimism in the face of a perhaps unparalleled atmosphere of aesthetic sophistication and dialectical nuance may be precisely . . . [the] most remarkable and distinctive product” of French society.

Brody cites the experimental documentary Chronique d’un été, directed and produced in 1960 by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, as a case in point. An early experiment in cinéma vérité, the film begins with a series of interviews on the streets of Paris, each initiated by the deceptively straightforward yet strangely disarming question: “Are you happy?” Over the course of the discussions and digressions that follow—with factory workers, struggling artists, impoverished immigrants, university students, and even a suntanned starlet from Saint-Tropez—the basic premise of a person’s private happiness becomes inextricably linked with politics and the ability to speak and be heard in the public sphere.

Each of the subjects portrayed in Chronique d’un été is, in their own way, both happy and unhappy (and the one in spite of the other). And while many of the subjects portrayed express private concerns about work, money, family, and love, Brody argues that “the howling unhappiness that the film uncovers has its roots in politics and history, or, rather, in the repression of politics and history.” Over the course of the film, personal happiness (or a lack thereof) becomes a means of talking, albeit in abstract terms, about the Algerian War and allegations of the French Army’s use of torture in Algeria, as well as the pervasive silence regarding the complicity of the French government with the German Occupation and the deportation of French Jews to concentration camps during the Second World War. In this way, Chronique d’un été breaks down the barrier between the private and the public, constituting even the most intimate of confessions as a form of sociopolitical commentary and ideological critique.

How, then, can we define what it means to be happy in France, and what precisely do we mean when we say that the French are unhappy? Is the French happiness paradox the product of an austere and inflexible education system, as Senik argues, or is rhetorical pessimism just French for a joie de penser, as Brody suggests? Is the collective discontent of the French contributing to France’s economic decline, or is the distinctiveness of France’s cultural sphere a product more valuable than worker productivity? Are the French truly unhappy, or are they simply lacking a language to express an underlying condition that might otherwise be described as happiness? Is this place heaven or hell?

One way to understand the French happiness paradox is to read it in the way that Albert Camus, the existentialist author and philosopher, reinterprets the myth of Sisyphus in his 1942 essay by the same name. In the Greek myth, the gods punish Sisyphus for attempting to evade death and condemn him to perpetually push a rock to the peak of a tall mountain, at which point the heavy stone would tumble back down the steep slope.

Camus reads the myth of Sisyphus as an allegory for the absurdity of human existence. For Camus, the feeling of the absurd comes from the realization that the world lacks any inherent meaning, order, or reason. Camus writes, “At this point in his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need [for reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

Yet despite acknowledging the absurdity of existence, Camus rejects suicidal despair as an ethical response to the meaningless of life; instead, he offers the myth of Sisyphus as a radical affirmation of life. The lucid recognition of the absurdity of existence “drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.” Paradoxically, by liberating us from the futile search for future meaning, the recognition of absurdity allows us to live fully in the present, in the beauty, pleasure, and “implacable grandeur” of existence.

Camus concludes his essay by leaving Sisyphus at the foot of his mountain, preparing once again to push his mortal burden to its peak. “At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, [like] Sisyphus returning to his rock, in that silent pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him.” Recognizing the “wholly human origin of all that is human” is what allows man to attribute meaning to an inherently absurd existence. And for this reason, Camus concludes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

To take up Camus’s famous refrain, I like to imagine that the French, for all their existential grumblings, are happy. And it is their relentless recognition of and reckoning with the absurdity of their own existence that gives meaning to their joy.

Dry City: On Sobriety and Its Discontents

The first question that people always ask me when I tell them that I am not drinking is “why,” as though choosing to abstain from alcohol in a social setting is an action that demands explanation, a decision that cannot stand alone. “Why?” The question conceals a thousand others, intimate and unanswerable. Are you punishing yourself? Did you do something while drunk of which you are ashamed? Did you hurt someone you love? Did someone hurt you? Do you have an alcohol problem? Has your drinking led to drugs? Does your family have a history of substance abuse? Are you expecting a child? Are you concerned for your health? What medications are you taking? Are you acting on doctor’s orders? Are you dissatisfied with your body image? Have you gained weight? Are you spending too much money on alcohol? Are you broke? Are you depressed? Are you stressed? Does alcohol make you angry? Does it make you sad? Do you tend to cry after one too many martinis? (Yes.)

Bartenders are the only people who refrain from asking “why” when I order a soda water with lime at the bar. They know. Or they don’t need to know. And Thomas. My friend Thomas caught himself halfway through the question, blushed in that bashful way he does, and then promptly apologized. I thanked him.

Drinking is a social activity, but each individual’s relationship to alcohol is a profoundly personal matter. The appeal of alcohol is that it acts as a social lubricant, as inebriation effaces inhibitions. Each drink peels back the calcified layers of your (my) public persona, freeing the fleshy beast that lives inside your (my) social skin: lively, reckless, vulnerable, unafraid. But who is the beast (the creature, the kitten, the child) that comes out after dark with a glass in her (my) hand? Sometimes I don’t recognize her as myself.

My therapist asks me gently to close my eyes and imagine myself in a moment in the past where I felt other than myself. A little tipsy (wine tipsy, then gin tipsy), I am taking a selfie in the mirror of a bathroom in the basement of a gay bar in Kentucky. I am wearing a fantastic gold sequined dress and a faux leather motorcycle jacket with zippers. My lips are my favorite shade of red, and my friend Stephanie has curled and sprayed my hair into submission. It is early summer, and the humidity has made my dark eye makeup smudge a little. I pout a little. I jut out my hip a little, posing for nobody in the mirror. I try not to think about Lacan. Rimbaud comes to mind instead: Je est un(e) autre (“I is somebody else”). I send the picture to my friend Arielle back in Chicago, who compliments my hair.

Another “why” springs to mind. Why I am so offended when people ask me why I am not drinking? What insecurities am I projecting onto an altogether innocent, albeit unintentionally offensive, line of questioning? Why do I struggle to respond? What would my therapist say? Am I ashamed of my self-imposed sobriety? Is it perhaps true that I am punishing myself for my own misbehavior? Am I afraid of some lurking danger, or the crumbling of the walls that I have constructed around my depression? Will I cry if I have one more martini? (Yes.)

It takes incredible willpower to abstain from alcohol while living in Paris. At lunch at Le Tourne Bouchon in Montparnasse after our weekly Derrida seminar, the matronly hostess distributes complimentary glasses of kir, a French cocktail made with blackcurrant liqueur and white wine. I discreetly pass mine to my neighbor. Then comes the wine, a fat pitcher of red for each table, then another when the first one runs out. Then comes a celebratory digestif, a shot of calvados apiece, in honor of Cynthia’s admittance into the Sorbonne.

I find excuses to avoid social engagements where I know alcohol will be served. I am incensed when the reception at the conference I am attending in London neglects to offer any non-alcoholic options. I sidestep the wine aisle at the grocery store, advertising this year’s batch of Beaujolais Nouveau. The nights are growing longer and the days are growing colder. I consume an excess of chocolate. I bury myself in my work and watch reruns of the Great British Baking show.

But I am being dramatic. The simple truth is that for the last three years, I have set aside a month each year to abstain entirely from alcohol. The initial decision came as a tacit acknowledgement that my former partner’s drinking problem had begun to distort my own relationship with alcohol. I encouraged him to follow my lead. He didn’t. I don’t think he could.

I was shocked by the changes that occurred in my body and mind that first month without alcohol. My skin cleared up, my waistline shrunk, and the dark circles under my eyes disappeared. In its sudden absence, I became aware that I had been struggling with insomnia for months. I could sleep again. I could read again. My focus improved. My temper cooled. And in the dark and dead of winter in Chicago, my depression mercifully subsided.

One more “why” imposes itself. Why, with this knowledge about what alcohol does to my body and my brain, would I continue to drink at all after my dry month is up? Why not stop drinking altogether? I like to think that my annual abstinence allows me to recalibrate my relationship to alcohol and to establish healthier habits, but sometimes I’m not sure.

I remember telling my friend Sean in the backseat of a Lyft in Chicago that I was a little afraid to move to place where it was always sunny because I might discover that my depression ran deeper than the unforgiving Midwestern weather. He said it was the saddest thing he had ever heard. I wonder if the same might be said about alcohol. If I can impose order on just one of my vices, even temporarily, then I don’t have to address issues that are harder to cure than a hangover.

The first month I abstained entirely from alcohol, in January 2015, I marveled at the immediate improvements in my physical and mental health. But I am coming to acknowledge that true spiritual healing, the kind I am working on weekly with my therapist, requires a more holistic approach, one that involves the occasional glass (or bottle, with friends) of wine.

Thanksgiving City: On Everyday Gratitude

Last week, in observance of Thanksgiving, the American expat blogosphere was flooded with its annual outpouring of heartfelt expressions of gratitude. While I recognize the sincerity of my fellow bloggers, and I share their desire to celebrate Thanksgiving, especially in the absence of the culinary comforts of home (shout out to my partner, Adam, who brought me canned pumpkin from Chicago so I could bake homemade pumpkin pie for my cohort in Paris), does the blogosphere really need another post listing hastily composed truisms in thanks for family, freedom, and health? And do we really need to wait until Thanksgiving to acknowledge how fortunate we are?

I am, of course, thankful for the support of my family, my social circle, and my loving partner, the financial security and powerful passport that grant me freedom of movement, and my strong health despite a broken healthcare system in the United States. But this Thanksgiving, I want to focus on a few of the everyday aspects of living abroad for which I am truly grateful.

1. Butter

The other day I went to my local supermarket, Les 5 Fermes on the Avenue Secrétan, and discovered that the shelves in the butter cooler were almost entirely empty. It was a deeply disconcerting sight. A notice was posted discreetly in the top corner of the cooler door, informing customers of a countrywide butter shortage. With a slump in European dairy production and a surge in worldwide demand, France is facing something of a culinary crisis.

The International Dairy Federation reports that the French, on average, consume a heaping eighteen pounds of butter per capita each year, a five percent increase from 2013. In response to the butter shortage, local news outlets offered suggestions for butter replacements, including avocado, zucchini, oil, fresh cream, or almond paste; another published a step-by-step guide to churning your own homemade butter. Fake advertisements surfaced on social media selling small quantities of butter for exorbitant prices, and a group of artists produced a satirical film imagining what would happen if butter ran out in Brittany, the salted butter capital of France.

The French take their butter very seriously. Legend has it that the Gothic renovation of the Rouen cathedral in the fifteenth century was funded in part by donations from wealthy citizens in return for the privilege of eating butter during Lent, which had been banned during the religious fast by the Catholic Church.

Imagine for a moment a France without butter, which is to say, a France without croissants, mille-feuilles, or upside-down apple cake, without buttered baguette sandwiches with cured ham, without escargot simmered in garlic butter with herbs, without steaks topped with a thick slab of beurre Bercy that marinates the red meat as it melts, without Julia Child’s famous beurre blanc sauce, served over scallops, salmon, cod, or asparagus.

This Thanksgiving, in light of the recent dairy shortage (and also in honor of my mother, who developed an aggressive intolerance to lactose in her forties), I am thankful for butter, which is to say, the decadence of French gastronomy and the pride that the French taken in their culinary culture and regional cuisine. On a related note, I am also thankful for my gym and my dedicated running group. After our long runs on Saturday mornings, we celebrate at a local café, Le Cercle du Luxembourg, with a post-run breakfast of baguette tartines spread thickly with, well, butter, of course.

2. The 1981 Lang Law

On August, 10, 1981, the French government enacted a regulation known as the “Lang Law,” which regulates the price of printed material across France, regardless of where they are published or sold, allowing for a maximum of discount of 5% off of the price set by the publisher. Regulating the price of printed materials has allowed independent bookshops to compete against industry giants, supporting an atmosphere of intellectual pluralism and the decentralization of information distribution across France.

“This [regulatory] system,” argues the Syndicat National de l’Édition (“National Federation of Publishers”) in favor of the Lang Law, “is founded on a refusal to consider books as a banalized commodity, only responding to the [market] demands of immediate profitability. Indeed, pricing discounts can lead, in the long term, to the rarefaction of available titles, in favor of texts with a quick market turnaround that are popular with a mass audience (bestsellers, guides, etc), and to the detriment of original works.” In the age of Amazon (remember when Amazon was just an online bookseller?), the Lang Law has continued to encourage the publication of consequential, courageous, and creative works and in France.

I am thankful this Thanksgiving for the Lang Law, and by extension, for the plethora of independent booksellers in the French capital, which increasingly represent the rich diversity of French and Francophone voices. Just last Thursday, while wandering through Gibert Joseph in the sixth arrondissement, as I often do, I almost scooped up an entire shelf of modern French philosophy (I settled on two volumes of Paul Ricoeur’s Temps et récit (“Time and Narrative”) and Algerian author Assia Djebar’s last book, Nulle part dans la maison de mon père (“Nowhere in My Father’s House”), all for less than twenty euros!). On a related note, I am also thankful for the pocket editions of popular French titles, which are the perfect size for train reading and whose uniform aesthetic and dimensions appeal immensely to my obsessive-compulsive sensibilities.

3. Net Neutrality and VPNs 

Last Tuesday, Ajit Pai, the Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), released a proposal that would dismantle landmark net neutrality regulations enacted under the administration of President Obama in 2015.

If you are unfamiliar with the expression “net neutrality,” please immediately watch these three John Oliver clips explaining the concept in comic yet immensely clarifying terms (links to Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” content here, here, and here). To summarize, net neutrality prevents Internet Service Providers (ISPS) from reducing or restricting access to digital content or services, including competitors’ content or dissident political opinions, or offering a fee-based “fast lane” for users willing to pay for preferential treatment online. By obstructing the creation of a stratified cyberspace, net neutrality levels the digital playing field, ensuring that everyone from industry giants to struggling academics and humble bloggers (like me!) can access the digital content and services on equal terms. For more information on net neutrality, the Internet Society and the ACLU have both compiled excellent resource pages.

As Medium reported in June 2017, recent polls reveal “overwhelming support across party lines for net neutrality, with over three quarters of Americans (76%) supporting net neutrality. Eighty-one percent of Democrats and 73% of Republicans are in favor of it.” In its proposal to abolish net neutrality regulations, the FCC is acting in direct contradiction of the will of the vast majority of the American people.

As an American abroad, net neutrality is absolutely essential to my success as a scholar, the health of my long-distance relationships, and my ability to participate actively in American political discussions. Net neutrality ensures equal access to digital content necessary for my research without discriminatory firewalls. And net neutrality allows me to communicate efficiently and effectively with my family, friends, and loving partner back in the United States, day-to-day communications that would be thwarted by slow broadband access.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for our henceforth endangered net neutrality, but I am also, as a bonus, thankful for Virtual Network Providers (VPNs), which allow me to access American streaming services like Netflix and HBO that are otherwise unavailable on computers operating on foreign IP addresses. I get a lot of my news (and, in this interminable age of Trump, plenty of comic relief) from satirical news programs like Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “The Late Show.” VPNs allow me to stay connected to the American news cycle, as exasperating as it may be.

4. Heated Café Terraces 

Even before I moved from Ohio to Chicago, with its interminable winters and the occasional polar vortex or arctic blast—meteorological gimmicks that conceal how much it literally hurts to breathe when it is –16­ºF (–26.7ºC) outside—I knew that my mental health suffered during the winter. The cold and darkness of the winter months aggravate my depression, and by extension, fall becomes an agonizing waiting game, as the sunset creeps earlier and earlier over the horizon, a sunlight thief.

Perhaps the greatest contributor to my seasonal depression is the claustrophobic feeling of being cooped up inside. When the snow is up to your calves and a cruel wind is blowing off of Lake Michigan, its frigid waters coughing up chunks of ice onto the deserted beach, even the slightest errand feels like Roald Amundsen’s 1911 excursion to the South Pole. It takes so much mental and physical effort to leave the house in the winter that it is easier just to stay inside, even if it means skipping class and eating nothing but pasta for a week (Polar Vortex 2014).

In contrast to the humid continental climate of Chicago, Paris benefits from a mild oceanic climate, tempered by the North Atlantic Current. Even in the dead of winter, the temperature rarely dips below freezing, except occasionally at night, and fall slips so gradually, so gently, into winter that it hardly feels like an affront. The mere fact of being able to breathe outside without the searing lung pain of sub-zero temperatures (–17.8ºC) does wonders for my mental health.

If the greatest contributor to my seasonal depression is the claustrophobia that comes with being cooped up inside away from the cold, then the ability to walk and run and simply sit outside year-round in Paris comes as a great relief. It may seem trivial to some, but I have to express my genuine gratitude for the powerful heat lamps that radiate warmth onto every café terrace in Paris. To be able to sit outside on a café terrace with a crème or steaming glass of spiced vin chaud, to watch the world walk by while sheltered behind the pages of a book, to breathe in the aromas of Paris at the cusp of Christmas (smoked chestnuts, anise seed, orange liqueur), in short, to exist outside in the city, is a joy worthy of Thanksgiving.

5. The Nineteenth Arrondissement

Last February, while my friend Rachel was visiting me in Paris from New York, she observed with a bemusement that betrayed her big city sensibilities that Paris was more like a collection of contiguous neighborhoods than a city proper. I felt a twinge of resentment at her remark, because before Chicago, before New York, Paris was my first big city, my cosmopolitan ideal.

But while running last weekend through the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the nineteenth arrondissement—with its Sunday strollers, newspaper readers, and huddled lovers, its refreshing lack of tourists, with its tapas bar and café terraces, with its hidden waterfalls and wooded pathways, the startling view of Sacre Coeur in silhouette from the top of the imitation Italian temple constructed atop a rocky crag—I recognized, or rather, reconciled myself to the fact that Rachel was right after all. Paris is indeed an assortment of small neighborhoods, each arrondissement wheeling outwards from the Seine in a clockwise spiral.

This is one of the many paradoxes that I love most about Paris: its urban cosmopolitanism is ever humbled by the small-town charm of its neighborhoods, where small businesses and artisanal industries continue to thrive, where café servers know their clientele by name, where locals of all ages haul their shopping caddies to open-air markets on weekend mornings to stock up on fresh produce and bulk provisions for the coming week. For all its culture and sophistication, its arrogance and pretension, its gleaming luminaries of progress, Paris still can’t quite shake its provincial air, and for that, I admit I am grateful.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful to find myself living, almost by accident, in the nineteenth arrondissement, a modest working-class neighborhood on the northeastern outskirts of Paris. The nineteenth arrondissement has an understated appeal. There are no boutique culinary shops here, selling artisanal chocolate or expensive tea or organic olive oil, but on my street alone there is an excellent halal butcher, a fishmonger, a greengrocer, a wine seller, a cheese shop, and an African wholesale grocery that sells plantains and fresh sugar and bulgar wheat in bulk. I am thankful to live in a neighborhood where I feel like I am part of an authentic Parisian community.

Adopted City: On Coming Home to Paris after a Long Weekend in London

I will always remember the color of the sky on the March morning I first landed in Paris nine years ago, and the expression on the face of a fellow passenger, sitting one row behind me across the aisle, as he turned to contemplate the rosy pink dawn. After the long night of a transatlantic flight, his features suddenly softened, as though a great weight had been lifted. (It weighs you down, to feel foreign. Your skin turns to armor to shield against the assault of the unfamiliar; your tongue turns to stone.) The corners of his lips lifted subtly, not quite a smile, but enough that I knew from his expression that here was a man who was finally home. We never spoke, this stranger and I, but I think of him every time I return to Paris, whether I have been away for weeks or months or once, early in my graduate career, for over two years. Because somehow, like a begrudging stepparent, this foreign city has adopted me—or rather, I have adopted it—and to return here always feels like coming home.

Last week I took the Eurostar to London to attend the Society for Francophone Postcolonial Studies conference at the University of London. The trip to London from Paris is so comparatively effortless by train that it is easy to forget that after two hours and fifty kilometers of darkness you will emerge on the other side of the English Channel in a foreign country. I don’t know what I was expecting. I thought perhaps that after months of living in France, in French, spending a few days in an English-speaking country would come as a relief, a kind of linguistic homecoming although an ocean away from my first home in America. But instead I was disoriented by a sudden awareness of my cultural difference, of being an American in England, of speaking our common language in a way that signaled the centuries of divergence between our countries’ respective cultures. I strained to understand the speech of my English counterparts, their language—our language—was suddenly incomprehensible, more foreign than French, my adopted tongue.

I didn’t set out to become a scholar of French. Although I studied French in high school, I entered the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University as an English major with an interest in Modernism in British literature. My literary awakening came with reading Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway as a teenager, and when I first visited London in June 2009, I was eager to follow in the footsteps of Clarissa Dalloway on her meandering walk from Westminster through St James Park and north on Bond Street to buy flowers near Hanover Square. Here at last, in brick and stone, was the city that had existed so vividly in my bookish imagination, the literary haven to which I had so often escaped through my reading.

Nearly a decade later, while passing through Russell Square on my way to the conference at the Senate House, I listened again for whispers of Woolf and the Bloomsbury group. After the death of their father in 1904, Virginia Stephen and her sister, Vanessa, moved to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury from their family home at Hyde Park Gate in Kensington. For Woolf, writes Lauren Elkin, “Bloomsbury was not only a geographical neighborhood but an abstract entity, an idea about creativity and bohemianism and an idea about freedom.” It was here in Bloomsbury, finally unfettered from her Victorian family home, that the young writer began haunting the streets of London on foot, an ambulatory freedom that would propel her literary project and inform the urban aesthetic of her writing.

Woolf describes her urban walker, a recurring figure in her novels and nonfiction, as “a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye,” having broken free from the “shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves.” In her 1930 essay, “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” Woolf describes walking through the streets of London as form of transvestitism or shape-shifting: “We are no longer quite ourselves.” Walking in step with “that vast republican army of anonymous trampers” that populates the sidewalk, we transcend ourselves, not just reacting to the stimuli of the street but also transforming the public space through perceptive interactions.

Swept up in the stream of collective consciousness, Woolf goes on to question the ontological unity of the self: “Is the true self that which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience sake a man must be a whole. . . . But here [in the street] . . . we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being.”

In “Street Haunting,” Woolf’s narrator crosses London in search of a pencil, appropriately enough, and along the way she steps out of the current of the crowd into a second-hand bookshop, which doubles as a metaphor for the street. “There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf” that “in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. . . . Thus, glancing round the bookshop, we make other such sudden capricious friendships with the unknown and the vanished whose only record is, for example, this little book of poems, so fairly printed, so finely engraved, too, with a portrait of the author.”

How did I first meet my Virginia? Whose prescient hand first presented me with a worn copy of Mrs. Dalloway? Was it Mrs. Augspurger, my English teacher and running coach in high school, who thought to introduce me to Woolf’s work? Or like the narrator of “Street Haunting,” did I chance upon one her novels at the used bookshop in Wooster, Ohio, and find in her stream of consciousness the aesthetic expression of my own creative spring? I wish I could remember how it began, this “capricious friendship” with a “complete stranger,” whose cherished, vanished features I recall from George Charles Beresford’s 1902 black-and-white portrait of the author: Woolf, then Virginia Stephen, in profile, her gaze absent, her hair pulled back into a low bun at the nape of her slender neck.

Virginia Woolf

English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941), 1902. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I walked through Bloomsbury on my last trip to London, on my way to the British Museum, and I remember pausing on a bench in Russell Square to read a few pages of Woolf’s novel Orlando, contemplating my as yet closeted sexuality. Life, London, this moment of June (to quote a beloved passage from Mrs. Dalloway): could I have foreseen at that time, on the uncertain threshold between adolescence and adulthood, still fresh in my intellectualism without the disillusionments of academia, that I would choose Paris over London as my adopted city, that I would dedicate the next decade of my life to the study of French, that my street haunting would turn to flânerie? Perhaps, as Woolf writes in “Street Haunting,” “it is only when we look at the past and take from it the element of uncertainty that we can enjoy perfect peace.”

I scheduled my conference travel to allow time for a walking tour of London, and when the Sandeman’s tour guide, Andy, asked the group where we were from, I surprised myself by responding, instinctively, “Paris.” As we walked east from Covent Garden along the Strand towards the historic center of the City of London, I kept my silence, afraid that my accent would give me away. Andy cast a knowing glance in my direction when he compared the architect Christopher Wren’s vision for the restoration of London following the Great Fire of 1666 to the urban renovation of Paris in the nineteenth century under the direction of Baron Haussmann. I later confessed, shamefully, that I was American, which of course he had quietly suspected.

To take up Woolf’s refrain from “Street Haunting,” which of these selves is the true one: the nineteen-year-old American steeped like strong tea in the literary heritage of British Modernism, or nine years later, the American nodding knowingly during a presentation on cultural pluralism in Paris during an conference on regional, national and global identities in the Francophone world?What varied and wandering path did I take from Bloomsbury in London to the Quartier Latin in Paris? Or, as Woolf writes, “is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there,” but somewhere in between, with rocks in my pockets in the rough waters between two continents, swept out to sea by the receding tide?

It was raining when I left London. I was relieved when the train attendant in the international terminal at St Pancras addressed me in French, the foreign language that I have adopted as my own. It felt like stepping into a warm river, pulling me gently into its familiar current, its cadence reminiscent of home.

Back in Paris, the Gare du Nord smelled like it always does, of disinfectant disguising years of smoke, with the usual riffraff loitering out front soliciting cigarettes and sexual favors from strangers. The tumult and riot and busyness of it all, as Woolf would have said, reminded me that I was home, because these are the streets that I have mapped in my mind through my relentless pedestrian wanderings. I stepped out onto the Rue de Dunkerque and walked home in the Parisian night.

Encrypted City: On Cultural Literacy, Continued

I moved to France after studying French for four years, and when I first landed in Paris nearly a decade ago, I had a sufficient mastery of the language to earn an approving nod from the border control agent who stamped my virgin passport in purple. But it took years of living in France and a brief romance with a French politician to even begin to understand the nuances of the morning news, and I am still a little afraid to listen to talk radio.

In a word, where I flourished in linguistic fluency, I faltered in cultural literacy.

Cultural literacy is a notoriously difficult concept to define. In his 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, E. D. Hirsch defined the concept as the ability to communicate effectively and participate actively in a given culture. For Hirsch, cultural literacy is akin to linguistic fluency; while a fluent speaker must know the alphabet, grammar, and a sufficient set of vocabulary to communicate effectively in a given language, a culturally literate individual must understand a certain number of signs and symbols to participate actively in a given culture, including its language, history, legends, predispositions, and idiosyncrasies.

Two decades before the adoption of the Common Core standards under President Obama, Hirsch argued that all American children need a body of “core knowledge” in order to develop into fully rounded citizens. To this end, Hirsch collaborated with two of his colleagues at the University of Virginia to compile a list of 5000 events, names, and concepts whose significance every American should know.

Hirsch’s book and its lengthy appendix sparked an intellectual polemic in elite American circles, a rare honor for a professor of English literature. Conservatives, recognizing many of their dead, white forefathers on Hirsch’s list, lauded him as a defender of the patrimony. Liberals, duly noting the lack of racial and sexual diversity on Hirsch’s list, attacked him as retrograde and Eurocentric. But in a severely divided nation whose elected officials cannot agree on what constitutes an objective truth and with a president who regularly peddles fiction and ridicules fact, it turns out that Hirsch was right.

While cultural literacy is essential to communicate effectively and participate actively at home, navigating the cultural landscape of a foreign country requires an entirely different set of knowledge and skills. As an American striving to build a life abroad, acquiring cultural literacy in France has been a challenging and yet immensely rewarding experience.

Eric Lui, writing on Hirsch’s legacy for The Atlantic in 2015, argues that cultural literacy, above all, requires an intimate knowledge of particulars and the ability to recognize patterns in an encrypted cultural landscape. In order to understand what is being said in public (by politicians and influential public figures), in the media (by journalists and entertainers), and in colloquial conversation (by friends and the friendly server at my neighborhood café), it is necessary to understand what is not is not being said.

A couple of recent examples from the French news can illustrate the importance of detailed knowledge in deciphering public discourse. To understand the controversy sparked by the comments of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right Front National party, concerning France’s responsibility in Vél d’Hiv incident of July 1942, it is necessary to know not only that Vél d’Hiv refers to the roundup and subsequent deportation of 13,000 French Jews to Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War, but also that seventy-five years later, France remains extremely sensitive about the collaboration of the Vichy Regime with the German Occupation and France’s complicity in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews, and that for many French people, Marine Le Pen still bears the damning stigma of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the Front National in 1972 on an openly anti-Semitic platform.

Or to comprehend why the French Academy recently denounced l’écriture inclusive, or “gender-inclusive writing” as an “aberration” that posed a “mortal danger” to the French language, it is necessary to know that the French Academy was created in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to defend and promote the integrity of the French language, which in the early seventeenth century was still threatened by regional languages in provincial France and ongoing territorial conflicts, notably with Great Britain across the English Channel; that the French Academy consists in forty “Immortal” members, and that in its nearly four centuries of existence, only eight of its 726 members have been women, the first of whom was elected in 1980; that French is a gendered language that gives precedence to the masculine form of a noun over the feminine; that since the advent of globalization and waves of immigration from North and Sub-Saharan African following decolonization in the twentieth century, the French Academy has been waging a losing battle to inoculate the French language from the contamination of urban slang and imported idioms; and that both Emmanuel Macron, recently elected President of France, and Anne Hidalgo, the first female mayor of Paris, insist on using gender-inclusive language in their public discourse.

Is it any wonder that while I can breeze through bulky French novels from the nineteenth century, dense with detailed descriptions of bourgeois parlors and obsolete fashion accessories, the political satire published weekly in the French periodicals Charlie Hebdo and Le Canard Enchaîné still regularly baffles me?

The trouble with cultural literacy is that it is impossible to define a definitive set of particular knowledge necessary to acquire it. If the ongoing controversy surrounding Hirsch’s 5000-item list of “core knowledge,” which was criticized for its lack of inclusivity, is any measure, cultural literacy is something that must be acquired on the ground, through an infuriating yet ultimately illuminating process of trial and error. Cultural literacy comes with getting lost one too many times on the unnecessarily complicated RER C line in Paris, or making an unintentionally tasteless joke about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former director of the International Monetary Fund, at a party among friends. And as I wrote last week in my post about Johnny Long, a professional hacker that I met on a documentary shoot in Uganda, acquiring cultural literacy requires the patient effort, risk mediation, and pattern recognition of a righteous hack.

France once existed as a magical place in my mind: Provence in full bloom, all olive light and medieval streets and the pulsing cadence of cicadas at dusk; but today, I see my adopted country as a machine whose internal mechanisms and encrypted codes I am determined to hack.

It is one thing to impress my French friends with my intimate knowledge of the history of French colonialism in Algeria, for example, or to surprise seasoned Parisians by taking them to an underground speakeasy tucked away on a side street near Odéon, but it is an entirely different matter to decipher the dizzying array of intricacies involved in acquiring the benefits of legal residency in France. I have a Bachelors degree in French from Ohio University, and I am presently pursing a PhD in French at Northwestern University, but no amount of education could have prepared me for the exasperating challenge of navigating the French bureaucracy, an impenetrable administrative apparatus reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s best bureaucratic satire. In the perpetual battle to acquire cultural literacy in France, the French bureaucracy is every expat’s final frontier.

As a case in point, let me relate my experience applying for rental assistance through the Caisse d’Allocations Familales (CAF) in Pau while I was working for a meager government salary as an English language assistant in southwestern France. I applied for the position in Fall 2011, and I was accepted in March 2012. After waiting several weeks to receive my official arrêté de nomination, or job appointment letter, from the high school near Pau where I would be teaching, as well as a last-minute trip to the state capital to have my birth certificate notarized, I took an eight-hour bus ride from Columbus to Chicago for my scheduled visa interview at the French consulate. I take pride in my meticulous documentation; I arrived at the French consulate armed with my completed visa application, my bank statements, my job appointment letter, my passport, two additional passport photos, my birth certificate, my travel itinerary, a self-addressed return envelope, and enough money to pay for my visa in cash. Retrospectively, I recognize that the initial visa application process was relatively straightforward, and I received my visa in the mail a couple of weeks later.

But the process of acquiring the benefits of legal residency in France was far from over. Upon arriving in Pau in September 2012, I had to find a place to live, open a French bank account, and set up a cell phone plan; and in a self-defeating cycle of administrative inefficiency, each of these steps—the lease, the bank account, and the cell phone—required the others to have happened first: in order to lease an apartment, I needed a French bank account, but in order to open a French bank account, I needed a French phone number, but in order to set up a cell phone plan, I needed a French bank account, but in order to open a French bank account, I needed an address in France, and so on. It was exhausting and infuriating. I felt like I was stuck on one of M. C. Escher’s infinite staircases leading nowhere.

A couple of weeks later, I received the necessary paperwork from my employer to complete my application for legal residency in France. But before I could schedule my mandatory medical visit, which consisted in a comically anachronistic screening for tuberculosis, I needed a notarized translation of my American birth certificate. And it wasn’t until all of these administrative details were complete—the lease, the French bank account, the cell phone plan, the immigration papers, the translated birth certificate, the medical screening, and the social security card—that I could even begin to apply for rental assistance through the CAF, which provides housing subsidies to low-income individuals like me, who was living through this whole ordeal on approximately 100€ a week after rent.

By the time I was finally able to apply for rental assistance, I was somewhat familiar with the inanities of French bureaucracy, so I was hardly surprised when in February 2013 I received a letter from the CAF dated from December 2012 to inform me that they were unable to find a document that I sent them in November 2012. I immediately visited the CAF office in Pau to rectify the situation, but it wasn’t until April 2013 that several months’ worth of backdated rental assistance was deposited into my bank account. I took my roommates out for an evening of drinks to celebrate. But my contract with the high school where I was teaching ended the following month, and I returned to the United States in May 2013, at which point I had to submit a new batch of documents to request the termination of the rental assistance that I had finally received, lest I incur legal penalties.

In his article for The Atlantic on cultural literacy, Eric Lui argues that beyond its importance to civil society, “literacy in the culture confers power, or at least access to power. Illiteracy, whether willful or unwitting, creates isolation from power.” Cultural literacy confers power because it allows you to understand the way society really works, from the unspoken cultural codes underpinning everyday interactions to the elaborate rules governing the bureaucratic apparatus.

As my Kafkaesque experience with the CAF illustrates, the value of cultural literacy can be measured, perhaps crassly, in economic terms. Learning how to navigate the French bureaucracy allowed me to reap the financial benefits of legal residency in France, but it also taught me the economic value of time. France has maintained the social welfare policies of a socialist state, but its economy functions according to the free market principles of modern capitalism. To put it simply, time is money. And nothing derails a workday like taking the bus across town, or worse, across the country, to an administrative office only to be turned away by an unaccommodating government functionary because your identity photos are deemed unacceptable or because you are missing a duplicate of an official document, or to discover that the office is closed in observance of an obscure public holiday.

Ultimately, cultural literacy is a question of socioeconomic empowerment, at home and abroad.

In his 2013 memoir, Les derniers jours (The Last Days), Jean Clair, a member of the aforementioned French Academy and an esteemed cultural critic in France, reflects poetically on the connection between cultural literacy and socioeconomic empowerment. As I wrote in a previous post on the perceived decline of France on the global stage, I suspect that Clair’s ardent defense of the French language stems from his experience of socioeconomic marginalization as a peasant child educated in Paris in the interwar period. Clair saw his mastery of the French language as a means of socioeconomic assimilation in an elitist intellectual culture that scoffed at his provincial roots.

In Les derniers jours, Clair recalls the language games he and his classmates used to play: “My classmates and I got into the habit of collecting, combining, or inversing the components of words. . . . We would make them our own through cabalistic operations. We acquired the knowledge of words, like loot or plunder, and we forged them into pseudonyms, or hidden names, words that would later serve us, once we pronounced them according to incantations we had learned by heart, like an abracadabra, capable of making us invisible to those who would perhaps one day reproach us for our origins and our poor manners, and would even cause us harm, much like the experience of the miserable inhabitant of the projects (banlieues). . . . This humorous disarray would allow us to discretely emphasize our difference with the others, and by keeping our distance, the game quietly allowed us to critique, to question, to doubt, to smile, and to be surprised, like a learned interpretation of the Talmudic texts or a gay science (gaia scienza).”

Despite the author’s avowed social conservatism, I frequently reread the sections of Clair’s memoir that are dedicated to language—on reading, writing, pronunciation, naming, assimilation, dictation, the library, the paranoia of losing one’s language, or dreaming in a foreign tongue—because they remind me of the unparalleled joy that comes with acquiring linguistic and cultural literacy in a foreign country. The pursuit of cultural literacy is an exhausting passion, but it has also been one of the most rewarding and illuminating challenges of my life abroad.

Measuring cultural literacy means celebrating small victories, like understanding the Paris underground well enough to know the shortest transfer between the #3 and the #5 metro lines at République (last car in the back of the #3, right up the stairs, left, down the stairs, right, right again at the Relay newspaper stand, past the entrance to #11, up the stairs, right, and then straight down to the end of the platform, first car in the front of the #5 to exit at Laumière), or the difference between an authentically artisanal bakery and an artisanal bakery in name only (the longevity of the baguette is a fine indicator). Since moving to France, I have learned the color of the leaves in autumn (medallion gold) and how to earn the good graces of the notoriously unfriendly servers in a country that doesn’t tend to tip wait staff (respect for restaurant protocol and regular patronage). And after a few embarrassing mishaps, I can now confidently swear in French (knowing when to use punaise as opposed to the more vulgar putain, for example, or the nuance in meaning between je m’en fiche and je m’en fous).

Paris, like any urban center, is an encrypted city, and it takes commitment, curiosity, and a healthy sense of humor to uncover its secrets. Any guidebook will tell you where to find the best potato gratin near Saint-Michel, but it is rarely mentioned that the Bistro des Augustins routinely stops serving lunch shortly after 2 p.m. A single weekend in France suffices to learn that most French businesses close after noon on Sundays, but it takes patience and little luck to discover that foreign-run épiceries often stay open in defiance of Sunday trading laws. And while the blogosphere is full of helpful tips for surviving the French bureaucracy (one American expat blogger even published a flowchart to illustrate the interminable process of renewing his visa in France), nothing compares to the lived experience of being led, stark naked from the waist up, into a radiography lab to be screened for tuberculosis (the upside, of course, is that I got to keep a physical copy of my chest x-ray).

Like hacking, which I discussed last week, the pursuit of cultural literacy also requires a patient understanding of potential risk. To get the most out of living abroad, I have gotten into the habit of stepping outside of my comfort zone (like a ski trip to the French Alps or a political march through the streets of Paris), but I have also come to recognize that with opportunity comes risk. Despite having very little experience with downhill skiing, I managed to navigate the slopes at Serre Chevalier without breaking any bones or careening off of a cliff, and the political march I participated in last January remained peaceful throughout. But I was lucky, and for all of my confidence, I am not immune to mistakes. I have accepted invitations that veered dangerously close to disaster, and I have sometimes trusted the wrong people. I have walked down the wrong streets at the wrong time of the day, and I have been hurt, harassed, and assaulted.

It is easy to romanticize the jet-setting life of an expatriate, but living abroad is exhausting. Every errand, every interaction, every excursion comes with the additional challenge of deciphering a cultural code that is designed to keep foreigners out. As I wrote a few weeks ago in a post on French fashion and fitting in, sticking out as a foreigner can be tiresome when it isn’t outright dangerous. It invites questions, unwanted advances, and even the occasional aggression.

But I moved to France because I admire its cultural ideals, and for all of its absurd eccentricities, I love this country. I love the pride that the French take in the quality of their butter and their bread and their produce. I love that I once walked into my kitchen in Pau to find two of my roommates, both basic French men in their twenties, in a heated argument about which white wine (Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio) to use in the chicken dish that Romain was making us for dinner. I love that the French take their universal health care for granted and consider psychoanalysis a rite of passage. I love that everyone educated in France has at least an elementary understanding of the foundations of modern philosophy. I love that a new exhibition at the Louvre draws massive crowds at 9 a.m. on a weekday.  I love that the French routinely take to the streets in massive numbers to protest perceived injustice (after all, the manifestation is the French national pastime, after cocktail hour). And I have even grown to love the challenge of dealing with the French bureaucracy, because there’s nothing more distinctively French than complaining loudly about the CAF.

Beyond effective communication and active participation, I want to belong here. I want to laugh at jokes at parties. I want to disguise what accent I have left (my French friends say I shouldn’t, that it’s charming). I want to march into the immigration office with duplicates and triplicates of all the right paperwork, signed and stamped by all the right people. I want to understand, with all of its intricacies and inanities and irreconcilable contradictions, what it means to be French.