Liberté, égalité, Trumpism
One month into the Trump presidency, I flew to Paris to escape.
I was suffering from an acute case of Trump Fatigue, exhausted by the endless bad news, the moral outrage, the hysteria of the left, the hypocrisy of the right, the mass protests and activist meetings — not to mention the sleepless nights, the fear and uncertainty, the hundreds of articles about the future of American democracy, U.S. foreign policy, an ever-complicated Israel, and how the world as we know it is basically going to hell.
It turns out that although my capacity for outrage is apparently endless, my stamina for expressing it begins to ebb at a certain point, and then it’s time to do something dramatic, like follow through on my threat to leave the country.
So I flew to Paris thinking I’d walk the streets of Le Marais, stare at Monet’s “Water Lilies,” skulk around the gardens of Musée Rodin and eat a lot of cheese. I would revive myself with a renewed commitment to Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom and love — like in the movie “Moulin Rouge!” — and reclaim a sense of optimism for the future. What better way to restore some joie de vivre to my battered American soul than visit the place that invented joie de vivre?
I made it about as far as the cab ride from the airport when I realized that the stark political realities I had hoped to leave behind were in some ways closer than ever.
To enter Paris, my driver had to pass a small tent city of homeless people, who weren’t typical homeless people at all, but scores of women wearing hijabs, crowding the intersection with cardboard signs that read, “Je suis Syrien.”
To see up close what in the United States is discussed mainly in the abstract was shocking in its realism. In an instant, the only thing separating me from the Syrian civil war that destroyed and displaced millions of lives was the door of a cab.
Within an hour, it was easy to see why politicians such as Marine Le Pen have capitalized on France’s immigration “problem,” which is ripe for politicization. The evidence France has not well integrated many of its immigrants is creeping farther and deeper into Paris.
Homelessness and idleness were visible on street corners and in metro stations. And it isn’t only Syrians you see, but Algerians, Malinese and Senegalese, all trying to make their way in a country that, like the U.S., contains factions that are becoming increasingly nationalistic and hostile to outsiders. If you are inclined to seek reasons for why immigration is a threat to France’s fantasy of itself, you can easily find them.
Perhaps that’s why some Parisians are sympathetic to Trump’s anti-immigrant tactics. At a concert at the Maison de la Radio, I sat next to a sophisticated middle-aged woman who told me she didn’t much mind President Donald Trump. “The Clintons would have been much worse,” she whispered between Prokofiev and Shostakovich. “They wanted war. Trump only wants the money” — which she pronounced “Monet,” like the artist.
Some Parisians couldn’t care less about Trump’s atrocious identity politics, his nepotism or his greed —as long as he doesn’t drag Europe into another Iraq War.
But that comment seemed somewhat ironic, only a few days later, during dinner with Italian expatriates who are much more worried about the damage France may do to itself should Le Pen get elected and have her way. Over homemade tortelli with brown butter and crispy sage, an academic from the prestigious Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, warned that if European nationalist trends continue — resulting in more referendums like the one that led to Brexit — the porous borders and economic cooperation that have cemented European peace since World War II could disappear, producing renewed potential for regional conflict. Recently, this professor said, one of the top deans at his school suggested renaming his course track from “Negotiation” to “War Studies.”
“It’s like we’re going backward,” the professor said. “All the progress we made after the war — the focus on human rights, peace and prosperity for all — it’s as if it doesn’t matter.”
Europe, like America, is divided. And they’re watching us very, very closely. Even the French daily Le Monde is obsessed with the reality show that is the Trump White House and is now publishing a regular column called La journée de Trump — a roundup of the president’s day.
So much for my glamorous escape.
Political anxieties are alive and well in Paris, too, and no amount of aperitifs or digestifs can distract from a world in flux. “Travel robs us of refuge,” wrote French philosopher Albert Camus. He believed that we cannot hide ourselves when we travel — that we are “stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks … completely on the surface of ourselves.”
I used to come to Paris and feel only its wonders; now I also see its stains.
Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.