January 22, 2019

We’ll always have Paris

Our third president has been often quoted as having said, “Every man has two countries — his own and France.” What Thomas Jefferson actually said, quoting directly from his autobiography, is:

“So ask the travelled inhabitant of any nation, In what country on Earth would you rather live? — Certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest & sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France.”

As a reasonably well-traveled inhabitant of our nation, France would be my easy second choice, as well. 

I first went to France almost 50 years ago, and have had a lifetime affair with its history, music, wine, food and, dare I add, women. From the hôtels particuliers of Paris to the back roads of the provinces, from an after-hours tour of the Louvre (where I saw the staircase where Henry IV was taken after being fatally stabbed by the madman Ravaillac), to a garage operator in Noves (near Avignon) taking a horn out of his friend’s car and putting it in my rental because he wouldn’t let me leave his garage without a functioning horn — and then refusing any payment — I have experienced some of France’s sweetest affections and will carry their sweet recollections with me for the rest of my life.

I would wager that for most of us, when we think of France, Paris is the first thing that comes to mind, because Paris is the political, cultural and economic capital of the country. Indeed, it is the heart and soul of France. That heart and that soul came under unprecedented attack this past Friday night by a group of well-organized nihilist terrorists acting under the stateless banner of ISIS, who represent everything antithetical to what Paris means to the world and what Paris means to me personally.

Paris is the city of unfettered public spaces, from libraries such as the Bibliothèque Nationale to museums such as the Louvre to markets such as the Marché aux Puces to theaters such as the Olympia to schools such as the École des Beaux-Arts. There is an astonishing number of diverse things to do and places to go. All of these are now closed for the state mourning period. How will they change when they reopen?

Paris is also the city of youth, of personal discovery, of the flâneur, of cafes where you linger for hours over a single espresso in your own space or in spirited conversation with friends. So please note carefully the terrorists’ targets: a sports stadium, a rock music venue, a cafe, a bar. These are not tourist haunts. These are the everyday places where Parisians go for fun. These sites were not chosen randomly. As targets, they were an attack against the very spirit of life in Paris, of its heart and soul.

Finally, Paris is the home of the guiding spirit of the French Revolution: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. As in post-9/11 America, we can expect the French to acquiesce to curtailing these ideals in the name of national security in the form of infringements on personal freedoms, inequality for innocent Muslims and brotherhood torn asunder. 

Out of that guiding spirit of the revolution came the glory of the liberation in 1791 of the Jews of France, the first European country in the modern era to grant Jews full citizenship. Almost exactly 150 years later came the disgrace of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup on July 16-17, 1942, of 13,152 Jewish men, women and children by the French gendarmerie. Only a handful returned from the camps. 

President Francois Hollande, speaking memorably on July 22, 2012, at the Vel d’Hiv (a former bicycle stadium) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the site of the imprisonment of these innocent Jews before their eventual deportation to Auschwitz, said:

“All ideologies of exclusion, all forms of intolerance, all fanaticism, all xenophobia that seek to develop the mentality of hatred will find their way blocked by the Republic.” *

It is hard to imagine anyone taking responsibility for Friday night’s atrocities 70 years from now.

Returning to Jefferson’s homage, I think it is exactly because France, and Paris in particular, stands as a beacon of an open, secular, liberal democracy that it poses an existential threat to the closed, fundamentalist, medieval barbarians who would seek to destroy it. 

I have to believe that the forces of light — exemplified by the joie de vivre of the City of Light — will always defeat the forces of darkness whose goal is to snuff out that very spirit.

Vive la France!

*It is well worth reading his entire speech, which is an eloquent formal apology of the State of France for the government’s legalized mistreatment of Jews in Vichy France. http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/aug/18/france-hollande-crime-vel-d-hiv/

Bob Bookman is a literary agent in Los Angeles.