How many Americans have come to live in Paris, along with their alcoholism and epistemological crises, in search of some sort of artistic and poetic inspiration, or perhaps the answers to all of the worldís great problems? I know that itís easy to make incorrect assumptions based on the fact that a handful of literary greats (Hemingway, Twain, Emerson, Gertrude Stein, etc.) have come to Paris and wrote romantically about their stay, but Iím sure that Iím not the only one who has been compelled to follow in their footsteps. However, I am completely sure that what I have found is an entirely different Paris: a city whose image currently reflects back the personal crises of all of its starving artists.
The European Union is very much like a drunken manís project: on the surface, itís not a very sophisticated organization, and it just seems sort of like the natural conclusion to hundreds of years of the European royal families sending their slaves out to do war with one another. One day, they decided that theyíd pretend to live in peace, but really do all they can to compete militarily with the Soviets and Americans for control of the developing world and all of their resources, wealth, and jobs. Some members of this Union are hesitant: the Brits, Swiss, and Scandinavian countries refusing to go along with the continental currency, while Norway refuses to even have anything to do with the EU. However, most have marched right along with history: the falling of the Berlin Wall supposedly marking the end of political discourse, as we know it. If anyone left in this world has any qualms about the ability of a market economy to distribute resources wisely and fairly, then they no longer count; they receive only a chuckle or a scoff, as the rest of the world moves on.
So Paris has kept moving along with it: ďLe Capital du MondeĒ having to keep right in step with the rest of the world, if not ahead of it. I canít help but thinking that itís tragically ironic that a city that was so popularized internationally for its artistic and literary qualities has become, like anything popular, a place for American businessmen to visit with their wives and kids, a place with ludicrously high prices, a place with a continually decreasing variety of culture and night life, a city with an abundance of history, though little going on in the present tense.
However, underneath this surface lies the burnt out artist who wakes up hung-over to reminders of how much he hates himself, for he has become so popular but his message has not seemed to really pierce the fabric of mainstream society. Hemingway is required reading for nearly all American youngsters, but most leave high school with little more than the knowledge that he was the alcoholic who eventually blew his head off (paralleling another American literary great whose life ended in 2005). Though, there is the occasional student who proposes that perhaps Hemingway liked the bottle because it provided him a daily cloak for many of the harsh realities of the society around him; that there may be a degree of personal insecurity in his alcoholism, but it also may rest as an unfortunate reminder of how dysfunctional our current mode of living really is.
Paris is the same way. it is perhaps the most wildly popular city on earth, but has never really known how to interact with the rest of the world. Itís a city that canít function with such popularity, because the sheer tourist numbers immediately corrode its cultural integrity. Yet at the same time it needs the tourism because it is fully a part of the world economy and needs to compete for those tourist dollars. No literary great would have been able to survive and produce as much as they did without selling something. The line between survival and selling out is obscurely thin. Itís probably the single most impossible metaphorical image for principled humans to manage. You can see it in the face of the crepe salesmen who loves you for visiting and supporting his city, but hates you because youíre so obviously American and come from the country of sellouts, the country that is always willing to throw its cultural uniqueness out the window in favor a new house and a new car.
So the artist in Paris has woken up in 2005 to a reality completely different than even 10 years ago. There is no longer any Franc, everyone is learning English so that they can do business with the world, the 35-hour work week is suddenly being put on the bargaining table instead of being held as sacred and un-touchable, and citizens are being asked to give away more by voting for the EU constitution that the political elite have laid out for them.
The ďnonĒ has been consistently ahead in the running since early March, but the ďouiĒ has been making a dramatic come back on the heels of everyone from Jacques Chirac to Jean-Pierre Raffarinís efforts to convince the French to not make France look so stupid. Itís kind of like a mother who brings her little child to an important dinner and demands that he act un-naturally dignified: itís irresponsible parenting, and they should be cursed for thinking that itís going to work.
Meanwhile, many Europhiles have suggested that Chirac has made a mistake in even allowing for a vote to occur. This makes one wonder, isnít this whole liberal bliss supposed to be grounded in the concept of representative democracy? Donít we get to vote our conscience in this beautiful new world of yours?
The French were at the epicenter of developing the European Union, and of conceptualizing a continental organization to help maintain peace and security in a post-World War II era. But part of this project was a romantic obsession of having Paris as the international cultural capital; the place where citizens of the world would come to share new and revolutionary ideas for helping make Europe and the world as a whole a more inhabitable place. It wasnít supposed to be that Paris would merely become secondary to Brussels in every sense of the word, economically, socially and politically. Politicians at the national level are often solely elected on how well they will interact with the European Union, it is considered increasingly clichť to talk about national culture when in the process of developing a continental culture, and, no matter what anybody says, Brussels is practically in control of all monetary and fiscal policy-making. In theory, individual countries are free to adjust their income taxes and Value Added Taxes (VAT), but in reality it requires jumping through hoop after hoop in the EU to convince bureaucrats that itís in line with EU regulations. Itís kind of like saying that Americans are all free to open up their own coffeehouses -- just GOOD LUCK with navigating the red tape involved in starting up your own company and then having to compete with the Starbucks that decorate every major American neighborhood.
So the French have created a monster that they now have sincere questions and doubts about. There is nothing hypocritical about voting ďnonĒ: it just must be understood as part of our complex existence as social beings on this earth. Itís easy to be gung-ho about something but then later question the direction it is going in. It certainly has been the story of my life in a lot of ways.
As an American in Paris, I respect both the central role that the French had in starting the European Union, and their current tendency towards wanting to say ďnonĒ. Many people who canít think out of the political box see this all as a stupid contradiction, and despise the ďnonĒ campaigners for it. However, these people, like most political scientists, are not even beginning to scratch the surface of whatís going on. For that, you need to see the burnt-out artist resting beneath this wonderful city.
Matt Reichel is an American expatriate and graduate student in Paris specializing in international relations theory. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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