Observing the French

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:44 am -

The longer I remain in France, the less I understand the French. Or perhaps, I understand them better and have come to accept they’re quixotic. What you’d expect them to do, they don’t. What they do, you wouldn’t imagine they’d do in 1000 years.

Think of the Roma, formerly tziganes or Gypsies, if you want to get a sense of one of the French contradictions. They may complain about the les Roms, but let Sarkozy deport them—as he did—and they’re up in arms. Or consider this. Most Frenchmen and Frenchwomen agree that the welfare state as it is needs reform, beginning with pensions. In the first reading of the bill, it has passed the Chamber of Deputies, 329 to 233, a pretty clear signal. Nonetheless, the strikers will be out again next week and next month. Raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 feels inhumane to them.

And here’s an example that I find fascinating. Politeness is an attribute most French consider essential. Naturally, some things are easing up, as the world becomes more homogeneous and bad manners, rather than good ones, spread. However, the bourgeoisie usually follow certain rules.

But there are exceptions. If you own an apartment in Paris, the annual meeting of the co-propriétaires can feel as if war is being waged. People who nod to one another if they’re sharing an elevator or pass one another in the entrée will frequently raise voices when issues regarding the building are being discussed.

I’m sure there’s a French version of Robert’s Rules of Order, but they don’t appear to be enforced. My French friends tell me these meetings can be difficult and revealing about their neighbors. They can last until each and every person has had his or her say.

When the French debate, they do it with panache and have the ability to focus—especially when it comes to spending money for capital improvements. As is the case with most building associations, there are those who advocate expenditures while the long-term residents are generally satisfied with the status quo—and if it isn’t broken, why fix it? Generally, these meetings are lively and, by the end, an onlooker might suspect the building’s residents must have hearts of stone. Not at all.

For example, the other day, I was walking by the grocery store at the end of my street. There were three police vans and at least six men and women in uniform holding walkie-talkies in front of the building. Had someone been raped, robbed or murdered? Clearly, it had to be a federal case to generate so much commotion.

Rather, the police had come to remove our neighborhood clochard, who lives on the street. For the past twenty years, we’ve had an ongoing relationship and wouldn’t consider not nodding when passing. During this time, we’ve both aged and gone through various stages of living and life. He’s lost his companion dog and part of his right leg, and it’s clear he’s drinking more wine on some days than others. He’s moved from one place to another, but likes our quartier as much as those of us who are paying big euros to live in the 6ème.

I’ve bought him food, water, juice and sustenance; he’s chastised me for selecting a small round of Camembert that wasn’t ripe enough. It was clearly his responsibility to give the resident américaine an education.

By no means am I the only person. I’ve seen him wearing a neighbor’s cast-off overcoat, and when it’s really cold, another neighbor has taken him blankets. Even thought the City of Paris has vans that take street people to shelters for the night and make certain they’re fed and bathed before letting them leave the following morning, not all people will go.

After looking to see what was taking place, it became evident that our street person was being taken to the police station. He was showing his identification and following the rules—and even though he wasn’t drunk that day, it was clear someone had complained. His possessions appear to have multiplied—and he’s not a neat freak—and things were spilling out onto the sidewalk from the doorway that he’d made home.

Speaking with the police was futile. They responded that they knew who he was and were doing their job and essentially, I should disappear. As I walked down the street, I bumped into two neighbors and blurted out what was taking place at that very minute.

Eric responded, “Ce n’est pas possible” and took off saying that he was going to keep the police from taking Michel to the station. He summoned some neighbors who happened to be on the street and there was a posse running to the corner—the famous Parisian mob, united in purpose, in this case made up of people who had nearly been at one another’s throats over the need of painting in the stairwells.

The next day, Michel was back, none the worse for wear. But I keep wondering if the flying squad of neighbors who ran to try to rescue him from the cops the day before are still united in purpose or grumbling at each other over higher wattage bulbs in the common halls or the paint or the number of recycling bins in the backyard.

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