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Moment of Truth: March 25 2017

Dateline Pas Ris

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.

If I remember correctly (but to be honest it really doesn't matter if I do), according to the great author François Rabelais, Paris was founded when a mischievous giant urinated on a village of people who had irked him. They became known as the village that had been peed on, and would greet visitors from outside with the plea, "pas ris" – don't laugh. Never mind that the normal grammatical construction is "ris pas" – I come by this information via Rabelais, who was nothing if not a faithful historian.

"Don't laugh at us" implore the Parisians. I'm still trying to figure out if it's possible to comply. As a guest in this burg, I have no wish to offend my hosts. But they are quite risible at times. Donc, je pense que pour éviter de rire n'sera pas possible.

But if I weren't laughing, I'd be crying. See, no one here seems to believe that Marine le Pen has a chance of becoming the next leader of France, which, should it happen, I feel would lead to the kind of emboldening of violent rightwing behavior we've been seeing in the US. We talk about the Trump surprise, and the Brexit surprise, and they're aware of the "sensible" population's failure to predict those two recent political disasters, but at all the bars and cafes in the Montreuil and St Blaise, when I talk to working-class drunks or younger, hipper drunks, no one seems to harbor the slightest trepidation.

Which of course terrifies me. But at least I'm not laughing.

Everyone seems ready to admit that the conditions for such a rightwing populist spasm are similar here to those in the US and UK just before the unpleasantness. I don't even have to bring it up. Bien sur, they say. The socialist party is no longer socialist here, and hasn't been for the longest time, just as the Democratic party in the USA hasn't been much of a champion of the demos, nor has the UK's Labor party been much of a force for labor.

And if there's no polite, progressive way to express that Muslim immigrants might be a problem, the left do not hesitate to attempt it. In this neighborhood, where the workers are still cursing the bosses as vehemently as in the old days, and have no trouble pointing out the financial class's culpability in their economic troubles, and Muslims, especially those from North Africa, are well-integrated as fellow drinkers and fellow workers, there's still talk of a "problem." And of course, having suffered attacks from fanatical Islamic groups, there's definitely some type of problem. There's what they call "the suburbs" with their antagonisms. And there's concern that maybe there are too many Muslims in France who don't embrace the French values of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood, and the peculiar yin and yang of iconoclasm and tradition that permeates the post-revolutionary society.

Nevertheless, the Parisians aren't fearful. You can't spend your time worrying about terrorism when there's wine to be drunk and conversations to be had. If there's anything like really nasty rightwing xenophobia, it's coming from outside the working, drinking, and hipstering communities of bonhommes et bonne femmes.

This is the knotty puzzle, at least for the French of the Republican philosophical persuasion. Is a society based on "liberty" able to maintain its commitment to liberty when it believes that a large amount of its citizens are so different that they don't understand liberty in an understandable sense? Is only French liberty "liberty?" And where some Islamic sects might proscribe certain freedoms the French consider self-evidently inviolable, is it not a violation of liberty for the government to try to prohibit religious expressions of, say, modesty? Or is a government ban of the burka a defense of liberty French-style? And suppose there were a way to communicate the French essence of liberty and a prescription to transform Islamic liberty, if that's what it is, into the French type, would that be a good thing to do?

Or should French liberty expand or complexify to incorporate other types of liberty? Are there other types? How narrow can liberty be defined before it's too proscriptive to be considered liberty anymore? How broad can it become before it devolves into everyone for herself? And what would that look like? Genital mutilation in public? Why would that be my example? Am I intoxicated? Maybe.

Who needs to change, the French? Or the immigrants? And why should the French change when the immigrants can't vote? And if the immigrants can't vote, what do the French have to lose by voting in the Front National?

That's what scares me about the polling. The most rosy poll results are paved with answers from people with good intentions but secret shames.

You can buy a lot of good will as an American here in Paris, when someone asks, "How's Trump?" by dropping your head in misery. Gets laughs. And when it does, I don't say, "don't laugh." Because that would lead to me saying, "Oh, you think it can't happen here? I guess you better laugh while you can."

Of course, no one has talked about building a wall of the Donald Dump variety here. Not since my old friend Rabelais, who insisted that the strongest wall to protect Paris would be made of alternating male and female sex parts, because they possess a great deal of strength in and of themselves, and when joined are the most difficult building blocks to wrest asunder.

Life. Love of life, enjoying life, is another traditional French value. Don't laugh. It might sound facile, but it is a peculiarly French type of appreciation, and it's very contagious. I think it's also a kind of Lebanese and maybe North African type of appreciation, that the different appreciations have melded pretty well. If we can build a wall of that against the hate seemingly rising from every corner of the world, we might have the last laugh.

I'll be able to comment more cogently, I assume, when I'm no longer drinking every day and fighting jetlag.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!


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