By: Bhawesh Mishra
Monsieur, bonjour!” you say.
“Bonjour!” the grocer replies.
You hurry, as an Indian would, to ask: “Où sont les oeufs (Where are the eggs)?”
“I will tell you if you pronounce them correctly.” In plural, they are lez-you, not lezuff.
The grocer has just pricked two needle-sharp syllables into your Anglophone’s ego, recently stuffed with 12 weeks of French lessons. That he is of Arab origin, as most Parisian grocers are, is beside the point. He thinks he is just doing his job as the sentry of his language and culture.
This grocer was probably among the million French people at Place de la République in Paris on Sunday. You knew him when you lived in Paris and if you were to meet him today, he would tell you why. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not merely an attack on cartoonists. It was an attack on the idea of France. It was an assault on the poise of a nation that still agonises every day over its history, over what to preserve and what to keep buried, over who is fit to fit in. It was battery against France’s huge effort to own up to its changing society, with millions of Muslims in it, and what remains of the French Jewry.
Europe knows the difficulty of doing this. When three million people gathered in French streets and millions more all over Europe, when top EU leaders formed a human chain in Paris, it was not some facile political symbolism. They were bound by deep fear because they know there is no European Union without France and there is no Europe without the EU. So a troubled and angry France scares Europeans. Over the past centuries, whenever France has been upset, it has burned and killed. In a continent where paving stones and living room sofas can be older than America, the past is always fresh and the threat of ideas gone murderous all too imminent.
Most French citizens know this and strive to refine this delicate idea of the nation in their daily lives. But they have stiff conditions before you are let into the vault.
A few months in Paris, more free lessons follow — by teachers, new acquaintances, cabbies, and increasingly from yourself. You quickly understand language is your key to France. By now, you know the most special joys of France can’t be had on a mercenary’s terms. As a speaker of, say, Punjabi, you can live in Britain your whole life without learning English. In France, you must learn, you must be taught. And in a year you have enough to speak in the street, to read headlines in a free tabloid. Lazy myths about France are now beginning to fall like autumn leaves.
Your apartment block caretaker reports there was a stranger seen peering into your home. You ask him if you can see the CCTV recording. He apologises, says the cameras were never switched on. “It’s not decent to film people,” he says.
You ask your neighbour, a government clerk, about why there is no one to stop people from jumping turnstiles into metro stations. “They jump because they can’t pay. Those who can pay, mostly don’t jump in.” She will rather give some people a free ride than put guards everywhere. She will also not tell you most turnstile-jumpers are black people.
Your French teacher, a sombre man with only three shirts and a bicycle, says France is still ashamed Voltaire had to leave for Britain to enjoy freedom. He says France’s best minds had a hard time writing the code for a free society. The French must live by that code.
This code is written in every urban window. You see bookshops full of knowledge and art from the world. France is not isolated. It’s a deeply curious and engaged society that refines itself with knowledge it may once have fought. But that does not mean your baker, that prima donna of the street, will brook you misnaming pieces of bread and pastry. Centuries of skill and pride in flour and sugar can’t be affronted. Spend some time learning about them, si’l vous plaît.
You run into some of more than 83 million tourists who visit France every year (to India’s seven million). They are welcome, but Parisians don’t do fatuous smiles and explaining. They mean no ill will, no slight. They raise no objection to the outsider at the Louvre behaving as if it were a Moroccan bazaar. But were the tourist to be an immigrant, should she take a place in Arrondissement 19, the terms change — could you please wear no long pants into the swimming pool?
People work fewer hours here than in most developed countries, but you learn France has one of the most productive workforces in the world. Its GDP is as much as Britain’s, despite the tall tales from London. So, two years on, you now fail to laugh at stories about two-hour lunch breaks. France has its economic worries, but it is no slouch and the citizen will always pay the taxes that help cover the poorest citizen, no matter of which religion. You also understand why the French would not go to Iraq in 2003. France does not deal in binary ideas — with us or against us, good or evil — because it is wary of any worldview that can’t see the possibility of Arab good and European evil.
It’s your time to leave and at your feet lies, like autumn leaves, the turbid myth: that France is weak, that it is a fractured society. It’s not. The men who killed at Charlie Hebdo may have been born French, but they never got in.
Or rather, France could not let them in because they would not agree to the idea of France.