Liberty in Paris
November 1, 2004
This weekend I made a rare visit to Paris, where I had a rendezvous with my first wife. (I call her that to keep her on her toes.) While waiting for her train to arrive from London, I made a pilgrimage to one of Paris’ two bronze “miniature” versions of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty: the smaller and more beautiful of the two—the one pictured at right—which was Bartholdi’s original cast, and now stands in the Jardin du Luxembourg. The second Paris Liberty is grander, but is less prettily situated on an island in the middle of the Seine. This one was a gift to France from the American community in Paris in 1889, the centenary year of the French Revolution. The Americans in Paris were reciprocating the French people’s gift of the statue that had been erected in New York three years before. It is about twice as high as the Luxembourg Liberty—so on the same scale as the styrofoam and papier maché Goddess of Democracy that stood in Tiananmen Square for five days in 1989.
The Jardin du Luxembourg, a delightful park—surely one of Paris’ finest works of art—is also home to the French Senate, based in the palace in the north of the park. Like so much else in France, the Luxembourg Palace which now thus serves the Republic is a product of the absolute monarchy of the ancien regime: Marie de Médici, the lonely widow of Henry IV, rattling around the Louvre (then not a museum but a royal palace), acquired the land from the Duke of Luxembourg, and had the Palace built in the warmer style of her childhood home, the Pitti Palace in Florence. The Luxembourg park, open from dawn to dusk, is now also a lovely pleasure ground for families and children and adults, so democratic republican citizens as well as institutions have the benefit of this royal inheritance.
Walking away from the park, I was on the lookout for a good example of one of the other laudable and durable results of the French Revolution: the release of good cooks from the clutches of the ruling classes into the kitchens of family-owned restaurants. These establishments were remarkably few and far between before the Revolution. Now they are almost everywhere (although they are being supplemented by more modern and less poetic commercial enterprises, by no means all of them American).
Not many of these little restaurants display American flags in their windows (this was true even before the current political disagreements between America and France), so one that did caught my eye, and that is where we ended up eating later that evening. It is a tiny bistro run by a couple who have been in the business—with no employees—for forty years. When I went in to sniff the place out with a view to making a reservation, the chef, who with his wife was busy taking some new publicity photos, told me that his son was the manager of a chain of restaurants in America (an interesting comment on commercial differences between France and America). That, plus the large number of American clients (even in these difficult days), explained the American flag in his window, which was accompanied by a flag from the state where his son lives and works.
But what about the currently troubled relations between the French and the Americans, I asked: doesn’t that make showing the American flag a risky business? By this time, he had gathered that I am an American, but I do not think his answer was just market patter. No, no, he insisted. After all, he rightly pointed out, Americans and French have often had political disagreements. And even though the French decided not to go to war in Iraq, why should that sour relations so very much? He was a conscript in the French army in Algeria before he started up his restaurant, and—if asked—he expresses French (and more general European) skepticism about the American strategy against Islamic terrorism. But, he said, it was only the French diplomats—”that idiot de Villepin” was one of his milder expressions—who messed things up so much: if the French government had just said count us out this time and left it at that, and then stayed out of the way, relations between America and France need never have deteriorated the way they did.
The following day, my remembrance of the chef’s impressive culinary skills was a little (well, only a very little) diminished when I found a less sane approach than his to contemporary international relations, in Le Figaro. This is the French newspaper of the “centre right” (not the invariably anti-American Le Monde). The articles in question appeared not on its opinion page, but in its news coverage of the death of Yasser Arafat. On a single page, articles from correspondents in Washington, Jerusalem, and Paris triangulated onto what seems set to become the key opinion of French elites, who are eager to wager that the chances for a democracy emerging in a separate Palestinian state—if America can only be persuaded to help bring such a state about—are far greater than such a miracle taking place in Iraq.
Would not the Americans and “their British allies” (no others of the 32 coalition partners merit notice) have been far better off if they had had someone with Arafat’s “popular legitimacy,” rather than Iyad Allawi, as a political ally in Iraq? Aren’t the Palestinians way ahead of the Iraqis in the race to set up the first Arab democracy, having already held elections in 1996? Won’t France—and by extension, the European Union—be able to claim lots of credit for having (in spite of Israel’s strange hostility to any French participation in Middle East peacemaking efforts) maintained such close ties to the Arab world, and in particular for having treated Arafat’s passing with such stately gravity, and thus made possible a good post-Arafat development of Palestinian democracy? Shouldn’t President Bush have been much more optimistic about the possibility of Palestinian democracy than about the possibility of democracy in Iraq, where there has been so much fighting and bloodshed?
But Le Figaro’s correspondents neglect the most important questions. What is the good of democracy without liberty? What is the point of having the occasional election and other attributes of democracy without also having a commitment to peace in the Palestinian people and their representatives? (French journalists are not alone in failing to ask this: I risked spoiling the comforts of our charming Paris hotel, by tuning in too often to CNN’s constant repetition of the peaceful overtures that Arafat made in English in recent years, with no reference to what he was at the same time saying to his Arab listeners.) Is the goal not to have peaceful, liberal, live-and-let-live democracy, rather than plebiscitary terrorism? What is the good of having a popular, democratically-elected Palestinian government that does not accept the right of Israel to exist? If such conditions for a Palestinian democracy committed to peaceful coexistence do not exist, and terrorist gangs continue to attack Israel, don’t ballots have to be supported by defensive bullets?
Finally, why is there is so little French criticism of French policy among French elites? Why does this critical capacity not extend from my bistro chef to French journalists and politicians?
I ponder these questions as my train wends its way south, where I have a winter’s worth of firewood to cut and stack.
John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American. He lives in southern France.