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Thursday, June 14, 2007 | Two weeks in Paris brings me back to San Diego with a fresh perspective on our country’s problems. It is one of the advantages of travel: It helps us see things, including ourselves, as others see them.
The French are elated with the election of a new president and last Sunday gave him an overwhelming majority in parliament. Nicolas Sarkozy takes office promising a fresh start. Americans, weighed down by a failed president sans credibility at home or abroad — Bush’s failures on an immigration bill and at the G8 summit were symptomatic — can only envy the French. Bush will be with us an interminable 18 more months.
In Paris, I dined with three American diplomats (two retired) and heard a lament that is common. “Forty years,” said one man, “I gave to my country, representing our values and ideals wherever I served. Everything I did — everything we all worked for — has been wrecked in the space of six years.”
Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian immigrant, has a native sympathy for America born of former Communist East European domination. But he is also a Gaullist, and the essence of Gaullism is independence. Part of Sarkozy’s platform was to mend fences with the United States — fences broken by Bush. There is no sympathy anywhere in Europe for Bush’s disaster in Iraq. Britain and Spain have disposed of the misbegotten leaders who followed Bush into Iraq. Americans are not so lucky.
I have lived in Paris and San Diego the same number of years — 15 in each place. As big cities go, they are hardly comparable. I’d say Paris is a better place to live when you’re young, and San Diego better when you’re older, though that’s a matter of taste. Surfers, I suppose, would disagree.
What struck me on this return — I stayed on the Place de la Sorbonne — was the intellectual vitality of Paris. There are bookstores everywhere, stores dedicated to every imaginable literary specialty, so many you wonder how any bookseller makes a living. The best ones are the rare books shops, where a bell tinkles and an old gent in a chair nods as you enter. In one old medical bookstore near the Faculté de Mèdecine I leafed through accounts of anesthesia through the ages, learning about the relative merits of chloroform v. ether. Before that, they just held you down and cut you open.
Scattered among the bookstores are the restaurants. A single block near the Luxembourg Gardens has a dozen restaurants representing every conceivable cuisine. My first lunch was in a little Tibetan place on the rue d’Assas. One doesn’t think of Tibetans as émigrés. Are there any Tibetan restaurants in San Diego? Parisians eat out constantly, some even twice daily. Food in the little places is cheap, and restaurants far more plentiful in old Paris than grocery stores. The streets are packed, and coming home one weekday night after midnight, I found the Metro packed as well. When do they sleep?
Springtime in Paris means politics and the French Open, and I had a good taste of both. Politics is mostly about Sarkozy, a short, tough-talking enforcer whose style reminds of Russia’s Putin. He wasn’t thought to have much of a chance a few months ago, but ran a good race and handily beat the Socialist candidate, the very attractive Ségolène Royal, who turned out to be something of an airhead in international affairs.
Because of their unconventional (by U.S. standards) personal lives, neither Sarkozy nor Royal would have a chance in American politics. Royal never married the father of her four children and made it clear during the campaign she didn’t much like him anymore. Sarkozy is married to a former model who said she had no intention of being a first lady and left with a lover when she discovered her husband had a mistress. She showed up for her husband’s inauguration, but has been under the radar since.
The French are blasé about such things and better than we at separating personal and professional lives. Françe;ois Mitterrand, who served two terms, had a colorful past and was an atheist in a very Catholic country. Americans may have had atheist presidents, but they pretended to be believers. We may disagree with the French about separating personal and professional lives, but the custom spares them our hypocrisy.
Paris in springtime is inundated with tourists. The Louvre might be mistaken for a Tokyo museum, and one wonders how France ever has a trade deficit with the number of foreigners with money belts swarming its streets. One sees fewer Americans than in the past, doubtless because of the weak dollar. The French Open, far less appealing than when I lived in France, is crammed to the point of agoraphobia, with most of the foreign spectators European. I used to prefer Roland Garros to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but now, from the spectators’ viewpoint, I rank it third.
Mitterrand’s socialism for now has had its day in France, and voters expect Sarkozy to cut taxes, which take more than 50 percent of national income. Whether he can cut taxes and still provide the French with all they expect from government — education, transportation, health care, social welfare, public services, subsidized baguettes etc. etc. — is doubtful, but that was his platform. He wants to strengthen France’s private sector, and for that he will have to take on the labor unions, a task which has defeated every French leader who ever tried.
As for repairing France’s ruptured links with America, that is less up to him than to us. Bush’s unilateral, rejectionist, anti-American politics not only have shattered Iraq, they have shattered links with our oldest friends, undoing, as my dinner companion lamented, the work of many years. As long as Bush is in the White House, relations with our allies will be rocky. And now Bush has us on a collision course with Russia.
But glimmers of sunshine break through the gloom. Thanks to last November’s elections, we already have entered the post-Bush phase. And now The New York Times reports that Americans no longer are regarded as the world’s most obnoxious tourists, having been displaced by the British and Chinese. Iraq makes us humble. My diplomatic friend can hope that his 40 years of work were not destroyed, just temporarily set back.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.