William Hogarth, O the Roast Beef of Old England (The Gate of Calais), 1748, oil on canvas Tate Britain, London

Spring is here in Paris, and so is the army. Camouflaged soldiers with assault rifles patrol the airports and train stations, and armed police loiter on street corners. Since last November’s Islamist massacres, the police have conducted more than 2,500 raids and held hundreds of suspects. In mid-February, the National Assembly voted to extend the state of emergency by another three months. The Assembly also endorsed the first part of the Hollande government’s anti-terrorism proposals. These included modifying the constitution of 1958 to permit a four-month state of emergency, and placing suspected terrorists under house arrest for up to six months. Another proposal, to cancel the French citizenship of terrorists with dual nationality, was subsequently abandoned. The state of emergency is shaping the emerging state of France.

I flew in from London late on a wet Friday afternoon. Heathrow had been frantic as usual, but the terminal at Charles de Gaulle was half empty. As I waited to buy my train ticket to Gare du Nord, the only person in the line ahead of me was a short, frightened-looking Arab man. The woman behind the counter called him, but he did not understand, and stayed where he was. I prompted him in French, but he still did not move. Finally, the woman waved him forwards, and I ushered him up to the counter. He produced a crumpled piece of paper and tried to read it to her—a Métro station near the home of a friend or relative?—but now she did not understand. She looked around to see if her colleagues were listening, then leant closer to the glass and spoke quietly in Arabic. He responded thankfully and volubly, bought his ticket, said “Shukran” to her and “Merci” to me, and wandered off to look for the rer.

The first rule of being French is never accommodate the Rosbif.

I stepped up. She asked me what I wanted in excellent, formal French, as though I had not shared in their secret breaching of the Bastille. I replied in my schoolboy’s mangling of the tongue of Racine and Proust. Although her identity badge bore a miniature Union Jack as well as the flags of Spain and Morocco, she pushed on in French. A model assimilation: the first rule of being French is never accommodate the Rosbif.

Paris was the first foreign city I saw. I was four years old; my first flight on a plane, my first raspberry sorbet. After that, I returned to Paris more times than to any other city. I came as a teenager, when the Musée d’Orsay and the Channel Tunnel opened. I came in my delinquent twenties, to play jazz in the clubs on the Rue de la Huchette. I came with the woman who would become my wife, and met the friends that she had made as a third-year student from Oxford. Later, “The French,” as we called them, stayed with us in London and came to our wedding. More recently, I came to research in the archives in the Marais. The seven ages of my life will be a series of postcards from Paris.

In the ancient rivalry between London and Paris, one city is up when the other is down. Paris was the place in the Fifties, London in the Sixties and Seventies. When I went to Paris in the Eighties, it was like visiting the future. London was dirty and violent. Its infrastructure was dying, football hooligans were everywhere, and the food was appalling. Britain had turned in upon itself when the economy went under in the Seventies, and remained so as it struggled through the class war that was the price of Thatcher’s revolution.

Paris worked as a city should. The Métro was clean, the food was affordable, and the licensing hours were civilized. Paris had cultural projects like the Pompidou Center and the Musée d’Orsay. In Paris, every home had a gadget called Le MiniTel, a computerized telephone directory. In London, all the telephone directories had been ripped out of the phone boxes. When the Channel Tunnel brought the two rivals closer together, the trains ran twice as fast on the French side as they did on the British side. It was humiliating.

Now, London is the future—or at least, the present—and Paris the provincial dullard. Deregulated in finance and licensing, and really quite depraved in its coke-flecked international quartiers, London looks outward and launders the world’s cash in its property market. Paris is involute and disgruntled, decaying instead of decadent, and crowded without being rich. France as a whole is turned in upon itself. Like Britain in the Seventies and Eighties, it broods over colonial legacies, riots in the slums, and its relationship to Europe. The dirigiste state cannot keep up. Heathrow has a fast and expensive train service to central London, Charles de Gaulle a slow and expensive service to central Paris. If you abandon your luggage at Heathrow, it will be destroyed. If you abandon it at Charles de Gaulle, you can buy it back by paying a fine of 450 Euros. They must need the money.

On the train into Paris, a burly young man walks down the carriage, placing small yellow cards on top of suitcases and into people’s hands. “Je suis réfugié. J’ai 4 frères,” the card reads. “Help my family to survive. May God protect you and your family. I wish you a good day.” He walks back up the carriage, asking for donations of one or two Euros so he can buy food. He looms over the sitting passengers, especially the young female ones, and collects a handful of coins. We are between stations, so he leaves by forcing open the hydraulic doors between our carriage and the next, using an rer-issue ratchet.

Jules Girard, Construction of the Paris Métro, 1902–10

There have always been buskers on the Métro. No journey in central Paris is complete without a Romanian accordionist, brutalizing La Vie en Rose. But there are now so many buskers on the Métro that if you are sitting in the middle of a carriage, you can hear two performances at once. While they play, a stream of young male beggars weaves up and down the carriage, politely intimidating money from young women and tourists. Some use those mass-produced yellow cartes de visite, but others simply declaim their litany, as if in one of those eighteenth-century engravings, “Street Cries of Old Paris.”

There are now so many buskers on the Métro that if you are sitting in the middle of a carriage, you can hear two performances at once.

Getting off the train, you see young men, asleep on the platform benches and floor. The stations, which used to smell of burnt rubber from the brakes on the trains, now smell of feces. There are puddles of urine in the corridors. Water runs down the broken tiling of the walls. Every dry surface has been graffitied. As the Métro crosses the Seine north of Gare d’Austerlitz, you see a line of tents, pitched outside the Hôpital Salpêtrière. It looks like the camp of an invading army, or a populace fleeing the collapse of a civilization—or both.

La naufrage de l’EU,” the newspaper billboards echo Géricault’s painting. “The Wreck of the EU.”

Pierre de Mahéas lives in an atelier in the Eleventh Arrondissement. The living quarters are upstairs. The dining table perches on an internal balcony, which overlooks the double-height studio on the ground floor. We have a drink, and go downstairs.

Pierre makes installations and films about perception and memory, giving physical form to verbal concepts. His last project depicted the change of ideas over time, through wax castings of Karl Marx’s head. The first head is the crisp, bearded Marx of photographs and statues. As you walk along the line, time passes, and the contours of Marx’s head blur, just like its contents. By the end of the line, “Marx” is no longer a definite system of ideas, or a historical personality. His name is a historical talisman, his image a Rorschach test. “That one’s Elizabeth II,” I said. “No,” Pierre replied, “it’s me.”

For his current project, Pierre pours a cocktail of amber resins onto a portrait, inked on plexiglass. Thin, smoky tendrils of ink float off the plexiglass, to be fixed in three dimensions as the resin dries into a slab. The tendrils are the vapor trails of personality, frozen in the moment of dissolution. The image that is created is a modern acheiropoieton, a self-creating relic like the Byzantine icons that were “made without a hand.” In one of the blocks, the image is that of a Byzantine Jesus, in another, a lion with a thick mane. The resin slabs are more than time-lapse photographs of the decay of personality into the infinite images of the social world. They are blurred inferences, physical images of the most significant and numinous transformations and recognitions of all—into divinity, into animality, or, in a larger work where the human face is pixellated by a wall of slabs stacked like computer screens, into digitality.

“Our biggest problem is that we don’t have a language for what’s happening in France,” de Mahéas says, as we go back upstairs. “Since Charlie Hebdo, and since November’s attacks, there’s been more talk, but we still can’t talk accurately. The terrorists were French, and we have trouble accepting that a French citizen can belong to any community other than that of the French republic. That’s communautarisme, which is disapproved of. For the same reason, we don’t even have the data. When sociologists try to gather their own figures, to get an idea of the statistics, they’re criticized for being divisive, for undermining the ideal of French citizenship.”

The republic has decayed with time, and the French are clinging to a dissolving image of themselves. “The state is rigid, distant, and slow to respond,” de Mahéas says. “There is a widespread hypocrisy in the way the state operates. The elite of this country is drawn from certain schools, like l’ena, the École Nationale d’Administration. If you don’t know the right people, you don’t get public contracts, you don’t have access. It’s like a modern aristocracy. There’s a rhetoric of republican equality, but at every level of the state, you must pledge allegiance to its surrogates.”

Limbourg Brothers, detail from the month of June, haymaking (Palais de la Cité), in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, ca. 1400 

The social geography of Paris replicates the historical division between France and its colonial subjects. The immigrants of the Fifties and Sixties were dumped in modern housing estates in outlying banlieues. The Périphérique motorway girdles historic Paris like a moat of a walled city—“a medieval border.” There are soldiers, private security, scanners, and bag searches at the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre. Inside, the only beards and headscarves are on the Orientalist paintings.

We walk to the end of Pierre’s street, to the corner with Rue de Charonne. He shows me the boarded-up shopfront that used to be La Belle Equipe, the cafe where two Islamist gunmen murdered nineteen people in one of the November attacks. A bullet went through the window of the tisserie next door; a piece of cardboard has been taped over the hole. For a month after the attack, flowers, drawings, letters, and cards piled up outside the cafe. One morning in early February, they disappeared. The municipal authorities had taken them away for storage and classification. The site has become a lieu de mémoire, one of those places that denote a collective experience. Its full meaning is not yet determined.

The terrorist attacks, the rise of the Front National, and the state of emergency will force the French to find a way of talking about their predicament.

The terrorist attacks, the rise of the Front National, and the state of emergency will force the French to find a way of talking about their predicament. For now, Pierre de Mahéas sees a retreat of the kind that Tocqueville warned about, from public duties to private satisfactions—into a “micro-society” of friends and family, in which a “pathological interest in food” stands for the shared aspects of social life.

“It has become very difficult to talk about serious issues. The Kamel Daoud controversy is symptomatic of this difficulty.”

Kamel Daoud is the Algerian author of The Meursault Investigation (2013), an acclaimed “counter-enquiry” to Camus’ L’Étranger. In late January, Daoud wrote an article for Le Monde about the unprecedented wave of gang robberies and sexual assaults that had occurred during Cologne’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. The German police had identified some of the attackers as recently arrived male Muslim migrants. Similar events had come to light in other German cities and in Sweden. The media, the police, and the government had all been slow to respond, and the usual ultra-nationalist suspects had capitalized on a wave of public disgust.

Daoud’s article, “Cologne, Site of Fantasies,” described mutual incomprehension, but it didn’t spread the blame equally. The “Occidentals,” Daoud said, filtered the events through a set of images of the “refugee-immigrant” as culturally alien and prone to terrorism. The tragedy of the migrants was reactivating “ancient fears of barbarian invasion” and the “barbarism-civilization binary.” This seems inarguable. The civilization of the Occidentals is founded on the Greek binary of barbarism and civilization, and the Hebrew binary of chaos and justice. And once you’ve been invaded by barbarians, you tend not to forget the chaos that follows.

Daoud didn’t call the other part of Europe’s new binary “Orientals.” He called them Muslim men. The refugee-immigrants come from “the vast universe of sorrow and horror which is the sexual misery of the Arab-Muslim world.” The subjugation of women is the psychological “Gordian knot” at the core of the “world of Allah”—and hence the inspiration of the death cult that claims to defend it.

Once you’ve been invaded by barbarians, you tend not to forget the chaos that follows.

Women are negated, denied, refused, murdered, violated, imprisoned, and possessed. This shows a troubled relationship to the imagination, to the desire for life, creativity, and freedom. A woman stands for the life which must not be permitted. As the incarnation of necessary desire, she is culpable of an awful crime: life. . . .

Sex is the greatest misery in the “world of Allah.” So much so that it has given birth to a porno-Islamism, which Islamist preachers use to recruit their “faithful”: Paradise described as a brothel for the reward of the pious, a fantasy of virgins for the kamikazes, the hunting of bodies in public spaces, the dictatorial puritanism, the veil and the burka.

Compared to the fun and games of the Occidentals, life is awful for most people in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet Muslims who leave the “world of Allah” for “modernity” remained entangled in their Gordian knot of misogyny. The refugee-immigrant “desires” Occidental liberty, but cannot attain it.

The Occident is seen across a woman’s body: the freedom of women is seen as transgressing the categories of religious license or “virtue.” A woman’s body is not seen as a site of liberty essential to Occidental values, but as a site of decadence, which must be returned to possession, or by force to “veiling.”

The Occidentals reacted to the Cologne assaults as an attack on “the essence of their modernity.” The attackers, however, saw it as “a divertissement, an excess on a night of parties and alcohol”—a legitimate exuberance against a legitimate target. It is not enough, Daoud said, to give a Muslim male immigrant an E.U. passport. Asylum only “saves his body,” not his “soul.” He still carries a “sick relationship to women, the body, and desire.” As a stranger in the libertine Occident, all he has is “his culture,” but that only tightens the Gordian knot.

This was strong stuff, but Daoud was almost as critical of the Europeans. The right, he said, cannot decide whether to blame recent arrivals from Syria, or the French-born grandchildren of immigrants from the colonies of the Maghreb. The left plays its own “game of fantasies,” and makes excuses for people who “don’t yet understand that asylum isn’t just about having ‘papiers,’ it’s also about accepting the social contract of modernity.”

Kamel Daoud in 2015. Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc via Wikimedia Commons

In mid-February, Daoud expanded on this in a second article in The New York Times. “Après Tahrir, Cologne. Après le square, le sexe,” he wrote. “Revolution does not mean modernity.” The “patriarchal culture” of Arab Muslims has conferred its “monopoly on discourse about sex, the body, and love” to the Islamists, who also talk of “virility, honor, and family values.” Sex is not to be shown, but it is seen everywhere, and policed everywhere—in the surveillance of women, in the “obsession with their virginity,” and in the ceding of powers to the “morality police.”

A pervasive “sexual misery” leads to “absurdity and hysteria.” Salafists and their loutish hangers-on interrogate couples in parks and subdivide benches to separate the sexes. “Orgasm is only permitted after marriage—and under Islamic codes which diminish desire—or after death.” The result is that “one fantasizes about elsewhere, about the permissiveness and luxury of the Occident, or about the Islamic paradise and its virgins.” On television, it’s the fulminations of preachers or the surgically enhanced Lebanese singers and dancers of “Silicon Valley.” On the beach, the bikini or the burkini.

Once, imperial geography and the veils of Orientalism made the “war on women” in Muslim societies seem tolerably exotic, a “distant spectacle.” Now, postcolonial immigration and the Islamist revolution have exported this “pathological relationship to women” into liberal, democratic Europe. “The general public of the Occident discovers in fear and agitation that in the Muslim world, sex is sick, and that this sickness is in the process of winning in its own lands.”

For denying the Gospel of St. Edward Said, Daoud was flayed from the left. In Le Monde, an inquisition of nineteen French academics publicly denounced him as an Islamophobe who panders to racists. “Kamel Daoud recycles the most hackneyed Orientalist clichés. . . . This radical essentialism produces a geographical phantasm, which opposes a world of submission and alienation to a world of freedom and education.” They convicted Daoud of further offenses, like “psychologization,” “paternalist colonialism,” and “feeding the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing part of the European public.”

Daoud is a secular liberal of Muslim background. He lives in Oran, Algeria despite death threats and other Islamist literary criticism. The academics’ response cannot have surprised him. He had already accused the left of pandering to intolerance among Muslims; if the academics were not his enemies, they were not his friends. Worse, surely, was the response of an American friend, Adam Shatz, the erstwhile books editor for The Nation, who currently teaches Near Eastern Studies at nyu.

When l’affaire Daoud got going, Shatz sent Daoud a private email. He had read the academic fatwa in Le Monde. The “left-Soviet-puritan” tone of a public denunciation discomfited Shatz. So he shot his messenger privately, like Camus’ Meursault shooting his Arab on the beach at Algiers.

This isn’t the Kamel Daoud that I know, and who I profiled in a long article. We talked a lot about the problems of sex in the Arab-Muslim world when I was in Oran. But we also talked about the “ambiguities” of the “culture” (a word I don’t like); for example, the fact that veiled women are sometimes among the most sexually emancipated . . .

I’m not saying you did this deliberately, or even that you’re playing the game of the “imperialists.” I’m not accusing you of anything. Other than not thinking about it, and falling into strange and perhaps dangerous traps. I’m thinking here above all of the idea that there’s a direct link between the Cologne events and Islamism, or even “Islam” as a whole.

In literary terms, Shatz is unfit to steam Daoud’s couscous. Still, Shatz presumed to tell Daoud to stick to fiction—from “feelings of the deepest friendship,” of course. “It’s for you, and you alone to decide how you engage in politics, but I want you to know that I’m worried about you, and I hope you’ll reflect deeply on your positions . . . and that you’ll return to the mode of expression that, in my opinion, is your best genre, literature.” What would Edward Said have said at Shatz’s shameless cultural imperialism—a white metropolitan critic telling his brown provincial subaltern to shut up, because he knows better?

When the academics convicted Daoud of Islamophobia, they offered him as “fodder for local hatred”: their judgment mirrors that of the Islamists.

Daoud reflected on Shatz’s patronizing letter, then published it, along with a reply. It was, Daoud said, “immoral” of the academics to pontificate from the “comfort and security” of café terraces in Western capitals. It was “intolerable” of them to presume to speak for the people of the Maghreb. When the academics convicted him of Islamophobia, they offered him as “fodder for local hatred”: their judgment mirrors that of the Islamists.

We live in an age of orders. If you’re not on one side, you’re on the other. In the Cologne piece, the part about women was written years ago. At that time, no one would have reacted to it, or not much. Today times have changed: the contortions demand interpretation, and the interpretation pushes the process along.

Daoud did not order Shatz to don the burka of shame for his trahison des clercs, or for shooting the messenger from a café terrace in Manhattan, or for being more concerned with the dignity of Islam than with the rights of women—at least, not explicitly.

The lot of women is bound up with my future, and the future of my family. Desire is sick in our lands, and the body is encircled. One cannot deny this, and I have to say it and denounce it. But I find myself suddenly responsible for what is read in other lands and atmospheres. To denounce ambient theocracy at home becomes an argument for Islamophobia elsewhere. Is that my fault? Partly, but it is also the fault of our times. . . . Today, a writer coming from the lands of Allah finds himself at the center of intolerable media requests.

The “Cologne” affaire crystallized Daoud’s discomfort with that position. He decided to step back from the media and avoid public statements. “You’re right, I should be occupying myself with literature. I’ll stop writing journalism soon. I’m going to listen to trees and hearts. Read. Restore my inner confidence and peace. Explore. Not to abdicate, but to get away from the game of vagueness and media. To plough, not to declaim.”

It sounds better in French. As Voltaire said, Il faut cultiver notre jardin. Daoud is a perceptive and candid writer. He lives on the middle ground of modern life, and understands both Occidental liberty and the “lands of Allah.” Attacked from both sides, he has been forced into a kind of internal exile. He has retreated on gardening leave, just when we need more people like him. The Islamists must be delighted. Congratulations to the morality police of the Occidental academy.

View of Les Halles, from St. Eustache, 1870

On Sunday afternoon, I meet Malik Idri on the terrace of a café in the Second. The sky is a watery blue, the clouds clean and scudding, and the wind carries a trace of Atlantic salt. Tides of shoppers wash past our promontory-like terrace on their way to and from Les Halles. Edward Said would have called Malik a “native informant.” A mutual friend has persuaded him to describe his experience of the middle ground. He orders beer and lights a cigarette. We begin in French.

“My father came from Algeria in the late Sixties to study for his degree. He was born a French citizen, but he lost his French citizenship when Algeria became independent in 1962. My mother is ethnic French. She is a teacher, and he is an administrator in the regional social services. They’re divorced.” He winces, and stops. Have I offended him? “I’m sorry,” he says. “Your French is dreadful. Shall we talk in English?” Good Europeans, we reach an entente cordiale: he continues en Français, and I en Franglais.

“I can move wherever I like. Obviously, my name indicates my parentage, but I’m invisible.” He grew up in Marseilles, a port that lost its colonial role as a gateway to the colonies of the Maghreb and Asia, but failed to reinvent itself like Barcelona did. “It’s an immigrant town, and there’s a meeting of cultures, but it’s a poor town—more territorial than Paris, and more violent.”

Malik holds a Ph.D. in law. He works for a British firm in Paris, specializing in competition law. He recently spent six months in his firm’s office in Brussels, the capital of the uncompetitive lawmakers of the European Union. Like Pierre de Mahéas, he believes that an ossified system is feeding the rise of “anti-establishment” politics in France. “The system is too rigid. The interests protect themselves, and they reproduce what they know. The political class is comfortable, and it doesn’t need new ideas. There’s a blockage. The Assembly doesn’t represent France: no young people, no women, no blacks, no Muslims.”

The old ideology is dead on its feet, the state a “ghost of a system.”

Sarkozy acknowledged the problem in its Islamist and ultra-nationalist aspects, but he bungled the answers. “Sarkozy opened the door to the FN [Front National]. Part of his strategy was to domesticate the extremists, by saying, ‘I understand you.’ But exactly the reverse happened. Sarkozy is out, and the FN entered the mainstream without being domesticated.” Sarkozy also tried to domesticate the Islamists, by creating a consistoire, a national Muslim council. “It was a catastrophic idea. There are 5 million Muslims in France, but no structures: no pope, no hierarchy of clergy to speak for them. So why should French Muslims recognize the consistoire? It was coercive.”

Malik sees a “crisis of meaning” in French society. The old ideology is dead on its feet, the state a “ghost of a system.” Sarkozy and Hollande have proven that the spectrum of “traditional parties” is no longer capable of canalizing French politics or of controlling the “despair and rage” of millions. “They’re unable to address today’s issues, and that’s catastrophic. The Front National is one aspect of the disruption. It has become mainstream to some extent—that’s why so many people to dare to vote for it. The violent Islamists offer another way of spitting in the face of the system, a more horrific and therefore the more visible way. I have no doubt that tomorrow, comparable violent groups will arise from the far-right. Islamic terrorists have no monopoly on fascist violence.”

Malik respects Kamel Daoud. “He’s received death threats, but he decided to stay in Algeria. He has a right to his opinion. And he’s a writer, not a scientist, so he has a right to take liberties with the facts.” He dismisses Éric Zemmour as a provocateur. “He feels the pulse, then says something that’s just racist enough, then denies he said it.”

Late afternoon, and the wind turns cold. Malik settles our bill, as the host should for a guest. “I was born to a generation of Europeans,” he says. “I’m profoundly European.”

“The refugees and immigrants cannot be reduced to their delinquent minority,” Daoud concluded in his “Cologne” article, “but that group raises the problem of which ‘values’ shall be accepted, imposed, defended, and made comprehensible.” This is where France now finds itself, but can it find the words?

The future of France will be made on the middle ground, in a series of overlapping contests: the legal battle between republic and the mosque, laïcité and sharia; the struggle between the children of the colonizers and colonized over historical memory; the ethical contest between liberalism and illiberalism, free women and unfree women; the political battle between the extremists of an “age of orders.” The outcome of those contests will be crucial to the future of Europe, and perhaps that of Islam too. As Kamel Daoud says, the Islamists are winning on their home ground. Only a stable, liberal society can tolerate the kind of individual experimentation required for the rapprochement of Islam and modernity. If only for reasons of geography, the French cannot turn their backs on what Daoud calls “the misery of the world.”

For nearly two hundred years, from 1789 to 1968, Paris was the great stage of Western politics. After 1968, the theater of French politics became a local affair. In the last year, the migrant influx and the terrorist attacks have returned Paris to the spotlight. A new cast takes to the old stage, reviving the drama of liberty and tyranny. We will always have Paris—unless we let them take it from us.

A Message from the Editors

As a reader of our efforts, you have stood with us on the front lines in the battle for culture. Learn how your support contributes to our continued defense of truth.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 9, on page 11
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now