In 1954 when I was eight years old the sound track of “An American In Paris” beat out Elvis on my private hit parade. I discovered it in a credenza that housed the family three speed record player (with AM and FM radio). Gershwin painted the sound picture that I visualized and Hollywood brought it to life. Paris was captivating. And it didn’t have the brusque, unwelcoming overtones of the naked city, New York. I arrived in Paris in 1968. I was 21, the year I started writing forRolling Stone, and the city was jumpin’. There was a riot goin’ on.
I stayed in a small budget hotel in 16th arrondissement, the Gavarni, in the Rue Massenet, not far from the Passy Metro station. As a neighborhood, Passy evoked the quaintness of the small village that it was when Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson lived there during the French Revolution. Across the Seine in the Latin Quarter, left wing students and riot police were going mano a mano and tear gas was in the air.
For first time visitors the excitement is still there and always will be. The Eiffel Tower, The Champs Elysees, The Latin Quarter and Versailles. But over time the moveable feast that drew tourists, artists, writers and other sundry expatriates has lost its cache. You can eat well and write in the cafes like Hemingway did, but the moveable feast has faded away.
The big villain in the plotline is European integration. Showing a flat affect from the cultural Prozac of collective Eurothink, France seems to have lost its way. With France hit hard by the global economic crisis, liberty, equality, fraternity, the bedrock of the postwar French republics, has devolved into family, fatherland and work, the slogan developed by the pro-Nazi Vichy government. Right wing hate groups regularly take to the streets to conduct protests—sometimes violent– against immigrants, muslims and gays. Show business personalities and industrialists are leaving the country due to high taxes and there are whispers of a brain drain.
Feelgood tourist Paris masks over growing American antipathy toward France. US Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry tells journalists he speaks “the language.” But Mitt Romney, who also speaks the language, attempted to cover up his sojourn in France as a Mormon missionary. The bad mojo started long before “American fries” and former defense secretary Don Rumsfeld’s silly jokes during France’s resistance to the American invasion of Iraq. American media got cheesed off at the rich French yuppies in the mid 1970s when they came over to New York in droves and started buying up choice pieces of Manhattan real estate during the debt crisis. The operative word was “Eurotrash” and it stuck.
French socialism, flying in the face of the Reagan revolution and its free market economics, didn’t help things much either in a nation where waiters wear there politics on their shirtsleeves and if your government doesn’t like their politics, they don’t like you. Just try getting a table at Brasserie Lipp, the most snobby literary restaurant in Paris.
But thanks to the popularity of Hemingway girls, actresses Margaux and Mariel, and the je ne sais quoi allure that fascinated travel writers, the city has continued as one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Movie fans have long loved visiting the location along the Champs Elysees where actress Jean Seberg was filmed selling copies of the Herald-Tribune in Jean Luc Godard’s New Wave classic, Breathless. The images romanticized through the lens of photographer of Georges Dambier, on these pages, could be found amongst the cityscape of la vie quotidienne.
But something happened that would change Paris and French culture forever. In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeni, the Iranian Shia cleric who had been living quietly in exile outside Paris returned to Tehran giving a spiritual dimension to the revolution there. The collateral effect empowered millions of restless immigrant workers from former French colonies– Algeria, Morocco and West and Central Africa–who were struggling to make it in the low wage paradise known as la banlieue, the poor working class suburbs of Paris.
The cultural upheaval, while providing a modicum of social inclusion for some assimilated immigrants, has transformed Paris and France into a cultural battleground that has incubated terrorism and pushed the nation into costly and unpopular military interventions in Africa.
For pleasure seekers, there is still lots of perfume, Picasso prints, and pretty girls and boys on the make. But unlike Mumbai, New York, Istanbul or Shanghai, Paris, like France itself, has become frozen in time, a victim of its own inflexible character. I suppose my character is less limber with age, but I’ll just say Paris is the kind of love affair one doesn’t look back on.