What One Hears in Paris

In a journalism school long ago, the students used to argue with a favorite professor, the much-loved John Hohenberg, who maintained that when one was reporting from a foreign country, all one needed to do was go out and interview the first 10 people one met on the street in order to report “the mood of the country.” Such gross generalizations were embarrassing to us younger, more “scientific” reporters. But Hohenburg always maintained one cannot report from abroad without the sweeping generalization.

For lack of anything scientific to do, I followed Ho’s advice from September 12 to September 16, literally interviewing the first 10 Frenchmen I found each day on the Quai d’Anjou. I would like to report that the French talk of nothing else along the banks of the Seine but America’s agony; however, the World Championship Fishing contest is under way here, and there’s also quite a bit of interest along the quais in the finer points of chum-throwing. However, watching a fishing contest does leave one with some leisure to ponder larger questions, and the fishing fans were eager to cooperate with a visiting American journalist–in fact, many people joined in without invitation.

In the French language, “one” is the opinionated individual. The French avoid the egotistical “I” and the presumptuous “everybody” in favor of the more modest “one.” One feels. One thinks. One has doubts. One prefers the foie gras over the paté.

First of all, one was horrified, one was affrighted, one was entirely sympathetic, one very much wished the Americans to know the French felt this, and one also understood it was an affair of the most grave. At the American Church on the Left Bank, the American Cathedral on the Right, and at the American Embassy (the embassy itself was closed for security, but an office across the street had a book for condolences), the steps were covered with beautiful flowers with the most touching messages. They ranged from “God bless America,” to “Nous vous aimons” to creative combinations, such as “Vive les New Yorkers.”

Many of the messages mentioned ’44, Normandy, or the liberation of Paris. One, in a shaky, spidery hand, referred to the famous American declaration of WWI: “Lafayette, we are here,” with the assurance that “we French would stand with America once more, a la Lafayette.”

All this was even more remarkable in that the French (a safe generalization) consider George W. Bush a hopeless fathead. The press (I have been reading Le Figaro, Le Monde, and La Liberation) has been magnificently restrained in its commentary. At least until Saturday, the papers featured great deluges and avalanches of beautiful prose on the awfulness and horror of the attack–backed by tender portraits of the survivors. But there was from the beginning a slightly less sentimental tone in the coverage here, an immediate practicality about the consequences, and a severe avoidance of the bathetic.

By the weekend, the French press was pointing out, in the most tactful fashion, that this is an administration that has notably preferred unilateralism to multilateralism, but now the great need for fullest cooperation of the allies is revealed. The second point made by the French press was that G.W. Bush must now, surely, recognize the folly of the missile defense shield, it having just been so painfully demonstrated to be not at all what is needed. The first sign of impatience from both the press and my guys on the quai came at the news that the attack had actually made the demonstrably useless missile defense shield more likely to pass than before the attack, since nobody in Washington is in a mood to deny George Bush anything he says he needs at this point. This forces one to throw up one’s hands. One must shake one’s head and sigh.

One is also gravely concerned by the calling up of 50,000 reservists, and bellicose quotes from Bush and Cheney start to ominously dominate the headlines. The problem, one agreed with one along the quai, is the use of the word “war.” For war, the military forces of one country must attack the military forces of another. Therefore, this is not war. It is a crime of the most horrible variety. It must be treated as a great crime. One must find the perpetrators. One must bring them to justice. One is inclined to think an international tribunal, such as for Slobodan Milosevic, would be a proper gesture.

What is the E.U. to do? Several ones became loud enough to disturb the fishermen. One is well aware, one certainly sees the E.U. might smash Kabul–but this would cause only 500 francs (about $70) worth of damage and kill many innocents such as were at the World Trade Center. One knows Afghanistan is a most miserable place, at war for more than 20 years, first against the Russians, then against itself in the war civil, so there is nothing left to destroy. So what is the sense in it?

This is what one is saying in Paris, along the quais. I wish I thought a bunch of guys watching a fishing contest in the U.S. would know that much about Afghanistan.

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.

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Published at 12:00 am CST