Commentary Magazine


Betrayed by Europe: An Expatriate's Lament

Washington, D.C., November 29, 2003

It is not so easy to know when you’re deluding yourself and when you are finally seeing the light. When I look back at my reasons for leaving the United States for France in 1972, some seem to me as outmoded—and, in retrospect, as endearing—as Beatles haircuts and Vietnam-war protests. Others stubbornly persist. In any event, my career as a serious American novelist having been short-circuited, I opted for the improbable exploit of becoming a writer in French and a professional translator, and I succeeded. I am long settled in Paris; the three youngsters I brought there, tucked under my free-flying wing, are mature adults with fast-growing children of their own. We have excelled in flexibility, risen to every challenge, transformed somewhat slapdash beginnings into a harmonious whole.

What happened? The sea change began on September 28, 2000, when the domestic repercussions of Arafat’s prefabricated “al-Aqsa” intifada in Jerusalem struck me in a dizzying instant of recognition. I was hardly alone. Stunned and dazed, the formerly integrated, assimilated, liberated, progressive, and (in some cases) indifferent Jews of France found themselves—ourselves—thrust out of the body politic and herded into a virtual ghetto. In the years since then, things have only gotten worse, much worse.

Here I stand, endowed with an intimate knowledge of French language, thought, and reality—and on the threshold, perhaps, of France’s, even Europe’s, downfall. I know a lot about adjusting to foreign countries, feeling at home with strangers, acquiring exotic skills. I can eat with ohashi (don’t ask me to call them chopsticks) like a native, I know how to take a shower with a pail of water in an African hut, I can dance . . . well, let me not string out my credentials. The question staring me in the face at the end of this three-week visit is, could I readjust to the United States, my native land? How could I get used to it, where would I put myself, who would I be if I came back home?

I never thought of myself as an expatriate; I’d let my American identity slip away while retaining the free-floating grace of being a foreigner. Instead, I’d been a “European,” picking up after a brief interruption not exactly where my family had left off—not Budapest, not Przemysl, those were places we would not go back to—but Europe and all it could boast of. Beautiful cities that are really lived in, monuments at every street corner, savoir faire, craftsmanship, savoir vivre, boutiques, refinement, manners, health care, free education, history, French windows and parquet floors.

And . . . the Shoah? I came back to be European and, irony of ironies, Europe is showing me why my grandparents left. For a novelist and student of history, this is a fantastic experience. For a grandmother, it is agony. How can I explain to French grandchildren whose very existence is the consequence of my once flighty decision that I cannot entrust them to their native land? But how can I lead them to safety if I myself do not know how to go home?

I will have to change my way of looking at things. To some extent, I already have changed my way of looking at things. The post-Thanksgiving stampedes at the shopping mall? How I would have slathered them with leftist contempt decades ago. Today I see them as expressions of the common man’s patriotism. No, the malls are not for me, I cannot live in a suburb; but it is incomparably better for people to shop their nation to prosperity than to be marching in the streets of Paris for jihad against the Jews or demonstrating for higher wages, shorter hours, and “justice” in Palestine.

The question is, how would I fit into the picture? Walking down a street in Brookline, Massachusetts, I can recognize myself, barely. But months of snow? I couldn’t take it. Washington? Too square. New York? Perfect in theory, but in practice too frantic, and too expensive. Wouldn’t it be great to reconnect with family, coast-to-coast cousins and nephews and nieces with their children, all so bright and energetic? Yes, but with grandchildren off to college so far away it might as well be Siberia or South Africa, I’d see them once a year if I was lucky.

Where, then?

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En route to Paris, December 2, 2003

On my return flight—Air France, bien entendu—I pick up a copy of Le Nouvel Observateur. The images of President Bush’s Thanksgiving trip to Iraq are still fresh in my mind. My heart went out to those men and women fighting to defend our lives, our freedom. Would French audiences ever see their shining faces, I wondered? Now, from the cover of the French weekly, a disheartened GI stares out at me, and I have my answer. Iraq: Close-up of a Disaster, reads the headline. We see only the left half of the soldier’s face, full front. His skin is reddened and smudged, sullen defeat veils his blue eyes, his mouth is pouting in reproach. Don’t cry, poor boy, the Nouvel Obs is here to tell the world the true story of your debacle.

I keep in my archives a gem of an article from the same magazine, published shortly before the first Gulf war over a dozen years ago. It vividly describes—with photos, computer graphics, diagrams, interviews with retired generals—how the Americans, or rather the coalition in which the French were then nominally included, were heading for a fate worse than Vietnam. I’ll never forget that article, or the dozens like it. But your average Nouvel Obs reader, chortling with delight over the current American “disaster” in Iraq, has no idea of his magazine’s track record.

Last year, the journalist Sara Daniel (the daughter, as it happens, of editor-in-chief Jean Daniel) distinguished herself with an article in the Nouvel Obs on Arab honor killings in which she alleged that Israeli soldiers deliberately rape Palestinian girls knowing they will be killed (honorably) by their families. This caused an uproar, finally squelched by some wimpy verbiage about inadvertently dropped quotation marks and other such lies. Today, brave Sara is slogging around in Iraq. She spent a few days with the boys (and girls) of the 101st Airborne and, clever little French journalist that she is, found one willing to gripe into her tape recorder.

You know those amateur theatricals in which two people play ten roles? That’s Sara’s cut-rate journalism. A few quotes from the disgruntled soldier, a few lines about an ambush, a description of the dead and the mangled, and suddenly a whole company of miserable soldiers don’t know what they are doing in Iraq and only want to go home. The hitch is, it’s a company of one. Evidently the morale of the troops was so low that she could find only one soldier to whine for her.

Sara and the Nouvel Obs have access to all kinds of information. If you think al-Jazeera possesses the only doorstep at which mysterious videos are delivered to bring Americans the tidings of their imminent destruction, you might be surprised to learn that someone—who could it be, my goodness?—dropped a video at the feet of Mlle. Daniel. In this clip, courageous Iraqi freedom fighters are shooting a missile at a DHL cargo plane. Might this have something to do, perhaps, with some still photos published recently in Paris-Match? Same scene, but shot in two forms? I don’t know (I’ve been back in the U.S. and couldn’t follow all the threads), but I mean to ask around as soon as I return to Paris.

Already this much is clear. You’ve heard how terrorists invite al-Jazeera and other insiders to “come along and see us attack the Americans.” Well, it seems that for this particular photo-op, Paris-Match was included. The way Paris-Match tells it, they received only the first half of the invitation, the “come along” part, when to their utter surprise, after three days of hanging out with the brave resistance—lo and behold!—a missile, a DHL plane, and pictures that no one ever expected to materialize.

As they say in French, il ment comme il respire, he lies as he breathes.

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Paris, December 10, 2003

I used to run back to the U.S. for visits of ten days, just to see my family. Then I would return to my true love, Paris, and to my real life. That delicious sweet buttery butter, the perfect bread, our local open-air market. I loved the proportions: the distance on foot necessary to buy food for a day or two, eating all you could carry and nothing more, holding the whole country in the palm of your hand, all of it reachable by clean, modern, relatively inexpensive public transportation. I loved speaking French, couldn’t wait to get back to it, loved my favorite boutiques, my fashionable clothes, my daily elegance.

There must be something adulterous about my relation to countries. I had a native land familiar as family, no language problems, my rightful place. I needed another country, a lover who would carry me off to adventure. I came back to my European origins, flourished in a European framework, delighted in making the exotic familiar. And now, my sincere affection betrayed, I am unforgiving.

Back in Paris, on a dreary winter morning, I’d ridden in from the airport with flood warnings cackling from the taxi radio. By the time I got home, torrential rains were inundating the south of France. For the next week, the evening news showed us floods, evacuations, raging rivers, stranded herds. Devastation. Six feet of water in the lowlands. Homes and businesses washed out for the fourth time in three years. Desolate homeowners peeling thick swatches of sodden plaster from recently refinished walls. Tears welling up as the camera panned to take in furniture, household appliances, books, clothes, mementos damaged beyond repair. The entire south of France was wading through rivers of despair. As if the whole country had dissolved in waves of tears. Or divine anger?

Sheep herders, wine growers, shopkeepers, small businessmen displayed their grief with dignity and restraint. On television, unsuspecting families who had bought fake-Provençal homes with red tile roofs and wisteria-garlanded patios were interviewed shaking their heads in dismay. Was it their fault that the regional authorities had issued building permits for flood lands? Now what? The parade of despair formed a panorama out of Balzac: villagers wearing cloth caps and sporting authentic local accents, charming Mediterranean women glowing with healthy sensuality, typical rural backgrounds, landscapes, the people and the products I used to love.

Suddenly they disgust me. What is this simulacrum of a country inhabited by characters pretending to be actors out of a 1950’s French comedy? Is it any wonder that they conduct their foreign relations like village bumpkins? But of course I’m faking, too, forcing myself not to like what I liked and to like what I still have misgivings about, breaking loose from my moorings and sending myself into orbit. Because I don’t want to leave France and I can’t stay.

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Paris, January 14, 2004

I’m being treated to a poignant lesson in European and Jewish history. The 30’s: why did they stay? Why didn’t they run for their lives? Couldn’t they see what was happening? I see before me a vivid demonstration of the deep roots we dig to make our lives bloom, the intricate biology of a human life, irrigated with the lifeblood of a community, inextricably connected to a society, born of life to give life to keep life alive. Leaving is not packing up and tipping your hat goodbye. It is tearing live flesh out of a living matrix.

I am, or was, the first American-born generation in a family that fled Europe before World War I: a lesson in the wisdom of leaving before it is too late. Now I am the first stage in the story of a three-generation “French” family. Why don’t people just pick up and go while they still can? It’s always the same. There is an ailing grandmother, a son in medical school, a daughter who just got married, a business too good to throw away and not good enough to sell. There are in-laws and obligations and unfinished business and . . . hope. Hope that it will all blow over. That people will come to their senses, reason win out, normal life resume. And so, blinded by hope, people minimize danger and cling to an imagined stability.

Jews are being persecuted every day in France. Some are insulted, pelted with stones, spat upon; some are beaten or threatened with knives or guns. Synagogues are torched, schools burned to the ground. A little over a month ago, at least one Jew was savagely murdered, his throat slit, his face gouged with a carving knife. Did it create an uproar? No. The incident was stifled, and by common consent—not just by the authorities, but by the Jews.

Some Jews are simply frightened; they are reluctant to take the subway, walk in certain neighborhoods, go out after dark. Others, clearly identifiable as Jews, are courageous and defiant. Many, perhaps the majority, show no outward signs of Jewishness and do not seek to know the truth about the rampant and increasingly violent anti-Semitism all around them. If you are Jewish but do not defend Israel or act too religious or look too different, you are not yet a target—so why insist on monitoring the danger when daily life is so delicious?

And the lies so tantalizing. A thick, hand-knit comforter of prevarication spreads itself over the French population. Every morning, instead of waking people up, the press tucks them in. France has become a nation of sleepwalkers. You sense it with particular sharpness after a visit to the U.S. How is anyone to face the truth about anything when the truth is hidden by 19th-century-style posturing, pretentious humanitarian hoodwinking, and low-down village tomfoolery?

France is in fact an adversary of the United States—as is its right, after all. But the French honestly believe their country is behaving like a reasonable ally, and there is no way to convince them of the contrary. They are hooked up to an intravenous flow of lies about the United States, fed propaganda disguised as information, molecules of fact dissolved in a carefully regulated solution to keep them on an even keel and save them from having to judge for themselves. No raw data allowed; one mustn’t have people developing a taste for reality.

_____________

 

I don’t see signs that any of this is about to change. Every measure taken in the right direction, or what might seem to be the right direction, hides a fatal flaw. After the floods, and with the exception of a brief parenthesis for a sourpuss acknowledgment of the arrest of Saddam Hussein, the subject of concern has become the hijab, the “Islamic veil.” Enlightened by the findings of a national commission, the president spoke out grandiloquently in support of a law that would ban the wearing of “ostensible” signs of religious affiliation in schools and government offices. The time has come, said the president, to reaffirm the “values of the Republic” and to put an end to all these separate communautarismes, which he pronounced with a big zzzizzzy plural “s.”

The law has not been drafted yet (it is scheduled for parliamentary debate in February), and even if it is passed, one wonders if it will ever be applied. But it is askew in its very conception. Unwilling or unable to name the problem for what it is—political Islam on the march—the government has turned headscarves into a religious issue and lined up its troops on the barricades of that peculiar French form of universalism known as laïcité. Since religion is the official culprit, the law will be evenhandedly aimed at the kippa as well, adding insult to injury for religious Jews just at a time when France’s chief rabbi has advised them to hide their yarmulkes under baseball caps so they won’t be beaten up by Islamists on the rampage.

So now, in the name of a doctrine originally promulgated to provide a bulwark against an overbearing Catholicism, the Jews are to be thrown in with those who really are hammering away at the secular values of the République. Jews lived quietly in France for centuries before the massive Muslim immigration started after World War II—but suddenly you cannot say anything bad about Muslims without saying something bad about Jews?

To be sure, the law is also going to mention that Catholics must not wear big crosses to school; but to my knowledge they have never intended to. Largely indifferent to the once-powerful Church that provoked the 1905 law mandating the separation of church and state, the vast majority of French Catholics swear by the principle of laïcité and don’t even begin to suspect that they are being turned into dhimmis in their own country.

The handpicked leader of a recently created Muslim umbrella organization has called for reluctant compliance with the proposed law while already haggling for an Oriental compromise. But the major element in the organization, the radical UOIF, has mobilized against the law and against a Republic that would dare discriminate against Islam. You can’t fool them by banning yarmulkes! And they intend to fight.

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Will the pacifist and pacified French stand up and defend their nation? Or will we have to leave?

That is what it boils down to. Things have gone from shouting “death to the Jews” to firebombing schools and synagogues, to persecution, attacks, even murder. We have Muslim rage in schools, hospitals, and courtrooms. Police headquarters are attacked, hospital personnel beaten, judges threatened. The Republic is under siege, and what are the French doing about it? They are trashing America.

This, it seems, is their new Maginot line: the sneer of hatred. Hand in hand with the government and the intellectual classes, the French media are channeling the national dismay over lost grandeur into contempt for America. Watch these suave Europeans, snickering to themselves because American soldiers are getting killed in Iraq. Is that (they sneer) any way to risk your life? Go on a crusade to fight incurable disease, cross in front of a moving car, smoke a cigarette. But fight to defend your own country? It’s indecent!

For me, the monuments are crumbling. The glistening golden dome of Les Invalides. The châteaux and the triumphal arches, the obelisks, the buxom fountains, the wrought-iron balconies, the slightly tipsy 18th-century apartment buildings, the rivers winding through those darling towns and cities. How can so much beauty cover such deep cowardice? I lash myself to the mast and close my senses to the sirens, while my heart rings with pride for “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

We are not free in France. I know the difference. I come from a free country. A rough and ready, clumsy, slapped together, tacky country where people say wow and gosh and shop at Costco. A country so vast I haven’t the faintest idea where I would put myself. A homeland I would have liked to keep at a distance, visit with pleasure, and leave with relief. A native land I walked out on with belated adolescent insouciance. A foreign land where I was born because Europe vomited up my grandparents as it is now coughing up me and mine.

If only the accusations bandied about so mindlessly by the French talking heads were true: American imperialism, Washington’s insatiable drive for hegemony, the Yankee need to dominate the world, and all the rest, the whole stars-and-stripes version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Just look at the American eagle spreading its wings, asserting its dominion: look at those sharp claws, that crafty eye, that hooked nose. If only it were true. Give me empire, my dear Yanks. Come over here and colonize this place so that I can put my suitcases back on top of the closet, keep my swishes and furbelows, my fanfreluches and baubles, my adopted family jewels and Continental airs, and live to a ripe old age here in the center of Paris, in the middle of nowhere.

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About the Author

Nidra Poller, who lives in Paris, has written for National Review Online, Frontpage, the New York Sun, and other publications. Her essay, “Betrayed by Europe: An Expatriate’s Lament,” appeared in the March 2004 COMMENTARY.




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