14 December 2007

The Man Who Came to Dinner

Paris, by Atget: Masterpiece of color

There comes a moment in the life of every American in Paris when he realizes that all those charming lithographs and black-and-white photos of the city’s streets and monuments are in full color.

Not Moscow, not Midtown, not any place I have ever been is as grey as the City of Light in winter. It seldom snows here, but the weather finds other ways to assert its dominance over us. Paris wasn’t built for extremes of temperature high or low, and the invention of central heating, like that of air conditioning, arrived too late to be adapted to our graceful, draughty architecture. At the moment it’s -5 degrees Centigrade. Which, as I made the mistake of ascertaining just now, is 23 degrees in Fahrenheit. In Manhattan, that’s manageable, but in Paris, it’s hell. As I write, I am wearing two T-shirts, a thermal shirt, a wool sweater, and a wool turtleneck, and a wool cap. Yes, I am indoors. Yes, the heating has been turned on.

It has been a disagreeable week in other ways, and a foul time to be a Frenchman. The no-smoking ban goes into effect in a matter of days, and the nation is already irritable. Never mind that Spain and Italy coped with and adhered to their no-smoking bans, in the past few years: évidemment, the Spaniards and Italians were dilettantes. If they were serious about smoking, if they understood it as an art and philosophy unto itself, they wouldn’t have stopped. They would have spat in the face of any policeman who tried to write a ticket, and if they were French, they would have had plenty to spit. As the entire nation goes into nicotine withdrawal, the public mood will grow only worse.

How bad can it get? Imagine that this guy decided to make his official state visit permanent.

Muammar Qaddafi has been in town for a week, and no French person, regardless of political views, is happy about it. Even business leaders, who began the week by celebrating all the contracts that Qaddafi would sign, found their enthusiasm dampened by the realization that the total value of those contracts fell far short of the 10 billion Euros promised by President Sarkozy.

Qaddafi made the visit at the invitation of Sarkozy’s wife, Cécilia, who cleverly obtained her divorce and skipped town before the Libyan set foot here. Hell hath no fury like a soon-to-be-ex-wife. Seeing the dictator greeted with every pomp befitting a head of state, the left as a whole (and much of the right) rose up in protest. President Sarkozy argued that this was a valuable opportunity to encourage Qaddafi’s respect for human rights, and to rehabilitate him, to ease him into the fraternity of civilized nations.

However, Qaddafi construed the trip as an opportunity to make the West look bad. He’s always been more concerned than most dictators with outward appearances: three decades ago, Saturday Night Live mocked him as a clotheshorse (a Jordache parody vaunted “the Qaddafi Look”). Nowadays he looks a wreck. Le Monde compared him to Keith Richards, but in the same sentence had to remind readers who Keith Richards is. Nevertheless, he is no slouch at a certain kind of public relations. And all week, he was the cynosure of every camera and microphone in town.

So when Sarkozy defended himself, insisting that he’d discussed human rights with Qaddafi the first day, Qaddafi blithely told the press that “the subject never came up.” Moreover, he scheduled meetings with ethnic minorities here and with women, the better to declare that “the condition of women is tragic here” — and, worse, “Before you go talking about human rights, you’d better make sure that immigrants in your own country have them.”

Are you still here?

And worst of all, while he denied ever having sponsored terrorism (which would come as a surprise to David Dornstein), he praised it as a useful tool for the disempowered, and underscored that his country supports nationalist independence movements: if some of those movements resort to terrorism, “it’s not our responsibility.”

Even the little things seemed to drive the French crazy. Letting Qaddafi stay in the Matignon Palace wasn’t enough: he wanted to set up a traditional Bedouin tent in the garden — and Sarkozy let him do it. Qaddafi’s motorcade (and a boat ride down the Seine) tied up traffic all week. He toured the Louvre in a mere 30 minutes — what nerve! Even his personal guard, the “Amazons,” irritated the French, not only because they are so numerous but also because they are women. France is still a weirdly sexist country.

After a day or so of trying to justify or to support Sarkozy, members of his own party began to backpedal. Members of his cabinet didn’t even wait for Qaddafi to arrive before they put distance between themselves and the dictator. The minister for human rights told a reporter that “Dictators have to understand that France isn’t a doormat, on which they can wipe the blood from their feet”: she’s now a media darling who’s left the Socialists groping helplessly for any pithier sound bites. Two of the cabinet’s biggest stars, Bernard Kouchner and Jean-Louis Borloo, overbooked their schedules and left town altogether, rather than attend any meetings or state dinners with Qaddafi. Hard to imagine how the week could have been more humiliating for Sarko.

Tomorrow Qaddafi will be gone, and France is ready to be relieved of him. “Guests, like fish, go bad after three days,” said Monsieur Benjamin Franklin, and Qaddafi was here for five. But the sour mood will return, once the smoking ban goes into effect. The winter promises to be long, cold, and cranky.

L’état, c’est lui. Mais quel état est-ce?