One Nation Under…
Oh My Gawd!
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings
First, a shameful confession: one of my favorite online news sources is the e-version of a French tabloid newspaper. Like most tabloids, it reports at lurid length on every sick, sordid or violent crime that happens anywhere in France. And, like most tabloid readers, that’s why I read it — for the stories, but even more importantly for the readers’ comments.
In addition to the fatuous generalizations and pole-vaulting to conclusions that are the cornerstone of any Internet news discussion, one of the interesting things about this site’s comments is a phenomenon that I see as a French variant of Godwin’s Law. Simply put, this principle forwarded by the American author Mike Godwin posits that in any online exchange, regardless of the topic, someone will eventually make a comparison to Hitler.
On my sensationalist news portal, it works like this: whenever there’s a story about a multiple murder, particularly brazen holdup or pretty much any felony involving firearms, someone will eventually chime in to proclaim that “France is becoming just like the United States!”
Note to my fellow junk-news junkies: having been born in the country that currently provides the world’s crackpot windbags with their main supply of things to rant about, I can assure you that this is, most definitely and happily, not true.
Despite the fact that you can’t throw a stale cronut in Paris any more without breaking the window of a Starbucks, France is still manifestly French — especially in the areas that generalizing, conclusion-vaulting tabloid commentators love best: crime and justice. And I have evidence. Generalizing, conclusion-vaulting evidence, but quoi l’enfer…
A week or so ago, flipping through the cable channels in an idle moment, I happened across one of those reality TV shows that purport to boldly explore uncharted, treacherous journalistic territory by laying bare the unromanticized, un-sugar-coated real-life lives of police officers on the job. But which in fact are retreading the much-trampled journalistic stomping ground of generating easy content by following cops around with a camera.
I noted with amusement that the program in question had one of those alarmist titles like “Unspeakable Crimes Happening Right Outside Your Window Right Now!!!” Then I noted with interest that the episode in question was in fact about crimes right outside my own double glazing: the setting was the decidedly speakable ninth arrondissement of Paris, my district.
So I watched as the intrepid, combat-seasoned TV team followed a police patrol around streets that I know well, confronting crises, questioning witnesses, collaring perps, watching their language when the microphone was on, and, just like American cops, referring to everyone as “individuals.”
Before I go on, I should say here that the Paris police do a difficult, sometimes dangerous job in which I wouldn’t last the time it takes to translate “right to remain silent,” and I have to hand it to them for that. But it’s still Paris. The difference between street crime in north central Paris and street crime in, say, south central Los Angeles is like the difference between a tear gas pen and the Death Star.
As this TV program demonstrated. The first sequence showed three policemen taking off on patrol at midnight, with the appropriate ominous-sounding voiceover about how “it’s a different city after dark.” As though to prove the point, they got a call almost immediately: individuals in distress at a street corner south of Pigalle!
So they raced to the scene, gumballs flashing, adrenal glands on orange alert, and there discovered: three young women who had just left a nightclub, one of whom was so drunk she could barely walk.
That was it. That was the emergency. They called her a taxi. And then (!) found themselves caught up in a high-speed, high-risk chase through the streets of the metropolis!
Well, pretty high speed. Sometimes as much as 40 mph, I’d say. They got a call giving the description of a car that was headed their way, with the order to stop it. After a few minutes of following the suspect vehicle with the siren on, they finally convinced the driver to pull over.
Was it a Peugeotjacker? A surréel killer? A burglar with a bag of swag? An archfiend who left the Tour d’Argent without tipping the sommelier?
No, it was a middle-aged woman who had grazed the car ahead of her at a stoplight, leaving a scratch on the bumper (they showed a closeup), and didn’t stop to fill out the accident form.
In the entire hour-long show, the most violent thing that the Parisian patrolmen had to face was a drug addict who was out of control, options and his head, but otherwise that was crime in my ’hood that night.
I’m not registering a complaint: the fact that Paris has a relatively low crime rate is wonderful, and one of the reasons I live here, but my point is that in most American cities the police wouldn’t waste their time, or a Steadicam crew their batteries, on such petty disturbances.
So there’s not much to report around here when it comes to the activities of felonious punks, but what about tort scandals? A year or so ago the abovementioned e-rag ran a story about a woman in western France who was suing a fast-food restaurant (yes, that one) because, while walking “near the kitchen” she had allegedly slipped on a slick of oil.
The readers had a jour du champ with this. Fully half of the comments included some reference to the United States: “We’re going to end up just like the States,” “total and utter idiocy, like in the USA,” “pretty soon we’ll all be filing lawsuits à l’américain,” etc., etc.
But get this: the article specified that the plaintiff, who was seven months pregnant and sprained her ankle in the fall, was suing for (cue the prize music from Wheel of Fortune): nearly €2,000 euros! Yes, the equivalent of $2,735! Nearly! Imagine if she had sued for just over 2,000!
I now have to pause to give American readers a chance to dust themselves off and catch their breath. Everyone back up from the floor?
So yeah, if France is evolving, as the pessimists insist, toward a more American-style (i.e., unspeakable) society, it still has a long way to go. Generally. Or at least that’s my conclusion after seeing one TV show and reading one newspaper article. Any comments?
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