This past weekend in Paris was an eye-opener.
When foreigners think of Paris, we of course imagine the Eiffel Tour, the Triumphal Arc and the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre.
But beyond the museums and tourist attractions, we also think of Paris as being a center of intellectual liberalism. The home of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The city of American expatriates like Hemmingway and Langston Hughes. The sight of the sexual revolution protests in 1968 that witnessed a seemingly out-of-touch Charles de Gaulle resign from office.
On Sunday, Paris was the sight of a very different sort of protest from those of ‘68. Rather than students descending on the streets of Paris to protest for reproductive rights, thousands of bourgeois Parisians swarmed such iconic sights of past protests as the Bastille all in the name of opposing France’s new gay marriage law.
My boyfriend and I unwittingly picked a horrible time to visit the city. A friend of ours was on a whirlwind, 8-day tour of Europe and happened to be stopping through Paris the same weekend as the protest – something we only realized once we arrived and saw hundreds of posters across the city inviting “Tous à Paris” (Everyone to Paris) on May 26.
On the day of the protest, we did our best to avoid the crowds of homophobic, Right-wing protestors but it was inevitable that we came across more than our fair share. When we woke up on Sunday morning, several dozen had gathered at the Gare de Lyon near our hotel and our friend’s hostel.
My boyfriend made the observation that all of the protestors exuded an image of wealth and class.
And it’s true. While it’s true that there was nothing classy about their hoodies adorned with stick-figure heteronormative families, they all seemed like they hailed from the same white, bourgeois neighborhoods. While some protestors made their way towards La Place de la Bastille, a number of others sat down to expensive sidewalk cafés for Sunday lunch.
A nice Bordeaux, perhaps, to go with your protest, Monsieur?
We spent the afternoon in Montmartre away from the protestors. There were still signs pasted on notice boards and street lamps, of course, but we could happily forget that the city streets below were swollen with well-to-do Catholics, many of whom decided this would be an appropriate occasion to trot out their own young children as if this was an appropriate occasion for showing off to gay couples what they were missing out on.
A train ride north and we were in Saint-Denis to visit the first gothic-style basilica in Europe and the final resting place of France’s royalty. Saint-Denis is outside Paris and as you ride the metro you notice a significant shift in the demographics from what you see in the city’s core.
In the two or three hours we were in Saint-Denis, I saw a total of one sticker near the metro entrance announcing the protest. Mind you, we didn’t simply walk to the basilica, turn around and leave; we went to a café afterwards and then walked down the main street to a McDonalds for internet access. We saw a lot of kids with their families playing out on the street, riding their bikes and playing soccer. But no hoodies or flags with stick figures of mom, dad and the kids.
The complete lack of interest in this working class, heavily Muslim neighborhood synthesized for me what a divided city Paris is. Where before I’d only seen the classic 19th century architecture and wide boulevards along the Seine River, I could now see the conservative ruling class that was still in place 150 years after Paris’ reconstruction largely rid the inner parts of the city of its poor and working classes.
My hunch is that many in this diverse community don’t have favorable feelings towards gay marriage or gay adoption. I don’t want to suppose a percentage or a proportion, but I’m sure that if you conducted a poll, you would find plenty who oppose the new law. The protests in Paris, however, don’t reflect the values of the suburbs since many of the same wealthy few in the city’s core are the very same ones who support anti-immigration and Islamophobic measures.
Here I will make one concession to Americans who oppose gay marriage: they are generally very fervently convicted of their beliefs. It’s not a question of propriety or preserving the status quo, but rather a question of moral rightness. Yes, of course it is wrong to impose a religious system of beliefs on what should be a free and open democracy, but at least there is some misguided conviction present which drives such actions, some idea that what is at stake is the very heart and soul of our country.
Meanwhile in Paris, the haves hold the have-nots at arm’s length in the suburbs as a tribute to the 19th century reconstruction of the city, just as they tried to keep immigrants out in the 20th century and just as they are trying to keep non-traditional families from enjoying the same rights today in the 21st century.
A symbol of intellectual liberalism and progress? Perhaps yes, but only as spurned on by the overbearing conservative bourgeois who dominate still today.