“You Can’t Have Paris without the Parisians!”
As Scarlett Johansson found out, one cannot have Paris without the Parisians.
As a born Parisian, I have to agree with Scarlett Johansson’s recent exit, during The David Letterman show, on Parisians’ terrible street behavior and attitude.
First of all, I would like to say that I feel for Ms Johansson and I also want to thank her. It is truly comforting for my self-esteem to know that even a star in Paris has to face rudeness! Parisians do not discriminate according to looks or social status. They treat everyone equally badly!
Parisians are rude and in order to get the full picture, Miss Johansson should also try driving in Paris and taking the subway, especially at rush hour.
Reasons for Parisians’ rudeness stem from old causes that would indicate that today’s Parisian is an evolution, a somewhat failed adaptation to circumstances and changes throughout history. There are also recent causes, deriving from growing social and economic tensions. I shall expose them further in this article.
However let it be clear that I do not want to atone for Parisians’ rudeness nor exonerate them for being so intent on not changing. I do not have that kind of solidarity.
Let me first be more specific about what Scarlett Johansson has had to deal with on a daily basis for the past six months.
Parisians do not walk straight but rather they zigzag or “walk randomly” to be more accurate. Zigzagging or random walking is due to several combined causes.
Narrow, dirty and rundown sidewalks (and people throwing trash out of windows for many centuries, and today abundantly watering their balcony flowers) have engendered a pattern of walking in Parisians that has been handed down throughout generations (a kind of atavism or collective memory, as with elephants).
A mix of miscommunication, arrogance, and proverbial spirit of contradiction. The tacit walking (and hence driving) rule in France is to stick to the right. Even if you obviously stand to the right, a Parisian coming opposite you may decide to cut your trajectory and force you to move to the left. It is unclear whether they are unaware of it, do it on purpose to annoy you, or to display some kind of childish show of force.
If two persons are coming from the opposite direction, the person that walks alone has to step aside, or even down in the gutter, if they do not want to be pushed, even if cars come in their back, even if they are female and the other party are male, even sometimes if they are a senior citizen! I believe that this is due to an old social rule (dating to feudal times) called “Lord’s right of way.” In old times, if you were a lord, chances are that you were fat and counted for two people. The Lord’s right of way was intended to make sure that if a commoner met a Lord, he would know that he had to step down in the muddy road. The problem was that whenever two fat lords were about to bump into each other, it was always unclear whether the degree of fatness or nobility was to determine who had to step down in the (yet not created) gutter. That resulted in ambiguous sidewalk rules that live on today since nobody thought of building larger sidewalks before automobiles were invented. My advice to overturn that obsolete rule: get a large dog and a baby in a stroller and you shall have systematic right of way.
Parisians do not see things nearby, which must be why they never excuse themselves when they push you. They also have a habit of always looking in the distance or vaguely, to avoid noticing the ugliness nearby: beggars, trash, cigarette butts, the (luckily now occasional) dog poop and for women, better-dressed women!
They sometimes will admit that they did not push you on purpose! Great! What they are saying then is either that they are blind and refuse to admit it, dumb, or pathologically distracted.
Now for the reasons for such street behavior.
Paris is an old city with a meandering history. Every old building, every district is full of powerful but mostly tragic history: extreme hunger, unceasing social unrest, violent crime, abusive imprisonment, wars and prostitution… Hard to feel pacific and loving in such heavily charged atmosphere.
Parisians do not like tacit rules and conventions, least of all laws. Bad strutting is a sad consequence of bad driving! Or is it the other way round?
Another possible cause still under scientific study: pollution. Parisians keep their mouths closed, teeth clenched and hold their breath most of the time (that is, when they are not smoking) to avoid letting toxic air in. Since they cannot open their mouths too often to say they are sorry, they stopped altogether, to be fair to everyone… By the way, it would seem that lack of oxygen in the brain often results in erratic walking patterns!
A twisted application of the French republican motto: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (“Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood”) could be another explanation for Parisians’ behavior.
For Parisians, liberty actually means “anarchy”.
Equality means that everyone gets equally rude treatment regardless of social status, race, face, etc. Parisians are pragmatic and know that equality is easier to achieve if everybody treats everyone equally badly!
Scarlett Johansson may have also suffered from contempt: she was probably punished for believing (or so Parisians thought) that, as a celebrity, she deserved special treatment.
Fraternity (brotherhood), as a consequence of aforementioned “anarchy” and “equality in mistreatment”, means sharing the resulting chaos!
There are, unfortunately, limits to brotherhood: overpopulation and economic crisis… What makes things worse is that most of the overpopulation comes from immigration, not just from “la province” but from former northern and sub-Saharan African colonies. France has a brilliant past of bringing civilization to primitive lands. After those countries gained, or rather fought hard for their independence, some of the autochthonous decided to return the favor and immigrated to France, mainly to Paris. That obviously was not to everyone’s taste but they cannot say anything since the French invaded those foreign lands first… Kind of frustrating, huh!
Paris is overpopulated and Parisians are not prepared (or educated) for it. Due to a higher cost of living, Parisians’ living conditions tend to worsen and in fact most Parisians are now suburban who spend two hours every day commuting to work while most of Paris real estate is made up of empty privately owned offices (banks and insurance companies) and governmental or administrative services. Nice building facades sometimes hide ugly old interiors, no elevators, crooked and cracking parquet floors, bad noise insulation, etc… Hard not to feel on edge and cranky all the time, especially when one has to share a narrow sidewalk with a bunch of idle tourists, busy looking up at landmark buildings that no one here cares about.
Last but not least. Parisians generally suffer from indiscipline (the result of peer pressure) and for some of them, inborn stupidity (to be fair that is specific to the human species).
Scarlett Johansson is right. Paris is two cities: one for tourists and one for Parisians. Scarlett naïvely thought that she would gain from becoming “one of us”.
The easiest way to cope with Parisians is obviously to get the hell out of Paris at once or, if you cannot leave, “in Paris do as Parisians do.” Scarlett finally got the hang of it, as she admitted during the interview; she too had begun to push and act rudely. As she may have noticed, Parisians do not mind being treated as they treat others! That is part of their Christian heritage, admittedly a twisted interpretation of Jesus’ commandment but most people misinterpret the Bible anyway.
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