This was a great film of 1995 about life in the same Paris suburbs that are now burning. The only thing that's changed there is that there are fewer jobs and more Islamists than in 1995. The quotation refers to someone falling out of a skyscraper, who says to himself as he goes down past each floor, "So far, so good!"
When I watched it back then, I felt the desperate wish of those young men just to be respected. They weren't presented as wonderfully good guys; they are troublemakers, school dropouts, bored, but not evil people. At one point they crash an art gallery opening, and even though the gallery owner knows that they don't belong, they are made welcome and given champagne. Pretty soon they are behaving inappropriately, but everyone is still so nice to them that it blows them away. Later they encounter a central Paris cop, and they are instantly on guard, ready to attack, but it's not a cop who has done duty in the violent cités and he treats them as he would anyone else. They walk away afterwards bragging to each other: "He called me Monsieur, did you hear? He called me Monsieur! He said vous to me!" It was sad and touching. The things they want are just what we all want. Respect, a decent job, a nice place to live.
I hope the riots will calm down. Someone I know, who knows I am driving to Germany tomorrow, wrote and asked me if I thought the riots would spread there. I wrote back that I didn't think so, even though the same problems exist in Germany and all over western Europe, for two reasons: the French jeunes de banlieue actually feel pretty French, no matter what they say, and have a sense of entitlement partly due to France's long colonial history in their ancestors' countries, whereas the German Turks don't feel nearly as German; the second reason is that there is no real French counterpart to the superviolent white-racist skinheads of Germany, some of whom would love an excuse to wade into the fray. I thought it was interesting that the copycat arson in Germany took place in Berlin. Berlin is probably more left-leaning than most of the rest of what used to be West Germany, because during the years when it was isolated within East Germany, no one wanted to live there. So the German government allowed people who lived there to avoid military service. The result is a place where there are probably fewer skinheads (although not all skinheads are racists) than elsewhere. I don't have an explanation for Bremen, though.
I just came back from a very different affair, the meeting of the proprietors of our building, a very bourgeois one. The ancient evil concierge died a couple of years ago, a smiling Portuguese woman took over, and some nice new neighbors moved in replacing grouchy old méfiant ones. The whole ambience of the building has changed to a much friendlier and neighborly one. But there are a few worms in the apple. The chambres de service on the top floor of the building are the sore point.
In most old Paris buildings there is a separate entry and crumbling wooden staircase leading to the top floor, where a warren of corridors leads to many tiny garrets of 7 to 10 square meters. There are shared Turkish toilets and a few sinks scattered here and there along what must have been like a village of corridors when all the servants lived up there, a hundred years ago. Each of the apartments in the building has a few chambres de service attached to it. Nowadays most of the rooms in our building are empty and used as storage space, and the people in the building like it that way. Two or three of the rooms have been joined together and fixed up into small studios (we did that with two out of our three rooms; the other is an attic full of old suitcases and furniture). But the propriétaires don't want just anyone living up there. Nice American exchange students, yes; Moldovan construction workers illegally in France, no. The problem is that one propriétaire, a South American who doesn't live in Paris, has been renting out his two tiny chambres de service at exorbitant prices to whoever will pay. Unfortunately, the people who were willing to pay were the Moldovans--more than a dozen of them, "living" in the two tiny rooms (which are both below the legal limit imposed by the city for livable space for a single person) but in fact sleeping in the corridors, washing in the public spaces, and plugging themselves into other apartments' electricity. They were there for a year and during that time, our 10-apartment building was burglarized 7 times.
So today when the South American showed up at the meeting, he was met with a hue and a cry by the other propriétaires. He seemed like a nice young man and apologized politely for the ennui he had caused. He is selling the two chambres de service and said he wanted the people in the building to buy them. But they were having none of it. Handsome is as handsome does. They were all yelling at once.
"You knew exactly what was going on! We sent you registered letters that you picked up!"
"Tell the truth for once!"
"It's a racket! We had to go to the police to get them to stop cooking in the hallways and leaving the front doors blocked open in the middle of the night!"
"At those exorbitant prices who will buy those chambres? No one legitimate! Only someone who wants to sublet them to ten illegal immigrants at a time!" (He has listed the 6.1 meter chambre for sale at 20,000 euros, and the 7.2 square meter chambre for 35,000 euros. Yet in Paris, the regulation requires at least 9 square meters per person for a room to be rented legally.)
"Make me an offer," he said. "I don't want to cause trouble, but I need to sell them. I'm going back to South America in January. Then I don't care who gets them."
He and his wife and the syndic manager and someone else who wanted to put in an elevator to the sixth floor all left. None of them live in the building. We want the chambres de service to belong to people who live here so there is some control over the renters, after the bad experience with the Moldovans. Our Italian hostess went to the door, looked both ways, then brought out the champagne and hors d'oeuvres and we had a nice small party. The guacamole and quiche were so good I asked her if she had made them herself. She looked uncomfortable. "C is a good cook!" bragged her husband. Then when we were alone for a minute she whispered in my ear: "They're frozen, from Picard!" the frozen-food store.
I heard a funny story about our old concierge. My downstairs neighbor was getting out of the bath where she had had a nice long soak. The concierge must have thought she was gone. The neighbor got out of the bath, naked and dripping, and surprised the concierge nosing around her bedroom drawers! To imagine the shock, you must picture coming suddenly upon someone who looks like this (but with fewer teeth), the nastiest and at the same time most pitiful human being I have ever known. But that's a story for another time.