The Failure of the Magic Baguette

Welcome to Gangs of Paris, my attempt at urban ethnology in a city renown for the world’s largest concentration of French people, but lesser known for its spicy potpourri of cultures. This blog will document all sorts of exotica found here: ethnic enclaves, sordid counterculture, cryptozoology, historial oddities and all sorts of things that make this a vibrant and fascinating metropolis.

Paris is often derided as a mono-cultural “museum city,” with a fine crust of outlying immigrant hellholes, while New York and London get the all the kudos for being cosmopolitan melting pots. But scratch the cliché-ridden surface of today’s postcard-perfect Paris, and you’ll discover a city bubbling with ethnic and social diversity. You just need to dig a little bit. Why?

France has perfected what I like to call the “magical baguette,” to bastardize the French term (baguette magique) for Photoshop’s “magic wand,” a tool that selects areas of the same color (baguette actually means wand in French). For our purposes, we’ll define the magic baguette as an ideological tool that eliminates what the French deride as communautarisme, or the lack of social cohesion due to ethnic parochialism.

Picture 3

Baguettes and stones

Beginning in the 19th century, in order to assimilate waves of European immigrants, France waved the “Magic Baguette” on the Polish, Italian, Spanish and German huddled masses yearning to be libre. Immigrants were welcome, as long as they adhered to “Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite” and eschewed American-style ethnic ghettos.

Result: A good chunk of French population is of immigrant descent – a study in 2004 showed that 23% of the country has an immigrant parent or grandparent. Yet prima facie, the country does not really have the equivalent of “Italian-Americans” or “Irish-Americans.”

They just became, well, French.

Then figure in the Auvergnants, Corsicans, Bretons – each with their distinct regional identities and languages. Napoleon got rid of that stuff and attempted to dismantle the patchwork of regional cultures in France. [more on that later] Did the magic baguette work?

In 2005, riots in the banlieus – the immigrant suburbs outside of Paris and other French cities – showed the world at large that the magic baguette wasn’t as powerful previously thought. France’s social contract and model of integration was dealt a serious blow and for many, the riots were a sign that communautarisme was decaying the fundamentals of the Republic – the baguette was stale. But maybe it never was that fresh anyway.

Paris might not be “La Rue de Sesame,” but after living here for five years I’m impressed how so many different cultures continue to interact and exist together. Paris is in fact a melting pot, and quite a unique one at that, reflecting a particular French Touch to diversity.

I’m hoping my day-to-day experiences here – reporting, playing music (see here and here and here and here) and generally being an obsessional and over-analytical type – will shine some light on the lesser-known necks of the woods in this fair city.

In this space, we’ll deal not only with ethnic communities, but we’ll look at the fringe of French culture, political movements and anything else a little piquant that I stumble upon during my experiences here. Its a blog, after all..

– Ilan Moss

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