From Charles Martel to Charlie Hebdo

On three different occasions, my wife and I chaperoned student tours to Paris. Looking over my journals now, post-Charlie Hebdo, I notice that on each of these trips there was occasion to record uneasy incidents with Arabs who seemed determined to disrupt the fabled joie de vivre of Parisian life. Truth to tell, the Parisians themselves, with their public mine d’enterrement (funeral face), seemed somewhat drained of the joy of life.

The first unpleasantness occurred in the metro on the way to the Musée d’Orsay. It was just after the Gulf War, the one in which France volunteered, sort of, to commit seventeen thousand troops. In the crowded car, the Parisians, as is their custom, withdrew into their bubbles of separation. There is a certain closed-for-the afternoon look about the metro commuter—even those who aren’t concealed behind their Le Mondes and Figaros—that can make the sentient tourist feel like an intruder.

A couple of stops before the Orsay, two Arab youth boarded. Right off they threatened to puncture the privacy bubbles. They sprawled and rolled in the aisle, they laughed and pointed at a bald “drôle de tête” just visible above the edge of his paper. They found other funny faces and figures to excite hilarity. The loud laughs and aggressive body language were plainly intended to affront, to nettle, to intrude. They fired up joints beneath the défense de fumer sign, and blew out spumes of marijuana.

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“J’aime Saddam Hussein,” announced the older, and more brazen of the two. His junior partner repeated the phrase. And then together: “J’aime Saddam.” Both laughed, goggling the commuters.

How did our partners in the coalition of the willing react to this public love declaration to our common foe? Discreetly, heads down, not venturing a peep over their papers.

We were in France again a couple of years later on a tour from “Paris to the Pyrenees.” The second evening in Paris, our guide Marcel had dropped my wife and me, my wife’s sister and husband, and a dozen students—mostly girls– in front of our hotel. A Levantine-looking youth stepped out of an alley next the hotel. Two of his companions quickly followed. They rushed ahead of us to the rope-line leading up to the lobby. Students tried to go up the stairs, only to be blocked and cajoled by the youth.   My brother-in-law moved to the front and shouted up to the studiously unobservant concierge that we were being harassed. The youth moved on, sullenly, looking backward as they disappeared down the alley.

On our third tour, returning to Paris after a week in Normandy and Brittany, we allowed the students to explore the tourist attractions near the steps of Sacré- Coeur. From this elevation we could see that a half dozen or so Arabs, about the same age as our students– except for one a bit older, who wore a smock and carried a sketch-pad– were badgering two of the girls who had gotten separated from their companions. The senior and leader of the group was drawing while his subordinates stood in a half circle in front of them. I approached near enough to hear my student say that she did not want the souvenir, that she hadn’t the money.

I put this plainly to him in French. The artist slashed a last line on his work and turned it to me. The face was elongated, vaguely Modigliani, matching in general outline the structure of my student’s face. The same red checkered scarf worn by the model appeared in the sketch. I suspected that he carried a number of prefabbed types, and added a few individualizing details on the spot, to suit the prospect. Nice, I said, but she did not want it.

He was determined. Price was of no matter. He only selected the most beautiful, the most interesting faces– to further his art. Any price would be accepted, just for the practice. The girl still did not want it, I said. He repeated his pitch at higher volume. Finally, to end the stalemate, I offered twenty francs for the unwanted portrait, expecting him to reject the offer and finally move on with his bande de copains. Au contraire. The portraitist also excelled at scenes. I had insulted the muse with my miserable twenty francs.

As we threaded our way through the crowd, they dogged our heels, reiterating my insult of the twenty francs and shouting: “Va te faire foutre!” and similar pleasantries. It wasn’t until we approached two gendarmes in the Place du Tertre, that they melted away, still muttering curses.

During this walk down from the steps of Sacré- Coeur to reconnect with our student group, the crowd (admittedly as many tourists as natives) showed the same resolve not to react that we had witnessed in the metro.

Years later, during those nights when youth were pouring out of the Arab no-go’s to set fires and overturn burning cars, I remember one of the Parisian mayors complacently advising the citizenry to stay home and watch the excitement on TV, as if the destruction was a show for the people’s amusement, a son et lumière spectacular.

Contrary to the comedic cliché about eagerness to wave the white flag at the first hint of aggression, France once had a deserved reputation for valor. When the French were Catholic, their resistance to Islamic aggression was legendary. Before the pornographic cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, there was another Charles, Charles Martel who “hammered” sixty thousand Muslims at the Battle of Tours; and Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, who had similar, if more nuanced encounters with “Saracens.”

The multicultural approach had to wait for another Charles, General de Gaulle, who felt that France had been denied a role in the portioning of post-war Europe by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. The General decided that rapprochement with the Arab world, especially former colonies, would chasten Soviet and American hauteur. De Gaulle encouraged the formation of multiple Islamic culture centers on French soil, and free immigration; hence, a now unassimilable mass, as hostile to secular values as to the tattered remnant of French Catholicism.

Despite the multicultural cooing of François Hollande, the Muslims sense the withering of what was once a vital force. With the destruction of the Faith that fortified France, all she has now to preserve herself from Islamic contempt and aggression is the multiculturalist ideology–Enlightenment light.

The trajectory of French decline, from Charles Martel to Charlie Hebdo, from the warrior to the pornographer, is indeed a dispiriting tale. Despite the mass-marching of a million persons, banners aloft, proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie,” the Muslims of France, and indeed of Europe, sense that their hour may have come round at last. Francophile Americans still romanticize France for historic and cultural reasons. I share this attachment, or I wouldn’t follow the crisis with my heart in my throat. But as Charles Péguy said, it is necessary to say what you see; and even more difficult, to see what you see. And what I see is this: compared to America, France is an older, richer, more layered compost, and as such, its rot gives off a more complex aroma. But it wants oxygen. And the Muslims sense it is ready to be pitchforked and turned.

(Photo credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)


  • Peter Maurice

    Peter Maurice, a native of New Orleans, is a retired teacher of French, English, and humanities, all levels from elementary through university. He is the recipient of several fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities to participate in summer seminars for school teachers. His writing has appeared in Touchstone, Gilbert Magazine, Chronicles, The Wanderer, New Oxford Review, and Latin Mass Magazine.

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