Knowing I was in Paris, a friend taunted me by sending an article from the Guardian titled ‘Paris, city of romance, rues new image as the dirty man of Europe’.
I replied that it was just another English put down of the French. I added the suggestion that the filth is partly a reflection of the anarchy and right to protest that the French respect.
Foreign tourists tend to treat Paris as a kind of Disneyland for grown ups. To them it’s an aesthetic and cultural haven. They like to think that time has stood still and nothing is out of place.
So it’s no surprise that they are upset by the ubiquity of the graffiti tags, or the shop windows that have been damaged by members of the Yellow Vests protest movement.
So am I. Until I read about how the French underclass has been disenfranchised by political leaders who are most sympathetic to big business, which includes tourism. I begin to understand how the tags are a medium of expression for those who are otherwise voiceless.
Earlier in the year I attended a talk by Edouard Louis, a young public intellectual from a working class background. I had been reading his three short autobiographical novels.
As a philosopher, he is recognised as a bridge between rationality and the Yellow Vest movement, which is regarded by many as barbarous.
Louis managed to extract himself from the underclass from which the Yellow Vests originate. He understands their grievances only too well, though he stresses his abhorrence for the racism and homophobia of some of them.
He was asked to comment on the Yellow Vests’ acts of vandalism against the Arc de Triomphe, an important symbol of the Republic. He said: ‘You really have never experienced misery to be able to think that a tag on a historical monument is more serious than the impossibility of living [a decent life].’
From now on, I will try to respect graffiti tags I see around Paris, and even back home in Sydney.