Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

Paris Is Learning

Could Montreal be saving Paris from extinction?

"Paris, along with New York, typifies the ville-monde-the total city" explains Fulvio Caccia. The author and journalist borrows a phrase used by historian Fernand Braudel to describe the Copernican centres of the world's cultural and economic trade. Caccia, who has worked in both Montreal and Paris, is behind an unusual roundtable taking place tonight. It's an event designed to answer the question, "Paris se Montréalise-t-il?" following up an issue of the influential Quebec literary journalLiberté which was dedicated to the same topic.

Assembled behind a wide desk in a spacious three-room office in Paris' upscale Quatrième arrondissement, a collection of seven writers and poets from Paris and Montreal have come at Caccia's request to the storied Pen Club to discuss their contributions to Liberté. They are the self-styled defenders of Montreal and Paris, engaged in a low-level cold war against "made-in-USA" hyper-culture and hyper-language.

The common consensus about France is that it is stuck in an inescapable and precipitous decline. Its economy is puttering along. The audience willing to entertain its global ambitions is dwindling. The public debt is spiralling out of control, putting its welfare state on life-support. Perhaps most devastatingly, its language is threatened by a globalization process that is for the most part taking place in English. In short, France is said to epitomize the rigid societies of "old Europe" that US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld famously disparaged-societies that are simply failing to adapt.

"We've heard that talk fifty times in the last fifty years," says Dominique Noguez, the recipient of the Fémina Prize in 1997 for his novel Amour Noir and a former professor of experimental cinema at the University of Paris. "Sure it might be true, but no more so than it was fifty years ago."

What Caccia's question and Noguez's dismissal of the attacks on his country imply is that Paris is not being left behind by globalization but is instead borrowing a more adaptive path-one well-trodden by its petits cousins in Montreal. Indeed, the French affinity for Quebec is the product of an unspoken alliance against a common enemy in the battle to preserve a shared minority language and, on a greater scale, the identity it represents.

"In Paris, English is an affectation," says Lise Gauvin, a professor of French Studies at the University of Montreal and winner of the France-Quebec Prize in 1999 for L'Écrivain francophone à la croisée des langues. "It's a way for people to seem fashionable," she says.

Noguez, though, is much more scathing. Parisians taking up English are "pathological," victims of a "phenomenon of ideological self-colonization."

The displacement of French in favour of English is evidently a growing concern in France, especially to the cultural and political elite. Jacques Chirac himself sparked a minor row at a meeting of the European Union in late March when, after a speaker addressed the leaders of the Union's twenty-five countries in English, Chirac stormed out. Perhaps most insulting to Chirac was that the speaker was French. Ernest-Antoine Sellière, the head of Europe's employers' confederation (the boss of European bosses, so to speak) defended his choice to use English, insisting he had opted for the "language of business." Sellière could also have noted that the EU's official languages include French, German and English, but his choice illustrates the fundamental tension in France-a linguistic split amplified by the ideology that separates the two sides.

Caccia would later use a poignant neologism that has come to describe the business community and its infatuation with English, at least in circles like this one. They are the "gallo-ricains," petty mercantilists sacrificing their once-proud national identity upon the altar of global trade (centered in New York). French linguist Henri Gobard denounced the rise of the gallo-ricains in 1979, alleging in La guerre culturelle that galloping American encroachment into French culture was nothing short of cultural warfare. The American culture industry "aims for the head, which it paralyses but does not kill, so that it may conquer from its rotting and enrich itself from the decomposition of cultures and peoples." Caccia suggests that if Paris has so far avoided the grim fate Gobard predicted, it could very well be due to the rise of post-Quiet Revolution Montreal.

While the pressure from New York is economic-an invitation to financial gain where the price of doing business is the adoption of American culture-Montreal offers instead proof that a French culture can benefit from globalization by coexisting alongside a dominant American one, confident that its cultural underpinnings will preserve its identity.

A large part of that confidence stems from Quebec's success at protecting its cultural products from the potentially nefarious effects of globalization, like economic imperialism. With France's support, Quebec spearheaded the creation of a UNESCO charter to isolate its own cultural products, as well as those of other minority cultures, from the English-dominated commodity market. In short, these protections allow Quebec to expand an otherwise small market far beyond its borders without threatening the core elements of its identity. For example, Quebec cinema has thrived on the open market.

"We've learned to speak about America," Kattan says, comfortably slumped in one of the room's only armchairs. "We have integrated America not as an exotic locale but as a part of our daily life. A few words in English in Paris may be chic, but for us, all that is finished."

Along with the increase in the mobility of commercial goods, globalization also increases the mobility of people through the gradual erosion of national borders. In France-and in much of Europe for that matter-this migration has sparked crises like the riots in Parisian suburbs this past November and the rapid rise of xenophobic political parties.

To the extent that it has avoided such crises, Montreal is providing a clear model for Paris in the manner in which it has desegregated its large immigrant population while maintaining-even emphasizing-the role of language in the construction of a unified national identity. Montreal stands as model of successful opposition to the melting-pot approach of the US, where individual identities blend together to form a heterogeneous whole. It is also consistent with the political model in France, where the State and the Nation are ideally one and the same.

Montreal's integration efforts draw their inspiration from "the desire of a population that is no longer content to meet by happenstance and settle into ghettoized neighbourhoods," Montreal author Naïm Kattan writes in his contribution to Liberté. Using Boulevard Saint-Laurent as example, Kattan describes an artery once dominated by immigrant establishments and now overrun by trendy nightclubs and restaurants. It's a place where "a diverse range of Montrealers can gather, attracted by the freedom to speak their own language."

Statistics flesh out the success of linking integration with the preservation of language. Kattan notes that fifty years ago, less than 10 percent of anglophones in Montreal spoke French. Today, that figure stands at 75 percent.

The need for France to reconcile its traditional differences with the US became especially evident after France's vehement opposition to the invasion of Iraq-an opposition for which former US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice declared that France should be "punished." Since then, the appeasement process has become embodied by Nicholas Sarkozy, a conservative presidential aspirant the New York Times referred to in a recent article as the most "un-French" of politicians, one who finds his inspiration by looking "across the ocean to the United States." In an interview with Caccia, Quebec journalist Jacques Godbout prefers to describe Sarkozy as "the most Québecois" of France's politicians. He suggests that Sarkozy draws his ideas from a Montreal that has become a "laboratory of social and political experimentation inspired by the Anglo-Saxon model." To the extent that Godbout's description is accurate, Sarkozy's popularity portends a relationship between France and the US that is more likely to resemble that between Montreal and New York than London and Washington. Though Sarkozy's views are a sharp departure from the social-democratic consensus that governs the politics of both France and Quebec, his affinity for combining a rigid notion of patrie with realpolitik recalls the ideological compromises Quebecers made under Lucien Bouchard.

Of course, the Montreal that Kattan, Caccia, Gauvin and the others describe is no longer that of Elvis Gratton, Maurice Richard, No'Zamours and poutine, but that might be the point. Theirs is the Montreal Gaston Miron envisioned when he said that "we are Americas, and we are North America," and its successes, Kattan thinks, "could provide an example to a number of metropolises struggling with racism and xenophobia." That being said, Montreal cannot stand to lose Paris as a reference point