Why I Left Paris
After years of living in France, an American expat realizes race relations are better here
Weeks ago, I sat through movie previews in Paris—my adopted city since 2004—waiting patiently on Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." A trailer for another film called "Case Départ" ran for a full minute before I realized what I was watching: a comedy about slavery. Two French Cameroonians were transported to transatlantic slavery time, fighting their way back to the present while shucking and jiving on a plantation. The crowd around me (black and white) was cracking up. The moment made me happy to be leaving France this summer, moving back to my native America for the first time in seven years.
Since the early '00s of the Iraq War and the reelection of Bush II, I fielded lots of questions about my move abroad, but mostly people immediately understood. As a young author at the time, I had my own personal James Baldwin fantasies to live out. The bleak post-9/11 climate of New York City caused plenty of exoduses then—still, most people stuck to this side of the ocean.
My love affair with Paris had a lot to do with my French ex-turned-girlfriend, fiancée and wife, Christine. Yet the lighting of the Eiffel Tower, the aroma of fresh croissants and baguettes in the mornings, even the quaint sirens of speeding police cars conjured almost as much romance as my real romance. My sons (5-year-old Lucas and 3-year-old Kalel) were both born in the 14th arrondissement under the country's best-in-the-world healthcare system; treating them to the childhood pleasures of Luxembourg Gardens was something I knew we'd all treasure forever.
Paris has long meant something special to African-Americans, spanning back to the First World War. Many G.I.s fighting for their country in Europe, and facing a return to second-class status in the United States as the war ended, stayed put in France. Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright and Nina Simone are only a few of the many black Americans who took flight from the racism of pre-civil rights America to flourish instead in the French capital.
To find certain answers, you have to live the questions: I moved to Paris in '04 to discover what life would be like as a modern-day, expatriate black writer, with the amenities of ATM cards, smartphones, Skype and the all-pervasive Internet. In 2008 I launched a popular blog, Furthermucker, dedicated to my adventures as a self-described, bohemian B-boy in the 21st-century City of Light. Over time, I peeled back the layers separating truth and fiction to start dealing with the reality of my second home.
While Barack Obama rose in the West, France elected conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy to run things. Last year, the French Senate passed one of his most controversial pieces of legislation: the banning of full Islamic face veils like the burqa. Since April, several Muslim women have been detained for observing their religion's social practice in defiance of the new law. Known for an anti-immigration stance even before his election as president, Sarkozy brazenly took this extra step of ostracizing France's Muslim population (the largest of any European country) with little opposition.
Far from an Emerald City of Oz, even Paris has its share of warts. The lack of métro transit air-conditioning on stifling summer days takes its toll. Though nobody's ruder than entitled New Yorkers, the snobby attitude of Parisians can become a bit much. And most French employers seem to start workers off in the range of 25,000 euros a year, a salary insulting to any American expat with a college degree.
Contemplating the black French identity is an entirely different essay. But whenever blacks and whites alike can enjoy a mainstream comedy about slavery, it's time to return to the States. I've got proud black boys to bring up. And while I'm glad they've established their young identities in France's far-less race-obsessed society, I'd rather they look up to President Obama than stumble upon a "Case Départ" DVD one day.