A selection of my favorite articles in various sections of The New York Times since 2002, when I arrived in Paris with my family.
Magic Measured in a Pile of Salt
August 27, 2012
Salt Harvesting in France – Dancing with a 10-Foot Pole, Striking Gold
Every August when we rent a little house on Île de Ré off the west coast of France, I find myself drawn to the island’s most famous agricultural product: salt. Every grain, every crystal, is cultivated naturally, harvested by hand and marketed pure and unrefined.
Even more intriguing are the sauniers, the local term for salt harvesters. A century ago, they were considered common laborers, slaves of “those melancholy swamps where the salt is made” that Balzac described in his novel “Béatrix.”
That was before sea salt became chic and profitable. Most of the sauniers these days seem to be younger men who take pleasure in showing off their sweaty, lean, shirtless torsos as they rake and skim the salt, slowly, arduously, with the grace and ease of tango dancers.
Chinese Bear Paws Tickle the French
August 6, 2012
The French Explore the Art of Chinese Cooking
I thought I knew a thing or two about Chinese food, until I discovered the recipe for rancid bear paw.
My 15-year-old goddaughter was in town and we were touring an exhibition on the culture of cooking and eating in China at the Quai Branly museum near the Eiffel Tower. The show was being advertised in Metro cars and on billboards as “Les Séductions du Palais” — which could mean either “The Seductions of the Palate” or “The Seductions of the Palace.” We were intrigued.
Most of the 150 artifacts on display belong to the National Museum of China in Beijing, which had never lent them to a European museum. So when Jean-Paul Desroches, the curator of the Guimet Museum of Asian Arts, who organized the exhibition, offered a private tour, we couldn’t say no.
Camera in Hand, Italian at Heart
July 13, 2012
The Cinematography of Darius Khondji
First there was the dark side: the trauma of more than 50 years ago, when Mr. Khondji was 3 ½ and, on a family visit to Rome from Tehran, sneaked out of the Excelsior hotel on the Via Veneto in search of a toy store.
He got lost. A policeman picked him up. Some nuns housed him in their convent near the Spanish Steps. The policeman offered to adopt him. It took three days before his parents found him.
Then, there was the sunny side: a love of all things Italian so big that Mr. Khondji prefers to speak Italian rather than French or English; he jokes that though he is the son of an Iranian father and a French mother, he was Italian in a previous life.
In an interview in the dimly lighted kitchen of his 18th-century house near the Saint-Sulpice church here, he couldn’t stop himself from slipping into Italian between sips of espresso from a gold-and-white china cup. With his dark eyes and wild hair, his big gestures and even bigger laugh, he boasts that he could pass for an Italian.
After Liberté and Égalité, It’s Autopsie
July 6, 2012
Philippe Charlier, France’s Forensic Sleuth
The plastic vial with the red top is Henri IV. The one with the blue top is the never-crowned Louis XVII.
Diane de Poitiers, the favorite mistress of Henri II, sits in a squat translucent vial a few inches away. Then there is Charles III, one of the Carolingian kings, locked in two black wooden file cabinets.
Their remains are the passion — or perhaps obsession — of Philippe Charlier, France’s most famous forensic sleuth.
A 34-year-old medical doctor and anthropologist, he conducts autopsies on bodies brought to the Raymond Poincaré University Hospital in the Paris suburb of Garches by morning and teaches at Paris Descartes University by afternoon. In between, he investigates the illnesses and deaths of the rich and powerful who made French history.
A Market is a Cultural Bouquet Garni
July 2, 2012
Sniff Deep in a Market Like No Other
Every once in a while on Sunday morning, I find myself crowding into the No. 13 Metro with determined cart-wheeling shoppers, heading north to the end of the line.
Our destination is not a marché bio (an “organic food market”) like the one on the Boulevard Raspail close to the Luxembourg Gardens, where even the olives are sold as organic. Or a marché-cum-entertainment like the one on the Rue Mouffetard in the Fifth, where the same middle-aged performers come every Sunday, rain or shine, to lead the crowd in song-and-dance nostalgia.
No, we are in search of bargains and exotica in the ethnically and racially rich suburb of St.-Denis.
Few foreign tourists make the pilgrimage here. The suburb is part of Seine-St.-Denis, or Department “93,” which won notoriety as an area rocked by riots and car-burnings in 2005.
Tourists who do come generally arrive in tour buses and head straight to the most French of destinations, the “St.-Denis Basilica”. Given its historical and architectural importance, it has to be the least appreciated religious gem in the Paris area.
Legend has it that when St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, was decapitated near Montmartre in the third century, he picked up his head, washed it off and carried it five miles to the north before he collapsed. A shrine was built, later replaced by a soaring basilica; 43 kings (from Dagobert I to Louis XVIII), 32 queens and 63 princes and princesses were buried here.
The basilica is undervisited, solemn and quiet, the ideal place for prayer and reflection on a Sunday morning.
But this spot has been a center for fairs and markets since the Middle Ages, when merchants throughout Europe came to trade their fabrics, timber, leathers and live animals. And just a few hundred yards away are the noise, disorder and exuberance of a gastronomical pleasure palace.
Strauss-Kahn and Wife Separate, Tabloid Reports
June 29, 2012
The DSK saga is not over
She has been more than the faithful wife. She has been the fiercest of defenders.
No matter what the sin or scandal, Anne Sinclair bankrolled, excused, protected and even praised her husband, “Dominique Strauss-Kahn”, with passion and eloquence. She was called a modern-day Joan of Arc, and she was called a fool. When feminists blasted her for standing by her man, she fired back, telling French Elle, “Well then, leave your husband if you want. That’s your problem.”
Now, just months into a new career as the editor of the French edition of The Huffington Post, and after 21 years of marriage, Ms. Sinclair may have decided to move on. And Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who headed the powerful International Monetary Fund and perhaps could have been “France”’s president, will fall deeper into ignominy.
On Thursday evening, the “French tabloid Closer reported online” that the couple had separated. Mr. Strauss-Kahn had moved out of their luxury apartment on the Place des Vosges, the magazine wrote. “Ms. Sinclair asked Mr. Strauss-Kahn to leave the apartment a month ago,” Laurence Pieau, Closer’s executive editor, said in a telephone interview on Friday.
She added that Mr. Strauss-Kahn had first moved into the elegant Hotel Lutétia in the Sixth Arrondissement and then to a friend’s apartment across the river in the residential 16th Arrondissement.
“For me, it is a definitive breakup,” Ms. Pieau said, declining to reveal her sources.
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Stolen Cultural Treasures on Display in Paris
June 21, 2012
An exhibition of stolen art at the Unesco headquarters
It is a most unusual and diverse art exhibition for Unesco, the United Nations arm dedicated to preserving and promoting the world’s culture. On Wednesday, 31 rare artifacts and works of art – all of them stolen or illegally exported, mostly in or from Italy – went on display at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, in an exhibition called “Recovered Treasures.”
“All the objects were kidnapped at some point,” said Iñigo Martinez Möller, curator of the exhibition, in an interview. “The point of the exhibition is to show how damaging this illicit traffic can be and how original pieces can be taken apart in violent ways.”
The French Still Flock to Bookstores
June 20, 2012
French bookstores are still prospering
The French, as usual, insist on being different. As independent bookstores crash and burn in the United States and Britain, the book market in France is doing just fine. France boasts 2,500 bookstores, and for every neighborhood bookstore that closes, another seems to open. From 2003 to 2011 book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent.
E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market here, compared with 6.4 percent in the United States. The French have a centuries-old reverence for the printed page.
“There are two things you don’t throw out in France — bread and books,” said Bernard Fixot, owner and publisher of XO, a small publishing house dedicated to churning out best sellers. “In Germany the most important creative social status is given to the musician. In Italy it’s the painter. Who’s the most important creator in France? It’s the writer.”
It’s Not Just Lunch; There’s Tennis, Too
May 29, 2012
Lunching at the French Open
Some people go to the French Open for the tennis; others go for the food.
The strongest memory of my first visit to Roland Garros nearly a decade ago does not involve the fate of a match. It revolves around the sweet aromas that hit me as I entered the stadium: the vanilla and butter of a fresh waffle mingled with the hazelnut and cocoa of the Nutella topping.
“We’re a long way from Forest Hills,” I said to my husband, who grew up close to the site of the United States Open before it moved to Flushing Meadows.
Wimbledon may have its strawberries and cream. But for 15 days every spring, the Roland Garros complex on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne becomes the place to power lunch in Paris.
Independence From Monaco
May 18, 2012
Charlotte Casiraghi, granddaughter of Princess Grace of Monaco, carries on the Grimaldi tradition
When you think of the Grimaldi girls of Monaco, you think of Caroline and Stéphanie, the young princesses whose preternatural beauty, jet-setting ways and tabloid-ready romances long made them paparazzi favorites.
So it comes as a shock to learn they are now middle-aged women, with Caroline actually older than their mother, Princess Grace, was when she died in a car accident at age 52.
Now the spotlight is falling on a third generation of Grimaldis, most notably on Charlotte Casiraghi, the 25-year-old daughter of Caroline and her second husband, Stephano Casiraghi, a young Italian businessman who died in a speedboat accident when Charlotte was 4.
To flee the relentless eye of the public and the press, Caroline whisked Charlotte and her two siblings off to a sheltered life, first to a country house in southern France, then to Fontainebleau, near Paris, when Caroline remarried.
Over the years, Charlotte showed up on the paparazzi radar screen episodically. Like the time a survey declared her one of the most eligible young women in the world — when she was only 16.
Spring Brings Caviar in a Pod
April 23, 2012
My first monthly letter from Paris for the The New York Times’ Dining section
I was not the kind of person to travel 400 miles to pursue the perfect pea.
But in search of spring, I found myself tagging along with Jean-Claude Ribaut, Le Monde’s food critic, on a day trip from Paris to L’Oustau de Baumanière, the Michelin two-star restaurant-cum-hotel at the foot of the medieval hill town of Les Baux in Provence.
Driving from the train station at Avignon, we passed the Gallo-Roman mausoleum and triumphal arch near St.-Rémy-de-Provence. We cut through seas of olive trees and made our way up and down narrow winding hills of calcified rock to our destination.
Long ago, when L’Oustau’s founder and master chef, Raymond Thuilier, was alive, the restaurant had three stars. Back then, people like Queen Elizabeth, Deng Xiaoping and Pablo Picasso dined and slept here.
Controversial Leonardo Restoration to Be Unveiled in Major Louvre Show’
March 28, 2012
The freshly restored “ Virgin and Child With St. Anne” will be displayed at a new Louvre exhibition
When London’s National Gallery mounted its blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci exhibition late last year, advance tickets sold out the first week, online scalpers pocketed up to $400 per ticket and crowds lined up around the block at dawn for the paltry number of tickets still for sale.
Now it may be Paris’s turn. On Thursday, the Louvre unveils a newly restored Leonardo masterpiece, “The Virgin and Child With St. Anne,” the centerpiece of a major exhibition running through June 25 of more than 130 works exploring the painting’s genesis, execution and legacy, as well as the cult of St. Anne in the late 15th century.
The new “St. Anne” dazzles with color and light. Gone is the heavy veil of yellow-brown and most of the dark stains left by aging varnish. New details have emerged: a rocky pool of water bathing the subjects’ feet; crisp lines in the imaginary landscape in pale blues; the right leg of the infant Jesus; the lamb’s tail and draping on the dresses that clearly show that Leonardo had not finished it when he died in 1519.
Wouah! The French Cheer as One for the Oscar-Winning ‘Artist’
February 28, 2012
France cheers the Oscars for ‘The Artist’ and Jean Dujardin
No matter that “The Artist” was shot in Los Angeles with an American crew. Or that the rights to it were bought by an American. Or that it was competing for an Oscar alongside American films.
“The Artist,” a most romantic homage to 1920s Hollywood, is a French film. So its mini-sweep of the Oscars on Sunday night plunged France into a warm bath of national pride. And it solidified the image of Jean Dujardin, the first Frenchman ever to win the Oscar for best actor, as the archetypal French lover in the style of Maurice Chevalier and Yves Montand.
The two main candidates in this spring’s presidential election took a break from their mudslinging to crow. “This is a tremendous success for the French cinema,” exclaimed President Nicolas Sarkozy on RTL radio Monday morning. “I adored ‘The Artist’ of course.” François Hollande, the Socialist challenger, said on his Web site, “Bravo to the entire cast of the film, and bravo to French cinema.”
A Parisian Hot Dog, Hold the Snark
February 14, 2012
Michelin Star chef Yannick Alléno creates a hot dog with a French twist
Despite having three Michelin stars at his restaurant in the Meurice hotel, Yannick Alléno considers himself a man of the people. His parents owned a modest bistro in a Paris suburb, where they served croque-monsieurs and sliced ham on buttered baguettes. “I was born behind the counter,” he said. He hates dishes that seem as if they came out of a chemistry class.
Whenever he goes to New York, he eats a hot dog from a street vendor. “I adore them,” he said. “Even with the bad water they sit in all day.”
It wasn’t much of a leap, then, for Mr. Alléno to create his own chien chaud.
Restaurant Review: Le Grand Pan, in Paris
January 27, 2012
Review of the 15th Arrondissement restaurant
It can take a bit of effort to get to Le Grand Pan, especially if you’re a Métro gal like me. You take the No. 12 line deep into the most boring part of the 15th Arrondissement, then walk for a good 10 to 15 minutes. The first time I took my husband, he asked, “Are you sure you know where we’re going?”
But then you turn right onto a small street called Rosenwald, and soon you find a neighborhood bistro like the ones you probably assumed disappeared from the Paris landscape long ago. Even better, you enter a world of Parisians — the kind of folk who go out to dinner for one reason: for the enjoyment of sharing a good meal with family and friends. From the experience of recent visits, there seem to be no foreigners, at least not yet.
On his five-course tasting menu, Benôit Gauthier, the 32-year-old owner and chef, offers whatever he likes, based on seasonal items he finds daily in the market: truffles in winter, asparagus in spring, lobster in summer, game in autumn (42 euros, $52 at $1.24 to the euro; there are also à la carte options).
Editor Is the Story as the French Huffington Post Starts
January 23, 2012
Le Huffington Post launches in France with Anne Sinclair as editorial director
Anne Sinclair smiled big for the cameras, not as the betrayed wife standing by her man but as the star journalist she once was and hopes to be again.
The wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Ms. Sinclair returned to public life before more than 250 journalists in her new role as editorial director for the French version of The Huffington Post news Web site, which had its debut on Monday.
The news conference represented her first professional appearance since Mr. Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, was charged with sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel last May and forced to abandon his quest for the French presidency. The criminal charges were later dismissed.
“She is definitely going to be our public face,” said Arianna Huffington, the founder of the site, in an interview on Sunday.
Leonardo Painting’s Restoration Bitterly Divides Art Experts
January 3, 2012
Two experts have resigned from the committee supervising the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin Child With Saint Anne” following disagreements
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin and Child With Saint Anne” does not enjoy the same star status as his Mona Lisa. But for the Louvre, it is an equally treasured masterpiece.
Now a battle is raging over the painting’s restoration, pitting the museum and some experts who defend the project against others who believe the cleaning of the 500-year-old canvas has been too aggressive and may already have caused irreversible damage.
Two of France’s leading art experts have resigned from the advisory committee supervising the painting’s restoration to protest the way it has been conducted, according to art specialists have spoken to them.
Saluting a Serial Seducer and His Steamy Tell-All
November 28, 2011
Casanova’s original manuscript goes on display at the National Library of France
Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was a gambler, swindler, diplomat, lawyer, soldier, alchemist, violinist, traveler, pleasure seeker and serial seducer.
He was also a prolific writer who documented his adventures and love affairs in a steamy memoir that is one of the literary treasures of the 18th century.
Born in Venice, he considered France his adopted country but was forced to flee Paris in 1760 after seducing the wives and daughters of important subjects of King Louis XV and cheating them out of their money.
Now Casanova is back in France, celebrated by the French state. The original manuscript of his memoirs, “The Story of My Life,” and other writings of his are on display for the first time at the National Library of France in the exhibition “Casanova — The Passion for Freedom.” He is even being called a feminist.
36 Hours in Cape Town
October 27, 2011
How to spend a day and a half in the city
Cape Town overwhelms the senses. Its cultivated side, the bright lights and big buildings of the city center, collides with its geography — the dazzle and danger of the wind-whipped mountains and the two oceans that embrace it. The 2010 World Cup soccer tournament transformed parts of its infrastructure. A 55,000-seat stadium was built. High-end hotels, boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and B&Bs opened. But prices soared, and the tourist trade since then has disappointed. Some businesses have closed; several construction projects remain unfinished. Yet the urban revival continues in the City Bowl (the center), in the area around the University of Cape Town and in the old industrial neighborhood of Woodstock. Despite the grinding poverty in the townships on the city’s outskirts, this is one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world, where adventurers can sky-dive, kite-surf, rock-climb, hang-glide, shark-cage-dive; others can explore with less daring but just as much enthusiasm.
‘Desdemona’ Talks Back to ‘Othello’
October 5, 2011
Toni Morrison and Peter Sellars collaborate on a production inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy
A decade ago Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, and Peter Sellars, the experimental theater and opera director, got into a fierce argument about Shakespeare’s “Othello.” He said it was a terrible play that made no sense and had outlived its usefulness. She said he was dead wrong.
The conversation led to a creative pact: Mr. Sellars would stage “Othello”; Ms. Morrison would find a way to talk back to Shakespeare.
In 2009 Mr. Sellars created a four-hour, futuristic, high-tech “Othello” that was greeted with mixed reviews in Europe and criticized in New York, where it was presented by the Public Theater and the Labyrinth Theater Company, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago, and John Ortiz as Othello.
Now Ms. Morrison has delivered her part of the bargain in “Desdemona,” a production directed by Mr. Sellars that opened in this Paris suburb on Oct. 13 at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers and ran through last Friday.
The Height of Fashion, Six Floors Under
October 5, 2011
David Lynch’s club Silencio opens in Paris
A Cinderella moment was fast approaching. Damir Doma was ordered to leave his own party.
The designer was hosting a Fashion Week celebration of his collection with 250 guests at David Lynch’s new underground entertainment space, Silencio. But with midnight looming, Mr. Doma’s three-hour time slot was ending. The club had to be emptied — and fast — to make way for an even bigger party hosted by the rapper-turned-designer Kanye West.
More than 20 minutes of pleading and threats by Mr. Doma’s agents led nowhere. Music being played by Mike Nouveau, the D.J., was cut mid-song. The guests, some angry, some sullen, some bemused, were unceremoniously ushered up the club’s six-story staircase and out onto the street.
“We still love you,” Mr. Doma intoned flatly as he walked past the interior designer Rafael Navot, who collaborated with Mr. Lynch on Silencio. He delivered the words with an ambiguity and smooth irony that might have pleased Mr. Lynch, the American filmmaker, artist and — now — Paris nightclub creator.
Heroic Tale of Holocaust, With a Twist
October 25, 2011
How a Paris mosque sheltered Jews in the Holocaust
The stories of the Holocaust have been documented, distorted, clarified and filtered through memory. Yet new stories keep coming, occasionally altering the grand, incomplete mosaic of Holocaust history.
One of them, dramatized in a French film released here last week, focuses on an unlikely savior of Jews during the Nazi occupation of France: the rector of a Paris mosque.
Muslims, it seems, rescued Jews from the Nazis.
An Unlikely Hot Spot, After Galliano
September 28, 2011
At La Perle in Paris
“This is the Mecca of the neighborhood!” exclaimed Joey Jalleo, a New York publicist, on the first night of his first-ever visit to Paris. “I just had to come here!”
It was closing in on midnight on a Friday, and Mr. Jalleo was jammed in a dense crowd of 100 or so drinking, smoking, people-watching customers on the sidewalk outside La Perle, a nondescript yet exceptionally popular cafe-and-bar on a street corner in the Marais. “I had heard this was the place to go because of the chic kids and artists who come here,” he continued. “But after what happened with Galliano, this place was a must.”
A Different View of Munch at Paris Exhibition
September 21, 2011
Edvard Munch: L’Oeil Moderne” (The Modern Eye) at the Pompidou Center
The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch has long been associated with emotional instability, melancholia, bursts of paranoia, recurring illnesses and alcoholism. The exhibition “Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye” that opened at the Pompidou Center here on Wednesday certainly reflects the torment he suffered throughout his life.
But there is another Munch on display among the works here. Even though many of Munch’s most famous works date from the 19th century, the exhibition seeks to show him as a modern man open to the ideas and technologies of the 20th century. (Munch lived from 1863 to 1944, and three-fourths of his artworks were done after 1900).
Baryshnikov Breaks Out His Russian For ‘In Paris’
September 14, 2011
Mikhail Baryshnikov performs in the Paris premiere of “In Paris”
In 1978, the first time Mikhail Baryshnikov performed in Paris, he was booed. Loudly. He was dancing the role of the doomed Herman in Roland Petit’s interpretation of “Queen of Spades,” and the audience hated it.
“It was a new work from a great French choreographer,” Mr. Baryshnikov recalled recently in a cafe overlooking the Seine. “I thought it was one of his best ballets. It was a learning experience for me.”
This week Mr. Baryshnikov is performing in the Paris premiere of “In Paris,” a stark, experimental theatrical adaptation of a 1940 short story by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
A French Feast From a Political Pot
September 13, 2011
French deputies come together to create a cookbook
Morels speckled the forest floor. For a lavish meal with family and friends, Françoise Branget, a deputy in the National Assembly from the Doubs region, sautéed those earthy black mushrooms with Bresse chicken, the king of French fowl, and the pungent “vin jaune” from the nearby Jura district.
For Ms. Branget, this was not just a feast. It was a celebration of her campaign to unite deputies on the left and right in a national cause: the promotion of French gastronomy.
The Quiet Royal Wedding
June 22, 2011
Charlene Wittstock and Monaco Prepare for Royal Wedding.
For four years, Charlene Wittstock lived mostly in the shadows, waiting for Prince Albert II of Monaco to propose.
With no job, no college degree and no knowledge of French, she was installed by him in a small apartment in the center of the tiny Mediterranean principality, far away from home in South Africa. With no official status, she appeared at the side of the prince when summoned, to smile a lot but to say little.
She endured the nastiness of the locals, who gossiped about Prince Albert’s love affairs and predicted that he would never marry her. She stayed silent as stories were embellished about his siring of two children, one with an airline hostess from Togo, the other with an American tourist from California. She bided her time by swimming, gardening, lunching, playing golf and reading in a cafe.
Liberté, Égalité, Virilité
June 10, 2011
The French don’t just tolerate their politicians’ sexual dalliances — they demand them.
The arraignment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges including attempted rape and sexual abuse of a hotel housekeeper has stunned France. Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist who was forced to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund, was about to announce his intention to run for president in 2012. His reputation as a womanizer did not seem to hurt his chances; he was ahead of President Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls.
That changed when Strauss-Kahn, a man who had been known as a grand séducteur, suddenly was accused of being a violent criminal. Certainly, the Strauss-Kahn scandal has nothing to do with seduction à la française. But it has focused attention on the age-old habits of French politicians — male politicians, that is — to use seduction as a campaign tool. I explore that issue in detail in my current book La Seduction, from which the following is adapted.
In the United States, sexual desire is considered a distraction from the hard work of governing. Politicians are supposed to be pure, or at least strive to be. Americans have proved time and again that they see a politician’s cheating in marriage as tantamount to cheating on the voters and the country. Even the most innocently playful banter can have negative consequences. [As we've seen in recent days, the salacious online sexual liaisons of Representative Anthony D. Weiner of New York and his subsequent lies about them have prompted several prominent Democrats to call for his resignation.]
May 17, 2011
Is everyone in France out to rope you in? Mais oui!
The first time my hand was kissed à la française was in the Napoléon III salon of the Élysée Palace. The one doing the kissing was the president of France.
In the fall of 2002, Jacques Chirac was seven years into his 12-year presidency. The Bush administration was moving toward war with Iraq, and the relationship between France and the United States was worse than it had been in decades. I had just become the Paris bureau chief for The New York Times. Chirac was receiving me and Roger Cohen, then The Times’s foreign editor, to make what he hoped would be a headline-grabbing announcement of a French-led strategy to avoid war. When we arrived that Sunday morning, Chirac shook hands with Roger and welcomed me with a baisemain, a kiss of the hand.
Questions Raised About a Code of Silence
May 16, 2011
Politicians’ Secrets Raise Questions — Memo From France
The ritual follows a clear script: a scandal threatens to destroy the reputation of a powerful figure in France. Politicians say they are shocked. Friends say they are incredulous. Journalists debate whether they should have investigated rumors and revealed secrets. The dust settles. The status quo returns. Private life is protected.
When, for example, François Mitterrand was asked by a journalist during his presidency whether it was true that he had a daughter outside his marriage, he replied: “Yes, it’s true. And so what? It’s none of the public’s business.”
The French have been complicit in accepting this sort of secret-keeping: they do not enjoy ugly revelations that could tear apart the social fabric. What shocked them more than the existence of Mr. Mitterrand’s mistress and their daughter was the revelation after his death that the French state had financially supported them and even provided police protection.
Saint Laurent’s Other Half
May 12, 2011
Pierre Bergé on His Relationship With Yves Saint Laurent
“ALLONS-Y. Allons-y!” (“Let’s go. Let’s go!”) Pierre Bergé commands impatiently, with unsmiling lips and a gruff voice. We are in the opening minutes of an interview in the Avenue Marceau headquarters of the foundation he created with his longtime lover and business partner, the designer Yves Saint Laurent.
It looks as though it’s going to be a short afternoon.
But then, suddenly, Mr. Bergé becomes expansive, as if time holds no constraint, and the need to capture memory and explain himself is the only imperative. And, there, in a few seconds’ time, comes both a glimpse of the public Bergé — the man once so intensely protective and so domineering that he seemed more gatekeeper than lover — and a hint of what his life must have been like behind closed doors for all those years.
This Is What ‘Parisienne’ Looks Like
April 21, 2011
Inès de la Fressange, businesswoman and former model, talks about her best-selling book of tips on how to look and act like the perfect Parisian.
The perfect Parisian woman is an illusion, bien sûr. But learning to pretend to be one is a serious business that dates back centuries.
It is an enterprise that continues to thrive with profitable how-to books like, “How to Become a Real Parisian,” “The Parisian Woman’s Guide to Style” and “All You Need to Be Impossibly French.” Now Inès de la Fressange, ex-runway model, former face of Chanel, Legion of Honor winner, designer, businesswoman and daughter of a marquis, offers yet another take on how to dress, shop, eat and act like a true “Parisienne.” This onetime muse of Karl Lagerfeld has spun her beauty and style tips into a confection of a best seller, “Parisian Chic: A Style Guide,” which has sold more than 100,000 copies in French and has just hit the American market.
The book might have withered and died on the shelves, except that Ms. de la Fressange combines a “je ne sais quoi” audacity with a sassy tone, and leaves readers believing that, by following her rules and experimenting with confidence, they, too, can be just like her.
The French, The Veil And the Look
April 17, 2011
Why don’t the French like Muslim full-face veils? So many reasons, but one explanation is cultural: in public, the eyes are supposed to meet.
France’s ideal of a secularized republic theoretically leaves it blind to color, ethnicity and religion, and makes everyone equal under the law; there is no census or reliable poll data on why these women veil, or even how many do.
So why all the fuss, on both sides of this question, about a tiny minority of women who wear odd-looking dress in a country that is the world’s creative headquarters for odd-looking fashion? One explanation is cultural. In French culture, the eyes are supposed to meet in public, to invite a conversation or just to exchange a visual greeting with a stranger. Among Muslims, the eyes of men and women are not supposed to meet, even by chance, and especially not in public or between strangers.
‘Le regard’ — the look exchanged by two people — is a classic component of French literature, developed centuries ago in the love poetry of the troubadours. Especially in Paris, a stare in public is not usually taken as a sign of rudeness, and can be accepted as a warm compliment. You never walk alone here, it seems. “The visual marketplace of seduction” is how Pascal Bruckner and Alain Finkielkraut define public space in their 1977 book, ‘The New Love Disorder.’”
Edith Wharton Always Had Paris
October 11, 2009
The American novelist Edith Wharton found intellectual and sexual liberation in Paris.
Like many of the characters in her novels, Edith Wharton made frequent use of concealment, reserve and deception in her own life.
So it was fitting that the leading American female writer of the early 20th century experienced her first and most likely only passionate love affair in the city of Paris, far removed from her homes in New York and New England.
The pleasure she found in Paris in the years before World War I became a cover for the pleasure she took from the clandestine relationship with Morton Fullerton, a handsome, Frenchified, well-read American cad who worked as Paris correspondent for The Times of London.
“I am sunk in the usual demoralizing happiness which this atmosphere produces in me,” Wharton wrote in a letter at the end of 1907. She added, “The tranquil majesty of the architectural lines, the wonderful blurred winter lights, the long lines of lamps garlanding the avenues & the quays — je l’ai dans mon sang!” (“I have it in my blood!”)
For Wharton, Paris was a place of liberation. Intellectual women like her were listened to in this city. The setting was both aesthetically beautiful and logistically enabling for her romance, which she embarked upon in her mid-40s and kept secret from both her husband and her circle of friends.
May 17, 2009
France is studded with remnants of ancient Roman rule. They turn up in the oddest places; you just need to know where to find them.
The summer evening was autumnally cold and damp, the backless stone seats in the outdoor theater unforgiving. Many of the 8,000 spectators were irritable; most of us had shown for a rained-out performance the night before.
And frankly, I’ve seen better productions of “Carmen.” But as the performers began to move, their shadows rose 100 feet and danced across the imposing backdrop of a yellow limestone wall. A marble statue of Caesar Augustus stood ghostly white upon his perch in the wall, his right arm raised as if he had just commanded the singers to begin their performance. When Carmen sang for the last time, a bird somewhere in the black sky sang back as her shadow fell.
I had been transported into the past, watching a performance in a semicircular Roman theater in the southern French city of Orange much as spectators had done 2,000 years ago. In front of me was one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering to have survived the cruelty of the centuries: a theatrical wall.
Despite its scarred and stained stones, the wall stands defiantly. It is still deserving of the description: “The finest wall in my kingdom,” bestowed by Louis XIV.
The performance ended, and the crowd spilled out into the streets below, just as it did in Roman times. Augustus, embraced by the shadows coursing across the theatrical wall, seemed to move as well.
Visitors to France do not usually seek out evidence of Rome’s conquest of what was then called Gaul (now essentially modern-day France and Belgium). Indeed, the French do not dwell on their colonization by ancient Roman imperialists. Instead, they celebrate the “Gallic” part: the stories of proud, strong natives who thrived in that era…. Over the years, I have discovered traces of Roman civilization throughout the country, from Arras in the north to Dijon in the center and Fréjus in the south. My hunt for Roman Gaul has turned up treasures in the oddest places, including the middle of wheat fields, the foundations of churches and the basements of dusty provincial museums.
February 15, 2009
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso
CARLA BRUNI-SARKOZY, the first lady of France, looked out the window of her 13-seat military jet as it touched down here, spotted the red carpet and receiving party awaiting her, and suddenly realized what she was wearing.
“Oh, I’m in jeans!” she said. “Well, at least they don’t look like jeans.”
The 20-hour visit of the Italian-born singer, heiress and ex-model to one of the poorest countries in the world last week marked Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy’s debut as a good-will ambassador, a personal experiment in burnishing her image and projecting the soft power of France.
A year after her marriage to President Nicolas Sarkozy catapulted her into the role of first lady, Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy said she has decided to “do something useful,” signing on with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria last December as its first formal celebrity envoy.
She visited a hospital, a medical center for women and the presidential palace in this West African country, as her hosts sought to capitalize on her star quality for a humanitarian cause, without being capsized by it.
“There is always too much fuss about what I’m doing, you know,” Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy said during an interview after the whirlwind tour, snuffing out one of several menthol Vogue cigarettes in her nearly empty glass of beer. “I don’t feel very comfortable with the talking part.”
In private, Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy has no trouble making down-to-earth small talk: that Daniel Craig is good-looking but Sean Connery will go down as the best James Bond; how some of her friends have become paranoid that their phone conversations with her are monitored by French intelligence officers; how women over 25 — 28 at the latest — should stop wearing makeup because it ages them; how she longs to have a child with Mr. Sarkozy, but knows that at age 41, she is “just at the edge;” how she fell in love with Utah when she was once there on a shoot for Victoria’s Secret, modeling pajamas and boxer shorts because of her flat chest; how she still believed what she told an Italian interviewer years ago, that human beings cannot be faithful.
L’Amour Has Little to Do With l’État
October 21, 2007
Most French didn’t seem to care that their president got divorced – for the second time.
The French — on the right and on the left — have embraced the news that President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Cécilia, have divorced with a surprising amount of sang-froid and a collective shrug.
It’s partly that the French no longer treat marriage as a particularly sacred institution. The marriage rate here has plunged more than 30 percent in the past generation, and nearly one out of two marriages end in divorce. It’s also that the French still seem to think that if Mr. Sarkozy is roaming the Élysée Palace all alone, it’s nobody’s business but his own.
According to a poll conducted after the news broke on Thursday, 79 percent declared Le Divorce of “little or no importance” in the country’s political life. A whopping 92 percent of the more than 800 people polled said that the divorce did not change their opinion of their president….
Never before in its modern history has a French leader divorced. Napoleon Bonaparte came closest when he managed to get his 13-year marriage to the 46-year-old Joséphine annulled so he could stay a good Catholic and still marry the young Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, who gave him both a son and a dynasty.
More recent first marriages stayed together, as first ladies chose to keep their sorrows to themselves. Danielle Mitterrand lived with the reality that François led a double life, with a mistress and a daughter who was born out of wedlock. Bernadette Chirac confessed in a book that she suffered from terrible jealousy — but would never let Jacques go. “The day Napoleon abandoned Joséphine, he lost everything,” she warned him several times.
October 7, 2007
Strange as it seems, Paris is a city of beautiful churches.
From the outside, St.-François-Xavier Church just might be the ugliest church in Paris. A 19th-century hulk, it drips with decades of brownish-gray grime. There is not one memorable feature on its facade. Although the gold-domed Invalides with Napoleon’s Tomb is only a few blocks away, St.-François-Xavier stands on a loud, traffic-clogged intersection leading to the Montparnasse train station, facing some of the worst of recent Paris architecture.
But one Sunday morning, I find myself lurking in its vestibule, waiting for the 10:15 Family Mass to let out. Using head-bowing and tiptoeing rituals learned from the nuns of my childhood, I nudge my way through the departing faithful. Seeing no one in authority, I rush through a side door behind a gaggle of white-robed altar boys. There are no tourists here, and even the regular parishioners don’t stop by.
I have entered the church’s “wedding sacristy,” an unfurnished space that seems to have no other purpose than to store vestments in locked oak cupboards. The two stained-glass windows need cleaning, the parquet floor polishing, the walls a good paint job.
But there, framed in gold and hanging nonchalantly under slim fluorescent lights, is a 16th-century “Last Supper” by the Venetian painter Tintoretto. The only Tintoretto to hang in a Paris church, the 8-by-11-foot painting found its way from Venice to this destination as a gift from a French baroness a century ago.
You have to find just the right spot — the far back of the room, slightly to the right — to make the reflections of light disappear from the canvas. A square, rather than long, table captures the intimacy and urgency of the reaction of Jesus’ disciples just after his shocking announcement that one of them will betray him. Judas, in the foreground, hides a bag full of 30 pieces of silver behind his back. The stark white of the tablecloth is even brighter than the golden rays behind Jesus’ head.
For a moment, the painting is mine.
Paris ordinarily defines itself to visitors as a city of museums, monuments, neighborhoods and shopping-and-eating opportunities. But there is another way into the history, culture and daily fabric of this city’s life, a voyage of discovery into a world overlooked even by Parisians themselves: its nearly 100 churches.
Candidates Spar Vigorously as French Presidential Vote Nears
(Maia de la Baume contributed reporting)
May 3, 2007
The televised debate between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal in their campaign for the presidency in 2007 was full of drama – and heat.
He accused her of losing her cool. She accused him of lacking compassion.
Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and Ségolène Royal on the left went after each other Wednesday evening in the kind of vivid confrontation that has disappeared from the American scene, where the candidates avoid one another as much as possible.
The two-and-a-half-hour televised debate could determine the outcome of the French presidential election on Sunday.
At times, the candidates seemed like they were more in a local race than vying for the presidency of a nuclear power with the sixth-largest economy. Iraq and France’s relationship with the United States, for example, never came up. Domestic issues, like the wisdom of the 35-hour workweek, public spending for the police and hospitals, and fighting crime took up more time than how to shape the identity of France.
Mr. Sarkozy, 52, the son of a Hungarian immigrant with minor aristocratic roots, and Ms. Royal, 53, the daughter of a career army officer, faced different challenges. Mr. Sarkozy had to avoid looking like a sexist bully; Ms. Royal had to prove herself presidential.
Mr. Sarkozy, the former interior and finance minister, had to fight off the demon that has tormented him: his image as an authoritarian figure with a volatile temper. For Ms. Royal, the debate was her last chance to turn around polls that consistently put Mr. Sarkozy in the lead.
French Farm Town Is Fertile Ground for National Front
October 7, 2006
Châteaurenard, a once-thriving farming town that has lost its soul.
The neat rows of apple trees and grape vines that lined the road heading into this once archetypical French farming town disappeared long ago. In their place is a landscape of prefabricated warehouses, auto parts dealers, a chicken-processing plant and fields overrun with scrub.
This is not the romantic Provence of the author Peter Mayle, where the villagers are quaint, the views picturesque and the farmers happy.
Rather, Châteaurenard, a town of 13,500 — like dozens of other farming towns that were once the bedrock of rural France — seems to have lost its soul. The farmers are retiring and abandoning their unprofitable fields, and half the working residents here now travel to jobs somewhere else.
“Our farms are becoming the monuments of the dead, our town is a bedroom community that services others,” said Bernard Reynès, the center-right mayor of Châteaurenard. “We are losing our confidence that life will somehow get better, losing our roots, our rural identity.”
Much of the French countryside remains resplendent, of course, with rich farmland and impeccable towns. Yet the transformation of Châteaurenard — buffeted by international pressures — suggests that more of France’s regions will not escape the same kind of upheaval.
One change is seldom spoken of openly: up to 20 percent of this town’s residents are ethnic Arabs, many of them young, under-educated, unemployed and isolated.
The result, locals and experts say, is contagious fear — for France’s economic future, of globalization, of the immigrant — that makes the Châteaurenards of France fertile terrain for the extreme right National Front in next spring’s presidential election.
Paris la Nuit
October 1, 2006
The city of Paris turns seductive at night.
By day, the Pont Royal, in the middle of Paris, is little more than an unremarkable stone bridge streaming with motorists making their way from the Left to the Right Bank. At night, though, this 17th-century structure is transformed into a platform of visual seduction.
As you stroll north across the Seine, the imposing facade of the Louvre dominates the foreground. To the right, in the distance, the gently lighted towers of Notre Dame and the dome of the Institut de France, home of the Académie Française, suddenly appear through the trees. To the left, you can make out the outline of the vast Tuileries Garden, locked tight behind iron gates and shrouded in darkness. Farther on, the illuminated curves of the Grand Palais’s glass roofs beckon. From behind, the twin clocks of the Musée d’Orsay burn bright; the tip of the Eiffel Tower peeks through.
Then, as you approach the end of the bridge and look up, you catch a glimpse of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s small sculpture on the Flore Pavilion of the Louvre, with its laughing, naked nymph. It is a moment of magic. You look around. No one else seems to notice — and at that moment, no matter the weather or your mood, the city seems to be yours.
Late-night Paris belongs to the stroller, the idle walker with no purpose except to roam. There is always beauty to be discovered, and perhaps even adventure and love. “The night suggests, it does not show,” wrote Brassaï, the 20th century’s best-known photographer of Paris at night. “The night disquiets and surprises us with its otherness. It releases forces within us which by day are dominated by reason.”
That’s true because nighttime Paris operates on different levels. There is a constant interplay between the permanence and grandeur of monumental Paris and the serendipity and surprise of intimate Paris….Tthe streets empty, the pace slows. Inhibitions evaporate. The later the hour, the fewer the people, the better.
Is a Scent Like a Song? Oui and Non
July 13, 2006
The French debate whether perfume-making is an art or merely a craft.
Day after day in a white-tiled laboratory at France’s elite perfume training school here, students sniff their way to magic. Their materials are exotic essences: Indian tuberose, Calabrian bergamot, Egyptian jasmine, Indonesian patchouli. Their assignment is to compose a lighter summer variation of a classic evening floral scent.
“For me this is pure artistry,” said Sarah Delville, 28, as she worked on her project at the International Superior Institute of Perfume, Cosmetics and Food Aromas, as the school is known. “I have no background in chemistry. I studied painting and drawing, so I think in terms of colors. We’re not just mixing chemicals. We’re creating images.”
Marina Jung-Allégret, their professor, used another metaphor. “We work with notes to make music, to create a perfect harmony,” she said.
But in mid-June, the highest court in France ruled that making perfume is not an artistic creation, but the work of a mere artisan.
The distinction is not an abstraction. Legally, it is more about money than about art. At stake are potential royalties for perfume makers (a k a noses) and profits and protection for manufacturers during the life of a fragrance.
French Youth at Barricades, but It’s No Revolution
March 28, 2006
Student rebels in France are alive and well, but they are into ritual not revolt. A report from Avignon.
Adrien Reynaud is a revolutionary, but only part time.
A 20-year-old history major at the University of Avignon, in the south of France, he had been waging a round-the-clock protest against the new youth labor law, camping out with fellow protesters in two dozen tents pitched across the campus lawn.
But by last Friday afternoon, Mr. Reynaud had a birthday to celebrate and laundry to be done. So he was going home to his parents.
“I’ve been staked out here for 16 days,” he said. “I need a weekend off.”
The mellow mood reflects the peculiar nature of the nationwide protest against a law that would allow employers to fire workers under age 26 without cause during the first two years of employment.
On one level, there is nail-biting drama. With Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin determined to put the law into effect, France is bracing for what is being called “black Tuesday” — strikes and demonstrations throughout France planned for Tuesday — that could bring up to two million people out on the streets and paralyze much of the country.
If the protests drag on and the violence and vandalism get worse, they could further erode confidence in the government and, some doomsayers say, even force Mr. de Villepin from his post.
Only half of the subway trains in Paris will be operating. Regional rail services are expected to be out of service. Many planes and trains will be canceled. Countless schools, hospitals, businesses and post offices will be closed.
Behind the current political crisis seems nothing less than the essential question confronting Europe today: whether its safety net can survive in a more competitive world.
But France has not been seized by a desire to sacrifice. This is a protest that uses the revolutionary methods of the streets — which proved so potent in last fall’s riots in the disadvantaged city suburbs — in defense of the status quo….
This is also a cross-generational conflict. Baby boomers embraced by the generous French social welfare system want to protect treasured benefits long into retirement. Their children want to keep the system in place only if they can benefit from it.
Iraq Aside, French View the U.S. With a Mixture of Attraction and Repulsion
At the height of the diplomatic crisis over Iraq, French criticism of the United States mingled with admiration and even envy.
November 13, 2003
One way of understanding how the French really feel about the United States these days is to ask them not about Iraq but about Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When the Austrian-born actor won the governorship of California, some politicians and commentators said his victory reflected a dangerous American populism.
But many French shared the enthusiasm of Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s law-and-order interior minister. Mr. Sarkozy is said to harbor presidential ambitions, but the fact that he is the offspring of Hungarian immigrants and never went to an elite school puts him at a distinct disadvantage.
In a remarkably confessional interview with RTL radio, Mr. Sarkozy said of Mr. Schwarzenegger: “That someone who is a foreigner in his country, who has an unpronounceable name” can become the governor of the biggest state in the United States, “this is no small thing!”
The current French-American rift, born of differences over Iraq but rooted in deeper post-cold-war friction, is more complex than it may appear. Bitter feelings remain strong on both sides of the Atlantic, and there is a sense that something fundamental in the relationship has failed. In some quarters anti-Americanism — of the kind President Bush will encounter during a visit to Britain next week — is at a high pitch.
But a close look at French attitudes toward America suggests that repulsion and disenchantment are at least equaled by attraction, curiosity and outright envy. The falling-out may be less complete than it seems.
Huge swaths of the relationship — in the realms of business, intelligence and even military affairs — still work. Criticism of the Bush administration, given full voice in the media, is offset by a French business ethic that often lauds the United States and a strong feeling, particularly among the young, that America remains a land of opportunity.
For French Girls, Playing Soccer Is a Tough Goal
September 16, 2002
Soccer is not a sport for girls in France, as my two soccer-playing daughters discovered.
Real French girls don’t play soccer.
They sing. They dance. They ride. They even fence. But strap on shin guards and kick a ball up and down a dirty field? That’s a boy thing.
In the United States, soccer is so popular among girls that leagues often list more girls than boys on their rosters. The sport has even become a vehicle for putting girls into the kind of “team” environment that will prepare them for corporate America.
But here, where gender and class play a greater role in who does what, it is simply gauche. In this soccer-besotted country, which won the World Cup four years ago but lost badly this year, the sport is considered rough. Sweaty. And male.
“There is a prejudice,” said Jacques Defrance, professor of the sociology of sport at the University of Paris. “First of all, soccer is deemed too competitive, too violent, too masculine, a devaluator of femininity. Second, soccer is not considered a very distinguished sport, but is one that is played by the lower classes. When people belong to the bourgeoisie, they prefer leisure activities like tennis, golf, sprinting and riding.”
Indeed, only about 4 percent of children who play on organized teams in France are girls. The stigma they suffer often makes them feel they have to keep it a secret….
Unlike boys of the same age, the girls have to train — and play — on a field half the size of a regulation soccer field, and with seven instead of 11 players. The explanation is that there are not enough girls to sustain larger teams, and not enough good fields to accommodate them. (France has nothing like Title IX, the 30-year-old American law that prohibits sex discrimination in education by institutions receiving federal funds.)
French Leader Offers Formula To Tackle Iraq
September 9, 2002
In an interview, President Chirac laid out his strategy for avoiding war with Iraq.
President Jacques Chirac of France proposed a two-stage plan today that could lead to United Nations authorization of military force against Iraq.
In a wide-ranging interview at Élysée Palace, he said that he personally would like to see a new Iraqi government, but that any attempt to oust Saddam Hussein without the backing of a Security Council resolution would be a recipe for chaos in global affairs….
Noting that there are many governments whose overthrow might appear desirable to Western leaders, Mr. Chirac cautioned, “If we go down that road, where are we going?” He noted that the Security Council had not reviewed any proposal for replacing Mr. Hussein — the declared objective of the Bush administration.
In the interview, Mr. Chirac proposed a Security Council resolution that would give Iraq a three-week deadline for admitting United Nations weapons inspectors “without restrictions or preconditions.” If Mr. Hussein rejected their return or hampered their work, he said, a second resolution should be passed on whether to use military force….
President Chirac described the Bush administration doctrine of pre-emptive military action in its fight against terrorism as “extraordinarily dangerous.”