Letter from Toulouse

I am in Toulouse, France, for a few days of vacation and watching from afar as the Supreme Court decisions come rolling out in a flurry as they do every year at this time. It is an interesting place from which to view the unique role that history plays in these two very different cultures.

At dinner earlier his week in a small bistro, a diner named Eric spoke to me of his disdain for Nicolas Sarkozy – “he is a foreigner,” he said, summing up his attitude by echoing an all too frequent jibe at the French president. Actually, while Sarkozy is an ethnic Hungarian on his father’s side (a Hungarian aristocrat, the elder Sarkozy fled Budapest after the Red Army invaded in 1946), he is of mixed French Catholic and Sephardic Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side. He was born in Paris and has lived here all his life yet he is still, to many, un etrangers. Knowing France’s history of anti-Semitism, we wondered if etrangers might be Eric’s code-word for “Jews,” or, more benignly, just another expression of the importance of history as a catalyst for contemporary understanding.

History entangles everything here. All the street signs in Toulouse are written in both French and Occitan, a language native to the area but rarely spoken anymore. According to a treaty signed in 1278, inherited by the French monarchy and then eventually by each successive French Republic, the French president and the Bishop of Urgell, who is the spiritual leader of the ecclesiastical diocese of Spanish Catalonia, serve concurrently as co-princes of Andorra, a mini-state within a state situated along the Pyrenees just an hour and a half from here. The Andorra constitution ratified in 1993, continued this arrangement, making the French president the only “elected” monarch in the world.

Our guide on this evening, Hari, a young Madagalsy (as a native of Madagascar is known) student told us that by inviting Eric to join us for coffee – Eric had been looking at us from across the room, clearly listening to our conversation – we had violated a covenant of French culture. Such intimacy is never granted to un unconnue (one who is not known); echoing the words of Eric, he said that you have to “earn your place at the table.” Apparently Hari’s family is still waiting for that invitation. His father let us know that even after thirty years in France, he still feels himself un etranger. Once his children are grown and he is ready for retirement, he will abandon France and go back to the country of his youth.

Toulouse, home to the Airbus commercial airline manufacturer, is a dirty and busy city of 800,000, the fourth largest in France. The city’s streets splinter and lunge to the rhythms of another age, yet Toulouse has modern, big city problems – slums, homelessness, petty crime.

Over coffee and dessert we asked Eric to explain more about Sarkozy and the notion of etrangers, but became lost in his description of what is “appropriately French” and what is not. “You come to us and say, ‘Hi, I am Todd Brewster’ and we say, ‘So, why do we care that you are Todd Brewster?’ I do not know you and I do not know that I care to know you. In France, we would rather look at you one way, then the other way, maybe even from a sideward glance, and only after considering whether we find you interesting, finally enquire as to your name. This American notion of the direct introduction is too much for us French.” The attitude seemed to suggest that strangers must remain strangers here unless and until the French, and the French alone, remove the title, to which I can only say, bon chance to France on enduring the 21st century.

Todd Brewster is the Director of the National Constitution Center’s Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.

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  1. Todd Brewster says

    good question. I was dropping off my son on a French language exchange program. We spent a couple of days in Toulouse to be gracious to his hosts, but more time in Paris!