I’m sitting on a train heading to Germany, about to depart Paris. I’m less comfortable writing about myself than some other urbanists I admire like Alex Baca and Kristen Jeffers, but I will still try to explain.
I didn’t intend to live here long-term. As I said two years ago, I moved here for the universities, and stayed even after I left academia, and even as I stayed, I didn’t know it would be for such a long period of time. I kept renting on three-month cycles because with my self-employment and variable income landlords wouldn’t rent to me on an annual contract. Many of the renewals were uncertain, depending on various circumstances like whether I would hear from NYU about grants. But this turned into my longest stint living in the same apartment in my adult life: two years and three months. And now it’s ending.
I spent 2017 building my professional life, sending pitches to anyone I could find an email for. I knew I was in an expensive city, but even then, I looked at housing costs elsewhere and didn’t think I’d even save money net of moving expenses. I still don’t; I don’t expect my living expenses to fall in Berlin once you add mandatory health insurance to rent. This is not why I’m leaving.
Rather, the situation in 2018 got to the point that I needed to ask myself where I really wanted to live. The rule was, anywhere in the EU or where EU citizens could live freely, like Norway. In July I visited London, which was an option depending on how EU migrant rights would be treated under Brexit, but between high rents and trademark Theresa May hostile environment rules in the Brexit deal, it wasn’t so attractive.
So far, all of my moves had been job-related: New York for grad school, then Providence, Vancouver, and Stockholm for a string of postdocs, then Paris to intersect my grad school advisor while I was waiting on an answer from Calgary. Working from home means I had to choose where to live based on which city in Europe I actually liked. I had to ask myself the same question every three months:
Do I like Paris?
For a while, I really did like it here. I saw things that I never got to see in the United States or in Sweden: at the nearby high school, as well as at Bois de Vincennes, white and Arab and black children were playing together. Eastern Paris is the kind of integrated neighborhood that, in North America, everyone pretends to want to build and yet nobody seems capable of building.
I knew about the diesel pollution from my first winter here, but things seemed to be getting better, with a steady decrease in the proportion of cars powered by diesels, Anne Hidalgo’s pedestrianization of streets and city squares, and the Macron cabinet’s hike in taxes on fuel. My best recollection is that the pollution was less bad in the winter of 2017-8 than in 2016-7, and I took it at a sign things were getting better.
The Gilets Jaunes
Macron is not a popular president. Polls consistently put his approval rate in the 30s, even as, as the median French politician on the main issues, he was and still is handily winning reelection against the cadre of sacrificial lambs offered by the parties on the left and right. Previous protest movements concerned labor issues, sometimes winning, as when they defeated his 2017 labor law reforms (since passed in a weaker form last year), and sometimes losing, as when the railway workers struck to fight the SNCF governance reforms.
And then came the Gilets Jaunes, so-called because of the mandatory reflective yellow vests within cars. Their initial grievances were the diesel taxes and the reduction in the speed limit on non-motorway roads from 90 km/h to 80. The taxes were no more popular than any other tax hike, and they got sympathy early, protesting in the usual French way of blocking roads.
Even then, in late November, there were signs they were nastier than the usual. CRIF warned about anti-Semitism at the protests; SOS Racism warned about harassment of immigrants. White Christian France did not listen. Then the Gilets Jaunes escalated to rioting, and even as the public grew hostile to their methods, the state dithered.
The political movements outside En Marche maintained their support. I never had any illusions about La France Insoumise and other far left movements, but the Green Party joined in, echoing the fake news of the extreme right about how what really matters is taxing ship fuel rather than cars. Soi-disant green protesters tried to connect their agenda to that of the Gilets Jaunes, saying “the fight for the climate and the fight for purchase power are the same.” Antifa joined in, having some internal fights with the most overtly fascist members, but not with the main of the movement, which is still about half National Front voters. Nobody saw fit to mention the racism. Politics in France is so white—Macron’s rainbow coalition has a less racially diverse cabinet than Trump, and he’s still under criticism for not being racism enough from both directions; the top far left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, wrote an angry blog post saying that France did not collaborate with the Nazis in WW2.
The big protest, on December 8th, involved vandalism in central Paris. At Nation things were tamer. I visited briefly and saw an all-white crowd in a neighborhood where these are not the usual demographics. Two people who looked my age or slightly younger, both white, sat on a bench near the square, one taping “down with the state” on the back of the other’s jacket. Everything about that crowd screamed “hipsters going through the motions.” Eastern Paris has a lot of that, too.
Elsewhere, things got a lot worse, with violent threats against foreigners, Jews, and racial minorities. Protesters vandalized stores with graffiti like “Rothschild” and “Juden,” and the reaction among supporters on Twitter was either justification and denial that the Rothschild tag was anti-Semitic, or denial that the Gilets Jaunes were the vandals. This is on top of homophobia (Gilets Jaunes protesters have demanded a referendum on repealing gay marriage) and general idiocy (they oppose mandatory vaccination).
Macron did what France does best in the face of fascism: he surrendered. In overseas France he’d declared martial law, but at home, facing white people, he didn’t; he canceled the planned tax increase, and announced a host of tax cuts and pension benefit increases to try to mollify them. The difference between that and how the state treated Muslim rioters in 2005 was jarring.
A single spineless leader might be survivable, but the entire political system here supports rioters provided they are white. This percolates outside the country. The alt-right is of course in full support, but the decidedly non-extreme Wall Street Journal positively spun the movement as a tax revolt. On the other side, the alt-left celebrated, since it’s always hated Macron. Pan-European anarchists like Quinn Norton celebrated the Gilets Jaunes. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in support of the movement, in response to a tweet saying the police was threatening to join them if the state didn’t increase cops’ pay, and nearly every American socialist I’ve interacted with since has tried to defend her in ways they never would if she’d tweeted in enthusiasm about Pinochet.
Why do I need to be here?
The pollution will not get better, or, if it does, it will be at a glacial rate; the revocation of the diesel taxes will make sure of that. Neither will the French state’s responsiveness to the needs of the city and the people who live here, many of whom are not the grandchildren of the Milice but of its and of the French colonial army’s victims. White Europe’s public intellectuals pattern-matched the movement to a right-populist resurgence that they love to blame on neoliberalism and not on the populists’ racism.
While this was going on, I was glued to AQI. There were days in December when the air here was worse than in Milan, worse than in Katowice. Germany was entirely clean. This is not just an issue of Germany having a government that feels sufficiently guilty about leading the pan-European project that was the Holocaust that it dials down the racism. Somehow, German cities manage far cleaner air than Paris, and the political system there looks forward. The Greens there fight for an open society rather than looking for excuses to protest fuel taxes.
Paris keeps defining itself by global city attractions, like the Opera or the cafes or the museums. But that’s not a reason to live in a city. It’s a reason to visit for a week. Already Hidalgo is unpopular for her attempt to make the city livable, and the poster boards of Nation, once filled with communist slogans and with the face of one crank calling for Frexit, are now filled with posters complaining that the mayor is immiserating the French. If the city and the state are not going to provide basic necessities like clean air and streets that I can cross safely, I don’t really need to live here.
All the programs in the world won’t keep me in a place where I do not get these basic necessities. Even before Macron, France tried to build up tech clusters, which effort has only intensified in the last two years. The state will do anything except improving the business climate and providing services like protecting foreigners from marauding hordes of vandals.
The message the surrender has sent is not just that air quality will remain among Europe’s worst but also that foreigners are not really welcome here. This is not the message Macron wants to send; I get the impression he genuinely wants a more open and more globalized France. But he is unwilling to do what it takes to send the right message. In that way, he is like many ineffectual leaders in semi-democracies like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where there’s no autocracy in the sense of China or Russia, just a crowd of traditionalist pogromchiks who the state either can’t or won’t stop from hacking at gays, religious minorities, or journalists who offended some local notable.
I will miss Paris. I really will. Eastern Paris is delightful and supposed no-go zones like Belleville have grocery stores selling good food items that the European-owned stores don’t. It’s the supposed Real France that’s a problem, defined around closedness, monolingualism, and an ethnic hierarchy.
If I’m looking for a place that’s functional enough I can expect it to not just have clean air but also deal with other social problems appropriately, I don’t have that many options. Eastern Europe is out, Mediterranean Europe not much better, France by definition not good. Ireland might be an option because they speak English there, but moving by plane is a chore and Dublin is ultimately not a large city. Scandinavia is Anglophone and has food items I’m craving at supermarkets that I can’t find anywhere in Paris, but it’s expensive and my two years there were two more than enough.
I told a Twitter follower I was moving to Germany and their first question was “are you a Berlin person or a Munich person?” I of course don’t know the answer to this question, not knowing the subtleties. The Germans I know tend to be northerners; I asked a German professor in Stockholm why the Germans at KTH seem to all be northerners and was told that Scandinavia and northern Germany are similar in ways that are distinct from southern Germany. So I don’t have a basis of comparison, I just know what the rents are and which governments are in charge.
Two years ago, I noticed Berlin’s cheapness, but wasn’t sure where to live, and knew the moving expenses would be high. But given that I have to undertake these moving expenses anyway, I might as well move to the cheaper city. The job market there is weak in the private sector, but since I’m not getting work at someone else’s company either way I might as well go for the cheap rents.
What does this mean?
I will of course keep blogging. I imagine I will talk more about the details of proof-of-payment systems and S-Bahn scheduling and less about driverless metro implementation, but ultimately I read trade publications and look at timetables rather than writing about my experiences taking urban rapid transit. Not much will change—expect a few days’ gap in new posts, but with my schedule of posting eight or nine times per month such gaps are routine anyway. I will just say “here” and mean Berlin and not Paris.