November 20, 2011
Four Cabbies in ParisBy Karin McQuillan
Talking to cab drivers is always instructive. In Paris, it is a chance for me to use my Peace Corps French as we idle in traffic, and get a gauge on European preoccupations.
On my last trip, I found the French pessimistic and passive about their future. They are very afraid. They see their economy going down, fast and far, and have no vision of how to improve matters. There was a rumored terrorist bomb plot in the metro before my visit, so radical Islam was on my mind -- among the French, not so much, although when I brought it up, they had plenty to say. Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, seemed to come up out of nowhere.
I took four cabs during my visit and had four very different drivers, all long-time French citizens or residents: an Algerian, a Haitian, a Cambodian, and a native Frenchman.
The Algerian was a pleasant, talkative fellow. His opening gambit was that the French are more racist (against Arabs) than Americans: his cousin visited America and found people tolerant, mosques not locked. He would love to move to America, if only he were younger.
I asked about the rise of radical Islam in France. "Radical Islam? There is no problem with radical Islam -- just a few terrorists with small bombs. Christians and Jews have extremists, too." I asked why extremists were bombing, and he said he had no idea, glanced at me in the rear view mirror, and changed his answer to, "their beliefs," a shrug, "which I don't share." The real problem is racism -- his cousin was not accepted at a prestigious college in Versailles even though he had better grades than others who got in.
He started fiddling with his radio and told me -- an absurd lie -- that a new "oil shock" had been announced just before we got in the cab, all arranged by U.S. business interests, just as Kissinger caused the oil shock of 1973.
That night, I took a cab to a restaurant on the Left Bank and had a Haitian cabbie for 20 minutes of rush-hour traffic. He told me he's lived in Paris for 29 years, since the age of 19. I innocuously asked, "Aimez-vous Paris?" (Do you like Paris?) The answer: No. He survives. He went on: "I admit I grew up in a country that is a synonym for human misery, but I still remember my shock when I arrived in France and saw people living on the street. People say the homeless are mostly crazy, but still, in such a rich country ... Human beings are méchants." (Bad, cruel, evil, hateful.)
"I don't understand what it means to like a country. Yes, I admit Paris is beautiful -- architecturally -- but...I wanted to go to college." When he arrived, he that discovered college was not free -- you had to pay. He has three children in the Parisian public schools, and they require fees for books -- it isn't right. (A university education in France is on a sliding scale that goes as lows as 150€ [$200] a year, which includes health care, while students from low-income families receive up to 450€/month.)
Next day, a white native Frenchmen picked us up for a long drive across town to the old Jewish quarter, Le Marais, now a trendy area of nice cafes and boutiques. He was extremely friendly, to my surprise, and I told him that Parisians had been very pleasant to us everywhere we went. He said that that was "normal." I demurred, saying that that had never been my experience in Paris before -- didn't he know that Parisians are world-famous for their rudeness? He took my teasing with good nature and answered that it makes no sense to be méchant.
I asked him about the terror alert.
"The important thing is not to be afraid. That defeats their purpose. There should be one law for everyone, not special treatment for Muslims. Muslims will become the majority in Europe soon, and they will impose their sharia law." A depressed silence fell upon him for a moment. "An ominous prospect. Everyone should receive equal treatment -- not like in Israel, where Jews receive apartments and lots of money."
I was beginning to appreciate the Haitian -- at least he didn't shift his grievances onto Jews.
The white French cabbie was surprised when I told him that 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs, with full and equal rights -- that was new information he had never heard before. I commented, "It is a happy thing that Israel supplies a safe place for Jews." "Yes," he answered, "but if people were nice and treated everyone the same, such a shelter would not be needed." Ah, oui, I replied, but in the real world...
Cabbie number four was from Cambodia. He found life in Paris dure (hard) -- work is hard to find. There are high-level jobs and minimum-wage jobs, and few jobs in between -- nothing for the middle class. He used to have a good job working for an American engineering firm, but it moved to China. I asked about problems with Muslims. No -- the problem is racism, against gypsies for example. There are only a tiny number of Muslims who are terrorists.
I pushed a bit: Yes, but moderate Muslims who would never bomb still want sharia law.
Cabbie: this is true. "They come back from their pilgrimage to Mecca brainwashed. It reminds me of Communism, but far worse. Younger generations don't believe the Communist propaganda, because their parents tell them it is false, while Muslims believe." There is strong peer pressure, like the old Communist confession groups. Maybe half of the Muslims don't really want to follow sharia, but they are afraid.
In Cambodia -- he was on a roll now -- there are 5% Muslims, who used to be tolerant. But for the last 20 years they have been brainwashed by the Saudis, who sent new imams, and now -- intolerant. They want everyone to be Muslim. Other people are not equal. No one is free not to believe.
They found terrorist weapons in Cambodia's main mosque ten years ago and shut it down, and it has been closed ever since. In France, it is not possible to be safe from Muslims, because there are 5 million of them, capable of all sorts of sabotage. There are many Muslims in the world. Al-Qaeda could become a huge problem in Asia, too.
Four cabbies, four viewpoints, four backgrounds, strong emotions. One wants more fairness for Muslims while peddling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. One fears sharia law coming to Europe as the population shifts to a Muslim majority but repeats canards about Jews and money. One is bitter that although he was able to escape the hellhole that is Haiti and be welcomed to France, where he is raising his three children to have a better life, college should have been free for him as a new immigrant. And one just wants better work, so he can support himself and his family. That's as good a summation of what's going on in Europe as you could get after a lot of dedicated research.
Just ask a cabbie.
FOLLOW US ON