Rough sleepers in Paris


When my lawyer spouse was tapped to clerk for a federal judge in Casper, Wyo., she couldn't turn down the prestigious post. An avid hiker, I was eager to spend a year closer to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks but was less keen to relocate from my hip New England town with its excellent coffee and international restaurants. Although friends argue that my tastes veer to those of a seventh-grader -- pizza, bagels, macaroni and cheese -- I do abundantly appreciate fine java and crusty bread. I was delighted when I spied a French bakery in downtown Casper. Maybe I could make this western experience work after all.

My elation was short lived. A local told me the shop would likely soon close. Embarrassed, she explained, "People have stopped going there. You know -- part of the whole anti-French 'Freedom Fries' thing. It's terrible." She referred to the directive by the Chairman of the Committee on House Administration to rename French fries in the Congressional cafeterias after France declined to support the proposed U.S. Invasion of Iraq to look for -- as it turned out -- nonexistent WMDs. Long entrenched, albeit relatively dormant, American anti-French sentiment was proudly displayed once again. Asked for comment about the Freedom Fries dust up, French embassy spokeswoman Nathalie Loisau remarked wryly that French fries were originally from Belgium. (You could almost hear the deserving sneer: "*Imbeciles!"*)

American Francophobia has many roots. Americans sense that the French are not eternally grateful for the Allied liberation during WWII. The controversial British historian David Starkey asserts that French anger towards the Americans and the English stems from conflicted feelings over having been liberated: "People don't like being freed. They mistake liberators for conquerors." French historian Justin VaÏsse contends the distrust has more to do with the missing Franco-American lobby in the U.S.; few Americans are of direct or recent French descent. Whatever the reasons, there is a nagging American belief that the French are just different.

Sure, their incomprehensible love of Jerry Lewis' inane comedies sets them apart. But they are undeservedly mocked as somehow less manly, less virile -- tending towards "blue-blood" instead of Red-blooded American. Remember when John Kerry's presidential bid was brought down, in part, because Commerce Secretary Don Evans -- and numerous Republican pundits -- emphasized that John Kerry liked French things and somehow "looked French"? Newt Gingrich trotted out this tired line of attack again in his primary fight with Mitt Romney: "And just like John Kerry -- he speaks French, too." How I'd wished that Mitt had had the temerity to reply: "And just like Francois Mitterrand -- and seemingly every other French leader -- Newt took a mistress. How very French."

There is, however, one real thing that makes the French different: They have a deep compassion and affinity towards the homeless. Polls consistently show that French people are more sympathetic towards the homeless than residents of any other European nation. An astonishing 75 percent of French people surveyed in a 2009 poll said they felt "solidarity" with rough sleepers (the French colloquialism for the homeless), and 56 percent said that they feared they could be homeless themselves someday. As Angelique Chrisafis, reflected in The Guardian, "The French are the nationality most likely to view homelessness as the result of financial crisis, unemployment and housing crises and the least likely to blame the individual for personal reasons such as drugs or alcohol." Compare this to a 2011 American survey from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in which 91 percent of respondents asserted that homelessness was primarily caused by drug and alcohol abuse; 62 percent said it was laziness.

Like French nationals as a whole, a large percentage of American women fear that they could someday be homeless. The 2013 poll by Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America found that even 27 percent of very successful women (those making over $200,000 a year) reported worrying that they might become destitute. A survey reported in Bloomberg supports these findings: Women experienced more acute anxiety about finances than the men surveyed.

This complements the findings of a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute: American libertarians are overwhelming young, white and male. Nora Caplan-Bricker, writing in the New Republic, argues, "The thing about freedom is its heights are limitless, and its lows are bottomless. Libertarians, I presume, look at that void and never consider that they will do anything but rise." If you believe that boundless freedom surely enables success, you are less likely to support a social safety net. But if you assume that fortune can be fleeting and fickle, you are "all in" on a social contract.

Thus, it was refreshing to learn that a young, affluent, white male Parisian -- Joël Catherin -- took a stand for the rough sleepers in his neighborhood several winters ago. Using the ubiquitous, tattered cardboard signs that panhandlers, the world over, use to cajole loose change from luckier passersby, he forced Parisians to expand ever more their already sympathetic hearts. He noticed a homeless elderly woman in his neighborhood suffering through a bitterly cold winter night. Instead of her usual sign, "I am hungry", he made her a new sign that read, "I could be your grandmother." It worked wonders; many more people gave money. My cynical side wonders why he didn't invite her in for a warm croissant and hot cafe;-au-lait, but -- hey -- we do what we can when we can. He began to make clever, eye-catching signs for homeless people all over Paris and started a city-wide discussion: "It wasn't about money; it was about changing the way people view others."

Perhaps this Christmas we could all strive to be a little more French? Vive le French toast!

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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