Kelly Jean Cogswell
The presidential election is heating up in France, and if you had to give it a sound track, "Who let the dogs out?" might do for starters.
Packs of cops are out in full force rounding up immigrants so that rightist candidate and former Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy can prove he has the big dick you need to run a country, which may turn out to be the deciding qualification as voters go to the polls.
When my friend Marie went out flyering last weekend for candidate Segolene Royal, half of the men on the street only had to see her smiling female face on the pamphlet when they began cursing Sego, cursing Marie, and promising to vote for the extreme right, anti-immigrant, anti-queer, anti-woman back to the dark ages Le Pen.
Some of the older women were almost as bad, shuddering dramatically as they turned away from the pamphlet as if Marie was flyering for Hamas in Tel Aviv or trying to dump a load of steaming dog doo in their hands. I wish she had. They need a shock, some of these women, to see where they really stand.
Even one of the other female volunteers flipped out when she saw an unofficial flyer Marie had made, "Quit listening to the machos, a better minimum wage is Royal."
This twenty-something chick ranted and raved that Marie was actually anti-feminist, setting back the campaign with that word "macho" which called attention to the fact Segolene was a woman, as if those men calling Sego a "filthy whore" hadn't noticed.
At first I thought the girl was a complete idiot. Then later, I thought, how French.
You have to understand that the place is a little like the dangerously hospitable South where I grew up, or Cuba maybe. At any rate, the machinery of French society is oiled by vast pools of politeness that make Paris seem like a sanitarium after years in New York.
Their traditional discretion has been a refuge for a lot of American outsiders from Gertrude Stein to James Baldwin.
You can do almost anything in France as long as you don't call attention to it. You're queer, fine, have as many homo lovers as you want, as long as you introduce them, when you must, as "my friend."
It's okay, too, if you're black, as long as you speak exactly like middle class white people, wear the same clothes, eat the same food, and manage to avoid using the word "black" in mixed company, even if you're referring to how you like your coffee.
As your reward, you'll be treated politely, invited to the best places, alone. People will even laugh at your jokes, amazed at your wit, and as with the Barak Obama's of the world, tell you how articulate you are.
Ditto for women. You wouldn't believe the rewards you get for a nice smile, and carefully coiffed hair.
The problem comes when you venture into public space. Maybe two girls want to embrace on the subway platform, a black kids wants to have a crack at a decent job, or a woman wants to run the country. Then, all that politeness turns to poison.
Bigots make a game of pushing you to the boiling point, and then retreating into politeness, saying you must have misunderstood. People of color are too sensitive. Women are paranoid and crazy and wrong. Queers kissing in public are just ... rude.
It's like confronting a flood with boxing gloves.
The suffocating force of politeness is why you suddenly get car burnings and riots here, a kind of gestural language responding to how society ties you up with actual words. It explains also the right-wing eruptions of profanity on the street, the institutionalized arrests of immigrants when the subtle imposition of invisibility isn't quite working anymore.
When Green Party mayor in Begles, near Bordeax, decided to officiate over France's first gay marriage in 2004, he was rewarded with a couple of years of vitriolic letters, death threats, and actual packages of human shit.
Gay men setting up house together in the countryside have been firebombed.
You have to be exceptional to charge it head on. I'm encouraged that Segolene Royal survived long enough to knock out the Socialist old boy network to claim the party nomination, much less stay neck and neck with macho Sarko.
Not only that, but she's sticking to the rules of the game that the house had fixed against her. She's had career and kids, done her time as a hack, wears high heels and skirts, and smiles with grace.
The longer she lasts, though, with her face on posters everywhere, her voice on the radio and TV, the more you hear the dog pack howl with rage. Hillary will get the same.