Friday, May 14, 2004

European Graffiti

When we were in Paris last fall, Luke and I had an excellent lunch -- roasted ham and greens on toast, smothered in melted goat's milk cheese -- one rainy, raw afternoon at an Auvergnois bistro near the gare du Nord. Across the street stood a gutted McDonald's; its shatter-proof windows all spider-webbed by some massive assault, and the whole thing plastered in posters proclaiming McDonald's is dead and merde a McDonald's. Photocopied newspaper articles hung there, too, telling the story. With my miserable French, I was only able to piece together part of the story: some French union activists had focused an attack on this restaurant, and they violently shut it down after a long effort.

I learned more of the story when I got home:

The McDonalds franchise located in Paris at Strasbourg St. Denis has been shut down by striking workers for the better part of a year. Now the strikers are occupying the McDonalds and using it as a storefront to sell t-shirts to fund striking French artists and anything that José Bové©®™ is up to at the moment. So here we have the confiscation of private property that has been turned into a squat, and illegal commerce, and nothing is done about it. The globophobe nitwits, ecstatic before so much symbolism, think that there is nothing wrong with this. So while they all whack off to the symbolism of it all here's another symbol they can rub up against: France is not subject to the rule of law. France is ruled by the law of the jungle.

The sad part is that while the neoleftists are worshipping symbols, McDonalds is taking care of Paris' poor. Many French retirees and low income workers go to McDonalds to buy a coffee or just a bottle of water because it is so much less expensive and they can drink it sitting down. Paris cafés charge higher prices for drinking anything sitting down. But the limousine leftists, who of course would never be caught dead anywhere near a McDonalds, do not know this. They are too busy chowing down where-the-elite-meet-to-eat in the 8th arrondissement right next to their PR firms.

[From this blog site]

So the root of it was a labor dispute, but the result was an all-out assault on the physical presence of McDonald's, and all it embodies in a lower-middle-class Paris neighborhood. This makes me uncomfortable. Luke and I are anti-McDonald's. We groaned when we saw one on the Champs-Élysées. I suppose they can be tolerated in airports or soul-less train stations, but otherwise they have no place in Europe. Even in America, we associate them with the waddling malnourished obesity of our neighbors.

I suppose I'd even accept the premise that property violence is a legitimate response to the intrusion of a McDonald's into a community. Yet without having been there, I can't tell whether "anti-McDonald's" and "anti-American" are clearly distinguished in the minds that smashed the windows. And from what I've seen of French anti-Americanism in several sources, it's as unthinking and reflexively prejudiced as the worst U.S. knee-jerk patriotism. I'm not convinced these people know the difference between me and Ronald McDonald, or whether they care.

A writer named Steven Shapin, reviewing a book that deals with the globalization of food, in "The Guardian," on Dec. 1, 2003, had a perceptive passage about this:

[G]lobalised products such as the Big Mac and Coke have secured their spread across the world by travelling in the special channels carved out by American power, capital and culture. While Big Macs are now everywhere -- you can avoid them in Bhutan and Afghanistan, but that's a high price to pay -- it would be impossible to explain their global distribution without attending to those channels and to their identification with the powerful idea of America. Just as Château Lynch-Bages has a Pauillac Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, so the Big Mac is AOC USA. You can't account for why so many people throughout the world want to eat it -- or, indeed, why so many others use it as a reference for globalised abominations -- without understanding their ideas about the place called America.

Love it or leave it alone. If you don't like it, don't eat there. Bearing that in mind (and without taking the comparison to ludicrous excess) How is the rage-intent underlying an attack on McDonald's, as a symbol of a hated alien culture's intrusion, any different from the hate that defaces a synagogue, say, or a mosque?

One thing that's changed since 1979, the last time I traveled extensively on the Continent, is that graffiti is everywhere. It's on the old fountains in Germany, on the classic Parisian houses, even on the wooden cattle pens in the Alps. At first I actually thought it was American knuckleheads coming over to do it, having covered every available surface in the States. But no, there's too much of it. I'm afraid the Europeans have done it to themselves. Yes, I realize it's a Roman invention, but there's nothing indigenous about this modern graffiti I saw. It's plain old tagging, the same kind of stylized letters you'd see in any freight yard in New Jersey. The same names over and over again for miles, deep in the Metro tunnels under Paris.

None of it was political, except a few "Fuck Bush" statements near Stuttgart. (Italy is an exception; more on that later.) France was worse than Germany, and Paris was worst of all.

Now why would a people who would burn out a McDonald's in the name of cultural integrity turn around and suck down this sort of cultural poison? For that matter, why do they tolerate the awful American pop music that flowed from the radios and CD players everywhere we went? For a people to loot a McDonald's, then turn around and deface their own historic treasures with Bronx-born graffiti styles, seems to me as stupidly self defeating as a man refusing to wear American-made clothing and then tattooing "Made in the U.S.A." on his forehead.

The graffiti in Venice was more intense, and, unlike elsewhere, it was decidedly political. "Yankee Go Home" is in big red letters on a wall along the alley that leads from the train station to the busy part of town. Below it is something smeared that once might have said, in Italian, "Americans are murderers." This seemed ominous on the night we arrived, because we pulled in after dark, and the Venetian streets are narrow canyons, twisting, blind, never more than 20 yards in any direction, rarely wide enough for three to walk abreast. All the storefronts were shuttered for the night. It seemed the kind of place you associate with sudden, random violence, whether it's medieval drama or Raymond Chandler novels.

But the next day, Venice lolled in the sun like a big old dog, the gondoliers made conversation, and the "Yankees Go Home" sign became a navigation aid. The first time we passed it, we were just following the crowd's flow. Later, when there were fewer people about, it marked which alley, among three nearly identical ones, we should turn down to find our excellent hotel full of French tourists.