Cool Stuff in Paris. By Manning Leonard Krull.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Merry Christmas, Capitaine Dreyfus



Having grown up in America, I never heard about the Dreyfus affair (aka l'affaire Dreyfus) until I was living in Paris as an adult. It's a fascinating, heartbreaking, frustrating story, and it's very well-known by most French people I've talked to. The Wikipedia article is a good introduction to the story, which is one that definitely still weighs heavily on the French conscience.

I happened upon this statue of Capitaine Dreyfus in a tiny park in the Montparnasse neighborhood; I recognized him by his broken sword, and a glance at the plaque on the pedestal confirmed that this was indeed Dreyfus (and not some other guy whose statue had simply been vandalized). The plaque includes the sobering inscription, "If you want me to live on, restore my honor." Anyway, it struck me as a little bit odd and a little bit funny that this poor guy, who happened to be Jewish and suffered greatly for that fact at the hand of the mainstream/Christian French people, has to share his little park with two big ol' Christmas trees. You're seeing the whole park in the picture above; there's really nothing in it but the statue and the trees.

Something I end up discussing with my French friends a lot is the strange, often misguided American notion of political correctness. I personally think we Americans overdo it a lot, but I always mention that I'd almost always prefer to err on the side of overdoing it rather than rejecting the idea all together and adopting the kind of carelessness or insensitivity that I often see in a lot of other countries (and back in the US a lot of the time, I should mention!). It's a matter of perspective, and I don't blame the French for not seeing what I see as insensitivity where they just see things as they've always been.

In any case, I'm not even really criticizing the city of Paris for putting these Christmas trees in Dreyfus' park; it's just something that struck me as funny, because if this happened in the US, some folks (both Jewish and non) would definitely take issue with it, complain to the city, and probably demand an apology and that the trees be removed. And they'd probably get it. In Paris, no one bats an eye. I don't have any strong feelings about this particular instance myself; like I said, sometimes I think we take the PC thing way too far in the US, and sometimes I think the French should really be a little more sensitive about these things. It's a gray area with a million different shades of gray. Just something to think about.

I really recommend reading up on the Dreyfus affair. You can visit Capitaine Dreyfus' tomb in the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

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