PARIS -- There are few signs of austerity here in Paris, where tourists still happily pay the equivalent of $4 for single macaroons from Ladurée on the Champs Elysées, and willingly spend hundreds of dollars on pumps at Christian Louboutin on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. If they can get a pair, that is -- a challenge retail clerks seem only mildly interested in addressing. "Do you have these shoes in a size 35?" asked a customer with admittedly smaller than average feet. "No," the clerk replied. "Can you call another one of your stores to see if they have them?" the customer continued. "No," the clerk said. "It is not my job."
France may be suffering -- the eurozone may be teetering on the brink of disaster -- but in this country where good food, good wine, and guaranteed vacations are facts of life, no one seems inclined to change the rules. Paris maintains its attitude and its mystique, at once welcoming and aloof, more interested in hiding its problems than lamenting them, at least to outsiders.
The French handle economic downturns differently than Americans, who wear their worry as comfortably as pairs of Uggs. Consider the differences: By late 2007, at the dawn of the US recession, there was a palpable change in the mood in American cities nationwide.
On a trip to Southern California that October, a trip required, in fact, by a business situation that foreshadowed worse to come, something felt "off." In the Hollywood Hills, long before Lehman Brothers ceased to exist, there were ominous numbers of "For Sale" signs. In the beautiful, palm-lined parks bordering the shoreline of Santa Monica, there were surprisingly large numbers of homeless people.
Things only got worse as the recession deepened.
By all accounts, Europe has already slipped back into recession. And yet, you wouldn't know it by a visit to Paris, which feels just like it did when times were better in years past. There are no obvious signs of unrest in this post-presidential election Paris... there are no strikes, no protests. Not today, anyway.
And yet, past the glamour of the Galeries Lafayette, away from the awe-inspiring visions of the Paris Opera, beneath the surface of all that Paris purports to be, you find people are more concerned about the economy than you may think.
At a wine bar directly behind the Louvre Museum, a friendly expat from California -- an English language teacher turned chef -- tells a group of Sunday afternoon wine tasters about the divisions created by the recent election of Socialist Francois Hollande. "For me," he said, "It's great. The former president [Nicolas Sarkozy] didn't want to allow people like me to stay in the country long-term. But my boss isn't so happy."
Socialist Party headquarters, closed for the day but obviously still occupied, stands next to a vacant storefront in the 5th arrondissement. And on a busy weekend morning, as shoppers in a neighborhood near the Moulin Rouge line up to buy cheese, bread, and what seems like an infinite selection of pastries, Socialist Party volunteers take the opportunity to distribute flyers about upcoming party events. The reaction varies from interest to indifference.
There is an acceptance here that times are tough, and yet, most seem willing to ride it out, higher taxes be damned. As comedian Olivier Giraud explains in his one-man show, "How to Become Parisian in One Hour," Parisians go from their "shitty apartments to their shitty jobs," riding back and forth on overcrowded mass transit systems. It may not be the life people associate with the City of Lights, the City of Love, but hey, it's still a life.
The greatest concern is not how the economy will unfold today or even tomorrow, but in the years to come. At a restaurant that seems to have existed forever, in a building that began its life as a stable, high on a hill, away from most of the tourists in a largely residential area, a French couple talks about their hopes for their boys, ages 11 and 15. They explain, as they pour glasses of wine from an earthenware pitcher and share a rustic apple tart, that they love Paris... but they love their sons even more.
The man explains:
This summer, we're spending time in New York City. One of the boys is attending a program at Columbia University. He is brilliant with math and science. After that, we plan to tour Long Island, New York. Where exactly will we go there? We don't know. Sometimes you cannot overplan. You just have to see where the road leads you.
But for upper-middle-class families in France, that road may increasingly lead to the United States -- just as it did for generations of Europeans in centuries past. The French may like Americans, or make that America, more than they want people to believe.