Many years ago, when fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen was riding a wave of racist sentiment in France, I was a young student out with friends on a perfect spring evening along the Seine. There was at that time always a vigorous national police presence in Paris. The CRS with their sub-machine guns were visible outside government buildings and patrolling the streets.
Racism was a palpable presence in Paris. A popular deli, Jo Goldenberg’s, had been bombed a few years earlier, and the nearby Holocaust museum had bullet holes in one of its glass walls. One time when I tried to order coffee at a cafe, the waiter said, “Are you sure you don’t want cous-cous? You look like you want cous-cous.”
But on this spring night after final exams, all was well. My classmates and I were eating something good—I can’t for the life of me recall what—and drinking wine. Lots of wine. One of my friends drank far too much, and was obviously soused. My friend John and I were holding her up, working on hailing her a cab, when a couple of well-armed CRS officers approached, pulled me aside, and demanded my papers. They did not ask for anyone else’s. I gave them a photocopy of my passport and explained that I was an American student returning home in a few days, and not wanting to risk losing my passport I carried copies instead.
This was not the right answer.
John, who “looked” French, was still holding up our friend, but also starting to become alarmed by my encounter with the feds. The officers asked me the same questions over and over, getting the same answers. Then, they said, “you’re talking funny…are you drunk?” “No,” I explained, “I’m American and just don’t speak good French.”
They slowly walked me further and further from my friends, when a cab finally came. John got our friend in and came over to see what was going on. In his much more fluent French he repeated everything I’d told the cops, and showed his papers, also a photocopy of his passport (that was sort of the standard for students at the time). With his French looks, clear speech, and French last name, he was able to convince the CRS to let me go home.
As much as I loved Paris, I was very happy to return home to the U.S., where we don’t stop people in the street and demand their papers for looking a little bit swarthy.