Bobos in Paris: The Rise and Fall of a Multicultural Fantasy

By Michael C. BehrentOctober 20, 2016

Bobos in Paris: The Rise and Fall of a Multicultural Fantasy

Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud by Géraldine Smith

IF YOU’RE LOOKING for a symbol of multicultural Paris, Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud is a good place to start. Beginning just east of the Marais, the picturesque heart of the right bank, the street cuts through the 11th arrondissement, climbing steadily toward Belleville, the historically working-class neighborhood that overlooks the city from its northeastern perch. At one point, the street opens into a narrow square, with, at its center, an early 20th-century statue representing “Le Répit du Travailleur” — the worker’s respite. Standing immediately in front of it is the Maison des Métallos: once the headquarters of the communist trade union which represented the community’s many steel workers — including Jean-Pierre Timbaud himself, a member of the French Resistance who was executed by the Germans in 1941 — it has since been refurbished into a tasteful cultural center, complete with a café and a theater. Directly across from this reminder of the street’s past is an emblem of its present, the sober green façade of the Omar Ibn Khattab mosque. The surrounding blocks are home to numerous shops selling Islamic books and devotional articles, as well as to a handful of trendy boutiques and bars, the overflow from the nearby Rue Oberkampf, one of the city’s most popular nightspots. In a few blocks, the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud offers an intriguing Parisian medley, in which the city’s blue-collar past blends into the lives of more recent immigrant populations and the footloose habits of the hipsters and cultural pioneers who, in Paris as in Berlin and Brooklyn, give the contemporary urban landscape its distinctive character.

Yet as Géraldine Smith demonstrates in her new memoir, France’s multicultural landscape is nowhere near as untroubled as this description of the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud might suggest. Her decision to write the book named after this street, near which she and her family had lived for over a decade, stemmed from her shock at the terrorist attacks that struck Paris in January and November of last year. Most of their targets were a short walk or subway ride away from her old haunts. While reading about the attacks’ perpetrators from her current home in the United States, she came across photographs of the Kouachi brothers, who killed much of Charlie Hebdo’s staff, as beaming young boys at a French soccer camp. They reminded her of the kids with whom her children had mingled in her old neighborhood. “The executioners, like the victims, were part of my world,” she writes. “The idea blew me away.”

Smith, a French woman married to an American, probes the decade her family spent living in the streets surrounding the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud for explanations — for the reasons the Kouachi brothers became killers, as well as for the pervasive sense of fragmentation she perceives in French social life. Her conclusion is not, in itself, an original one. Indeed, it belongs to a chorus of European cultural pessimism, to which the likes of David Cameron and Angela Merkel have added their voices, and which, with depressing frequency, pronounces multiculturalism to have been a failure on the old continent. Most such declarations lay the blame for multiculturalism’s demise on Europe’s immigrant populations, accusing them of failing or even refusing to assimilate. But while Smith does not quite reject this position, her real concern is elsewhere. The faults of multiculturalism, she suggests, lie not in the immigrants, but in “ourselves” — in the misperceptions of an educated, mobile, urban, and generally well-off urban citizenry that, perhaps more than any other segment of the population, makes “diversity” the hallmark of its identity. For such groups, Smith suggests, multiculturalism often functions as a kind of fantasy. Like any fantasy, it tells us more about its subject than its object. And, like any fantasy, it distorts the very object it believes it desires.

Smith’s story begins in 1995, when she and her husband bought a small house in the “20th,” the arrondissement (i.e., district) which covers a large, peripheral swathe of northeastern Paris. While the draw was partly financial — the cheaper housing market — they were also enthralled by the local ambiance, which they found appealingly diverse: though it was historically “populaire” (or “working-class”), much of the current population was of immigrant origin (North African, African, and increasingly Chinese). Perhaps just as importantly, it was an area virtually unknown to their friends and colleagues, who clustered in Paris’s well-heeled central districts and the residential neighborhoods immediately surrounding them.

Moving to the “20th,” Smith concedes, gave her a healthy dose of self-satisfaction. She was convinced that the family was, in its own small way, playing its part in building a multicultural society. This fantasy shaped the way they began to see their own street. The Tunisian grocery store owner deals a little hashish on the side, but he’s respected by the local youth, while also running a quaint pizzeria. From time to time, they run across burned-out motor scooters or cars with slashed tires. But that’s as bad as it gets. What the area has going for it is warmth and authenticity. Their neighbors, Smith observes, don’t seem to “float weightlessly,” like those in the city’s “museum-districts.” Eating at the Tunisian pizzeria, Smith and her husband feel frankly superior: their acquaintances who lay down 15 euros for a meal in the Latin Quarter, convinced that they’re experiencing “real Paris,” are, in their eyes, idiots.

By characterizing herself in these terms, Smith freely self-identifies as a “bobo,” a term that has, in the past decade, become commonplace in conversational French. The word, a contraction of “bohemian” and “bourgeois,” was coined by David Brooks in his Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000). While the book was not particularly popular in the United States, the French, immediately intuiting what Brooks was getting at, promptly embraced the term. While there’s no hard and fast definition, a “bobo,” in France, is someone who is financially well off, well educated, and employed in an intellectual or cultural profession. Bobos lean to the left and care about public institutions, but eschew collective identities and make no apologies for sending their kids to private schools. They go to organic markets, yet often travel by plane. At the time of her story, Smith was the editor of the house magazine of France’s leading retailer of cultural goods, while her husband, Stephen, was a well-known journalist, the chief Africa correspondent, successively, for Libération and Le Monde, two of France’s leading daily newspapers (a feat all the more unique because he is American-born). They epitomized “bobo-ness.”

Unsurprisingly, “bobo” has become a primarily pejorative term — not least among bobos themselves. A friend of Smith’s engages in fairly typical bobo-bashing when he describes the steps whereby run-of-the-mill cafés are transformed to meet the consumption habits of these well-off, cultured pioneers:

You choose a working-class neighborhood with an ethnic mix and you fund a café’s subtle redesign, in a way that plays the authenticity card. You keep the old ceramic tiles on the floor, the fake leather benches, and the blackened mirrors. You serve a disgusting meal at 30 euros per person with, as obligatory ingredients, mozzarella, ginger, a tartar of whatever you can find, and a “house tiramisu.” And you turn people away.

Smith notices that, at her street’s bobo-friendly café, it is rare to see patrons begin their day with a glass of white wine; the disappearance of this once common custom, she notes, is evidence of the neighborhood’s dwindling working-class population, which has fallen to under 10 percent.

However much the Smiths cling to their fantasy about the neighborhood, it soon becomes apparent that all is not well in their multicultural paradise. School is where the author discerns the first simmering tensions: an Arab is racist toward an African, a rowdy youngster is beaten by his father. Smith decides that rather than just living in this community, she must become a part of it, to “access this universe different from ours and, if possible, to have some influence in it.” She decides to join the PTA. Her husband wonders if she has not succumbed to a “colonial temptation.” Retrospectively, she concedes that she was on a “civilizing mission,” self-critically using the notorious slogan of France’s colonial empire. But wouldn’t it have been even more condescending to stand by and do nothing? The first committee meeting gives her a sense of the community’s deeper dynamics. The parents consist of “four black Africans, three North-Africans, a Réunionnaise, a Chinese, a Ukrainian, and me.” An Ivoirian complains that field trips have been canceled so that the Chinese can be taught to say “bonjour” and “bonsoir.” Smith points out that the French-speaking students are bored out of their minds and could develop tendinitis from all the coloring. The principal will have none of it: the advanced students, she explains, are “pilot fish,” fulfilling the civic mission of pulling the neighborhood in the right direction.

The meeting stirs some of Smith’s earliest doubts about her family’s sociological adventure. Ultimately, she and her husband decide the wager is still worthwhile. Their son is surrounded at home by books and articulate adults. On balance, this “multicultural breeding ground” is an “advantageous complement to [their] homogeneous social universe.” No field trips? They’ll take him to museums on the weekend. For other families, however, the school is not just a social experiment. While Smith is unnerved by Africans wishing the Chinese would leave, she realizes that the school is one of their only hopes for achieving the “French dream”: they count on the education system to inform, discipline, and guide their children. No field trips? Their children may never set foot in a museum.

If her family doesn’t lose faith in their diverse little neighborhood, it is precisely, as Smith retrospectively admits, because they are so deeply invested in its multicultural identity. Pierre Bourdieu spoke of “cultural goodwill” — the dispositions through which socially dominated classes ratify elite cultural tastes, guaranteeing, in the process, their own subaltern status. The Smiths embrace what one might call “multicultural goodwill”: a quasi-religious faith in the value of diversity that, ironically, brands them as outsiders — or which, at the very least, constitutes an identity in its own right. When she enrolls her children in a Catholic — not a state — school on the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud itself, she feels like she is living on the cutting edge of cultural difference. Here, diversity is audible: the children playing in the Catholic school’s courtyard, the call to prayer from the mosque, the “cries of the mentally handicapped” receiving care at a Jewish social services center. It is precisely this feeling of living at the very heart of multicultural France, of witnessing firsthand the patient labor of the French model of integration, that makes the Smiths look down upon — and almost pity — their Left Bank friends, “who condemn border closure policies, but, in their daily lives, encounter only the ‘really nice’ Arab grocer who sells them hopelessly expensive apples.” Smith adds: “I found us, and our world, to be ‘very cool.’”

Smith analyzes the social pretensions involved in their choice of this neighborhood with withering lucidity, implicitly admonishing her hypocrites lecteurs to recognize themselves in her confession, which reads, at times, like a handbook for multicultural living. She is “thrilled” to learn that kids who attend the local mosque go to the same Catholic school as her children. She wholeheartedly embraces school events advocating “openness to the other.” When they have Muslim friends over for dinner, they are careful not to serve pork (or at least not roast park — one friend tells them that “ham and melon” is no problem). As a high priestess of multiculturalism, Smith expresses disappointment when others fall short of her standards. Though an atheist, she is frustrated that the priest who teaches her son’s religious studies class drones on about love, forgiveness, and other platitudes instead of telling exciting Bible stories, and is irritated that he prefaces his sentences with bland disclaimers: “I apologize to the Jewish and Muslim students, but…” What fun is multiculturalism without strong beliefs?

Yet the frustrations Smith encounters ultimately pale against her belief that all is for the best in the haven of diversity where her family has made its home. “When people spoke to us about immigration and integration,” she recalls, “we really didn’t see what the problem was.” And if they could see no problems, it was because they believed: “Without ever clearly formulating it, we felt that we had been charged with the mission ‘to make diversity succeed.’ We were convinced that openness and tolerance would unquestionably win out over incomprehension between different communities and social classes.”

September 11, 2001, was the day it dawned on Smith that something was amiss. After the news — which she discovered from overhearing the conversation of a cluster of men listening to a radio at a newsstand — began to sink in, the neighborhood seemed tenser, on edge. Someone yelled “Nique les Américains” (“Screw the Americans”) at her son, who had never set foot in the United States. According to one neighbor of North-African origin, local girls had recently begun wearing headscarves and men would comment on women whose arms were unclad. The mosque on the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, a major center of the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim movement that seeks to re-Islamize North-African immigrants, began to attract throngs of worshippers that spilled over into the street.

Yet what troubles Smith about post-9/11 Belleville is not the reassertion of Islam or the disaffection of its North-African residents (although she certainly mentions both). What she witnesses, over time, is the end of something — although this “something” may have been merely an attribute of the imagined community to which she believed she belonged. Smith recounts one incident that occurred several years after 2001. She was waiting in front to take her son to play tennis, wearing a track suit and sipping a Coke. Suddenly a man in a jalabiya shoved her aside as he passed and shouted: “Women don’t hang around in the street wearing pants and drinking! Get out of here, slut!”

This “incident” changes the way she sees her neighborhood. Feeling at home becomes a daily struggle. She notices, she admits, a significant rise in bearded Tablighi Jamaat around the mosque. But the deeper problem she sees is a tendency to huddle with one’s own “people.” The first sign of this is apparent in the sports team with which her children’s friends identify. When they play soccer, everyone wants to “be” the PSG, Paris’s main soccer club, or Zinedine Zidane, the French soccer hero of Algerian origin, then a player for Real Madrid. One day, a boy named Kader declares that he will be neither the PSG nor Real, but a “Lion of the Atlases” — a member of the Moroccan National Team. Tunisians, Senegalese, Cape Verdeans, and others follow suit, embracing their national teams; only a Breton, a few Parisians, a Malagasy, and a Portuguese identify with “France.” Smith’s son marvels at the sudden change: his friends “all take themselves for their origins.”

Even so, at moments, a kind of multicultural grace still seems within reach. One of the book’s most moving scenes occurs when, after a particularly successful school Christmas party, a group of parents decides to organize a field trip to the Luxembourg Gardens. Located between the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain on the Left Bank, the gardens are among Paris’s most storied and beloved sites, the inspiration of authors and artists from Victor Hugo to Jean-Luc Godard. With the exception of Smith’s son, none of the little Bellevillois have ever been. Few have even crossed the Seine. Indeed, the trip will provide some of the children with their first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. The day of the outing, the children are visibly excited. Smith, who accompanies them, learns to see a neighborhood she knows well through their eyes. This side of Paris, they notice, is “much cleaner than Belleville,” and you “meet very few Chinese and blacks.” Sensing a subtle shift in his identity, a boy named Moïse gleefully declares: “Hey guys, we’re tourists!” He and his friends snap pictures with imaginary cameras, but their delight seems genuine. At the gardens, they particularly enjoy Guignol, a popular French puppet show; Smith marvels as the little Bellevillois respond to the puppets’ questions with cries of “ouiiii,” nooon,” and “over there,” as children have for centuries. Is this a step, she wonders, toward community? Is this what integration looks like?

Suddenly, a young boy named Djed starts whipping chestnuts at his classmates. His mother, who is accompanying the group, screeches at him in Arabic. A park guard takes her to task, declaring: “This isn’t a souk!” The damage is done. The group has lived up to what many in French society expect of immigrant children from an underprivileged neighborhood. The Guignol is over, and their marginal “identities” are pinned back onto them.

One by one, many of the Smiths’ friends and neighbors abandon the neighborhood. “It’s like The Magnificent Seven,” their son observes. “Some leave every week.” The reasons vary, yet they boil down to the fact that the quarter’s atmosphere has become toxic, particularly for raising children. Families of immigrant origin are traumatized, in particular, by the fear of “mauvaises fréquentations” — “bad company” — in a neighborhood increasingly prone to drug dealing and petty crime. Moïse’s father, a Cameroonian taxi driver, moves his family to a distant suburb. Jamil’s mother, a Tunisian cleaning lady who spends a significant percentage of her income to ensure that her boy has a good education, is heartbroken when a local imam tells her she cannot keep her son in a Catholic school, but she obeys. Smith regrets this choice, but understands its implacable logic: “If she had disobeyed, her community would have disowned her.” The mother of Aminata, a star student whose background is Senegalese, sends her daughter to a top but virtually all-white Catholic school in the Marais. And this is precisely the point: her mother wanted a school “with as little diversity as possible,” or, in other words, “with as many whites as possible.” Aminata is held back a year and becomes anorexic. But when Smith renews contact with her in January 2016, she’s a first-year law student at the University of Paris.

In retrospect, Smith realizes that her commitment to multiculturalism was far more about her and her way of life than about her neighborhood — a place she genuinely loved, even if she was perhaps more enamored of a fantasy community than the real thing. What makes her insight and honesty unsettling is that, by dissecting her own firmly held beliefs, she invites her readers to do the same. The final chapter is entitled simply: “I was wrong.” She had believed in the “French model of integration” — not in a nationalistic sense, but the idea that, ultimately, people wanted education, to be engaged citizens, and have stable lives. Yet for immigrant populations (among others), the economic crisis and long-term unemployment that has afflicted France since the 1970s dashed these hopes; parents realized that their aspiration to give their children a better future would in most cases fail. This is why, Smith observes, so many young people of immigrant origin “reject France and are rejected by France. Which happens first is irrelevant, as these two forms of rejection mutually condition one another.”

As intriguing as Smith’s autobiographical reflections on race relations may be, her conclusions reveal some of the shortcomings of such an approach. The story of her disenchantment with an idyllic conception of multiculturalism is compelling. Yet the reality of contemporary French society is considerably more complex than Smith’s often pessimistic portrait suggests. While France has Europe’s largest or second-largest Muslim population — estimated at a little under five million — French Muslims are considerably more attached to their national identity, according to some polls, than are their coreligionists in, say, the United Kingdom or Belgium. Despite the French obsession with ghettos and ethnic enclaves, residential segregation by race rarely attains the levels founds in major American cities. And research indicates that even if the Islamic headscarf has been a public issue in France for decades, far fewer Muslim women wear it in France than in other European countries.

Smith’s intent, ultimately, isn’t so much to provide an objective assessment of French race relations as it is to emphasize a subjective insight. She encourages her readers, many of whom will share her worldview and status, to identify with her, and to consider whether multiculturalism — or what often passes for it among Parisian bobos — is not something akin to privilege. In this way, her book is a case study that confirms the ideas recently advanced by the French geographer Christophe Guilluy, who contends that France is now split between the prosperous urban residents who have benefited from globalization and populations relegated to the French equivalents of “exurbs,” which are often un- or underemployed. The former, he maintains, embrace multiculturalism and fret over the intolerance and populist tendencies of the latter. Meanwhile, the residents of “peripheral France,” as Guilluy calls them, have adopted an ideology of ethnic “separatism” — the belief that one is better off living in communities with one’s own people, where one is not in the minority — as a rational response to the very real insecurities brought on by globalization. “To the dominant classes, who live ‘multiculturalism at 5,000 euros a month,’ the popular classes — ‘those who live multiculturalism at 1,000 euros a month’ —respond with ‘separatism’” (La France périphérique [Paris: Flammarion, 2014]).

Though her tale is one of disillusionment, Smith never completely renounces the ideal of multiculturalism, even if the version she now espouses is less naïve, even jaded. Being a bobo needn’t be something to be ashamed of: for Smith, it means embracing a certain idea of community, what the French call le vivre-ensemble (“living together”) — the conviction that individuality is only fully realized in complex communal settings. Yet her nuanced portrait of her family’s decade in Belleville shows just how difficult it can be to adopt a coherent worldview in the face of changes brought on by globalization. Has multiculturalism become the worldview of an educated, mobile, and globalized elite? Do identity politics and a kind of ethnic separatism offer the only viable platform for resisting globalization’s most destructive tendencies? The merit of Smith’s book is that it forces us to grapple with these questions, which are likely to define our historical moment for years to come.


Michael C. Behrent is an associate professor of history at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.

LARB Contributor

Michael C. Behrent is an associate professor of history at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. He received his PhD from New York University.


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