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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Eye on the News

Theodore Dalrymple
Riders or Citizens?
Multinational passengers on a French train hold little in common.
January 27, 2009

Normally I take a taxi to the airport when I fly from Paris, but with the ascent of the euro and the descent (so far, I am glad to say, only anticipated) of my income, I decided this time to go by train. One gets a slightly closer view that way of the often hideous concrete jungle surrounding Paris—still the most beautiful city in the world, however, with the possible exception of Venice.

Getting on the crammed mass-transit train at rush hour at the Gare du Nord, I suddenly felt uneasy. Where was I? If anyone had been placed on such a train without a previous clue as to where it was, he would not have the faintest idea what continent, let alone what country, he was in. There was nothing distinctly French about the passengers, not ethnically, culturally, or linguistically. There was a Babel of tongues, but not much French among it. There were Indians, Chinese, East Europeans, black Africans, and North Africans; I did, with effort, spot a couple of French speakers at the other end of the car.

My unease grew as a result of guilt over feeling such unease in the first place. After all, I was a foreigner who spent several months a year in France; I was also myself the son and grandson of refugees. Should I not have rejoiced at this sign of the increasing openness of the world, of crumbling barriers, instead of finding it deeply unattractive, indeed horrible and even sinister? I thought of those immigrants in England, hard-working, determined to fit in, modestly or even spectacularly successful, who told me that one of the problems with the country nowadays was—all these immigrants.

The people on the train were working—to the point of exhaustion, to judge by their faces. They were certainly not freeloaders, as is sometimes alleged by xenophobic opponents of immigration. Perhaps they were helping keep businesses in business by depressing wage rates. But I could not help wondering what they had in common, other than their twice-daily train ride and certain calls upon the French state in the event of an economic downturn. Was this enough to keep the peace between them when and if hardship hit?

Of course, time and common experience would eventually meld them into some semblance of a people with a shared mentality. If not they, then their children would have enough in common to become French; and by then the French, perhaps, would have become just a little like all of them. But the words of John Maynard Keynes, when he wrote about economists’ response to economic crises, came to mind: “In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.” Could this not be true of sociologists as well as of economists?

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