PARIS: To be a Francophile is a life sentence. It’s not exactly a badge of honor, not a burden either, but a slightly illicit gift of ever-renewed pleasures.

How I love French realism, the shrug and the “Bof” that say this too will pass, even the Orange Man in the White House. It is not only in matters of the heart that the French are shockproof.

Paris has been important to me. It’s where I came of age, escaping the damp clutches of Oxford to teach in a lycée beside the prison in the southern suburb of Fresnes. (Aaah, the whiff of garlic, sauvignon blanc and Gitanes on the early morning Métro.) It’s where I started in journalism 42 years ago. It’s where I was freed by another language to reinvent myself and discovered that, despite appearances, I was an outsider. It’s where I began to see that writing was not a choice but a need.

It’s where I lived and loved and wandered and had two of my four children. It’s where I returned from covering the Bosnian War — the 100,000 dead, the 2.2 million displaced — and understood the moral abdication of the bystander and the moral imperative of engagement and decency, that word dear to Camus. It’s where I felt the bond forged in the blood of France and the United States, and grasped the vigilance needed to safeguard the institutions that transformed and protected this Europe: NATO and the European Union. It’s where I grappled with history and memory and understood, even before the Balkans, how distinct they are — and how vulnerable is the civilization Paris embodies.

Style, as Flaubert observed, is “the discharge from a deeper wound.” What stands between civilization and barbarism is the idea that nobody is above the law. There’s a reason the American president’s oath is to the Constitution, not to the people (Das Volk), who may become a mob.

The rightist wave rises still. But 2019 is also the year that the European Parliament election ceased to be a sideshow. Many Europeans, I feel here, have awoken to the need to preserve the great miracle of the second half of the 20th century — that aspiration of the bloodied, that bastion of law, that European Union.

For a long time, over the course of my life, I watched liberty and democracy spread. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction were pivot points. They cemented, for me, the link between America and freedom, America and peace. Alone among nations, the United States could make me an insider overnight. That is why New York is my home.

I lived enough of the American century to feel it in my bones. That movie, however, has ended. History is not an argument leading to a logical conclusion, any more than human nature is a thing of black and white. History is flux and our natures conflicted. The specters of nationalism and xenophobia have stirred. It’s time to recall that the quest for homogeneous societies led the 20th century to its most unspeakable horrors.

The honor and serving of great writings, continues. The World Students Society thanks one of its favorite authors, Roger Cohen.


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