Aurum non olet, as a Roman Emperor put it: “money doesn’t smell.” To those who direct our cultural institutions in America, in France and elsewhere, it's the reverse: it's the absence of money that stinks to Low Hell. On January 26, 2013 a family of three among the poorest of Parisians, along with a social worker, were evicted from the Musée d’Orsay, the great repository of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The group was escorted by guards to the exit after being told there had been complaints from other visitors about their smell. The race or ethnicity of the family has not been released—unless appearing to be poor is still considered a racial distinction, as it was in France in the nineteenth century.

Since it’s illegal under French Law to classify anyone according to skin color or other markers of race or ethnicity, the agency was faced with a quandary: to complain that the family were singled out because they had, say, dark skins, wavy hair or large ears might suggest that people with dark skins etc. have a particular smell, which might have brought down an accusation of racial stereotyping on the agency, perhaps even legal retaliation. It might also weaken their case: the suggestion that those who were assumed to stink were black, or whatever, might be used to confirm the justice of the accusation among the considerable number of French people who believe that people with dark skins or large ears do smell. In America a similar choice had to be made in the prosecution for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Instead, the agency released a statement pointing out that the social worker had detected no smell and that the family was “French,” which means nothing except to that considerable number of French people (and the near-unanimity of American correspondents in France) who believe that all French people are white. Then the agency filed a discrimination complaint on the basis of economic difference which, as in America, had no chance of success since in both countries discrimination on the basis of income is not only legal, it’s a catch-all and a cache-sexe for every other kind of discrimination. Eventually a French legal institution noted the discrepancy and urged the adoption of a law banning discrimination on the basis of income, a law that stands no chance of being implemented: in many areas of Paris, those who "don't look right" are routinely harassed, or locked out of stores, or worse, which is perfectly legal so long as they don't look right for the right reasons. Coincidentally, the Musée d’Orsay recently organized, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, a travelling exhibition from which any reference to the poor, to sexual oppression or to antisemitism in French Impressionism has been glossed out...

In normal times the Minister of Culture or the Director of the Museum would meet with the insulted family, the Director might give a personal tour, it would all have been a misunderstanding, and life would go on. But in France these are times when every incident of this kind is at once fed by, and fodder for, right-wing and upper-class hate-mongering. The practice took off in 1991, when then-presidential candidate Jacques Chirac made an allusion, in a public speech, to the “sound and the smell” of the immigrant population, legitimizing hate speech as a political tool. This tactic of legitimation and deligitimation, diffuse and systematic at once, has intensified considerably since the Socialist François Hollande was elected to the Presidency. When a train goes off the tracks in a suburb of Paris, for instance, a representative from a right-wing minority faction within the unions representing the police claims that dying passengers were looted by criminal elements. As the story spreads, details become more and more absurd: the criminals were Muslims, obviously; first-aid workers were stoned, obviously; there were pitched battles with the police, the dying were cut into pieces, etc. The idea that the dying were "cut" seems to come from a confusion of words, dépecé for dépouillé: Those who shout loudest about the purity of the French language are often the last to practice it.

The two most common words in French political discourse these days are "amalgame" and "instrumentalisation." Amalgame is defined as a deliberate confusion of two or more designations in order to discredit them both, for instance by suggesting that people who talk and act like racists are, you know, racists; or conversely, by taking it for granted that if you look a certain way, you smell a certain way. Instrumentalisation means using events to one’s own ends, as when you accuse someone of accusing you of being a racist in order to push their own agenda of, say, opposition to racism: one splendid example came recently from an activist in Sarkozy's old party, the UMP who, in response to recent riots in the banlieue, twittered an image of a group of black men overturning a car with the caption: "Now they're going to call me a racist." The photograph, cropped to exclude anyone but blacks, was in fact taken three years ago during riots and marches over changes in the age of retirement. It was published in the Boston Globe, alongside other pictures of white marchers and rioters. One might have expected the New York Times, which still owned the Boston Globe, to strongly protest at this misuse of copyrighted material—this instrumentalisation, if you'll excuse the expression...


Instrumentalisation is the name of the game as well for the Ministry of Culture and the Administration of the Musée d’Orsay. In response to the furor over the expulsion of a poor family they jointly claimed, but only afterward and in response, that the child in the family had defecated in his pants and walked around this way for several hours. These self-justifications are as flimsy as a trial balloon: the child in question was twelve years old; he or she was accompanied by parents and a social worker. That a twelve-year being closely followed by a social services agency would be allowed to traipse around a museum with shit in his or her pants for several hours is “not worthy of belief,” in the words of American Law. In the words of anyone with a grain of sense, it doesn’t pass the Smell Test. But, hey, it was worth a try. This particular try at least can't have been too successful: when last heard from, The French Minister of Culture was insisting to a clueless New York Times correspondent that she simply adores le rap.

Sartre's early short story, "L'Enfance d'un chef," is an eerily accurate analysis of that which allows Fascism to flourish today in France as in Florida: the hero, a young French bourgeois, tries out his antisemitic chops on a Jew he meets at a party. When, contrary to his expectations, his hosts apologize to him for inviting a Jew, the hero feels a boundless sense of empowerment: "I have rights!" Or, as an American might put it, "I can stand my ground!" Today, in France, the worst elements of the political, cultural and intellectual classes are trying their luck. And the Ministry of Culture, and the Musée d'Orsay, and the New York Times, of course, are standing right beside them.

7/15/2013; last revision, 10/6/2013


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