Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

Let them eat cake

This morning I crawled off an overnight flight from Paris, gave thanks for unlimited bandwidth, and started scrolling through Twitter. There I found an opinion piece by Peter Delmar on the Times Live site. I paused to read it because he had obviously been to Paris for a family holiday, just as I had. I thought our experiences might be similar. And indeed Delmar had done almost exactly the same round of tourist attractions — the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Trocadero, the Place de la Concorde. We had practically walked in each other’s footsteps.

Like Delmar, I noticed the beggars and hawkers dotted around the streets of Paris. His piece is an attempt to muse on their plight. He starts off by commenting that hawkers from the same cultural backgrounds tend to sell the same goods to the public. African men, for example, offer Eiffel Tower key-rings, while Indian/Pakistani men sell bottles of water to the long queues waiting outside tourist attractions. He could also have added that members of the Roma community tend to beg, often with a puppy in tow. Delmar puts this cultural predictability down to a “lack of inventiveness” and concludes that the poor will always be with us. He resists adding that this is their own fault, but it is strongly implied.

This argument reminded me of another French tourist attraction Delmar and I both queued for, possibly on the same day. I’m referring to Versailles, the home of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, before the French Revolution put an unpleasant end to their stay. Marie Antoinette famously (and probably apocryphally) asked why the poor were rebelling. When she was told that it was because they had no bread, she responded, “then let them eat cake”. In her narrow, privileged world, anyone who couldn’t afford bread could choose to eat cake instead.

Delmar’s grip on the plight of the modern immigrant is similarly slight. I invite him to suspend judgement for a moment and imagine that he is an immigrant newly arrived in Paris from, let us say, Algeria. His presence in France may be legal or illegal, but it has almost certainly been sponsored by someone from his own country who now lives in Paris. He arrives in the unknown city and immediately makes for the comfort and security of the Algerian community. There he is told that his uncle, cousin or friend can hook him up with a cheap supplier of miniature Eiffel Towers, and show him the best places to hawk these.

But perhaps he is an independent sort and rejects this offer of help. He announces that he would rather sell cellphone covers instead. Older and wiser heads warn him that the hawking of cellphone covers is the business of the Senegalese community (for example), but he decides to try it anyway. His first setback occurs when he approaches a supplier and discovers that the price they quote him is so high he will barely make a profit. The next supplier tells him the same thing, and so does the one after that. Then he is gently — or not so gently — nudged off the street corner he has chosen because it is apparently already occupied by a seller of cellphone covers. He may suspect these obstacles are being placed in his path because he is Algerian, but there is little he can do about it. Having a fondness for not starving to death, he eventually succumbs and starts selling mini Eiffel Towers instead.

One can imagine the same thing happening to the Indian who tries to go into the sitting-on-a-street-corner-with-a-puppy business, or the Roma who tries to go into the bottled water business. Different communities have staked out different enterprises, and manage to coexist in relative peace, exploiting the tourist trade in ways that don’t undercut each other.

What struck me most about France was not how predictable the informal sector was, but how vibrant and enterprising. I saw a man who had set up a piece of grass next to a pavement as a rabbit run. Bored children queuing for the Eiffel Tower could stroke the bunnies for a few euro a pop. There were people dressed as clowns who were allowing tourists to take a picture with them for a small fee. There was a man outside Versailles who was dressed in a Tutankhamen outfit, complete with gold spray-paint from head to toe. The sun was splitting the stones under his feet and he earned every cent he made that day in the 40 degree heat. When night fell, the Eiffel Tower sellers turned into glow-in-the-dark-toy sellers. Judging by the numbers of glowing balls that were being tossed all over the Trocadero, they were making a killing.

Delmar may be right that the poor will always be with us, but he is wrong if he attributes this to their own lack of imagination. There are complex cultural and socio-economic reasons for the choices made by those who are excluded from the formal economy. These are not always apparent to the privileged. It is easy to judge from the outside, but only those who have experienced the life of a poor immigrant can really understand the challenges it poses.

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