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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.


  • Fiona Snyckers is outrageously opinionated for a novelist-housewife. She is the author of the Trinity series of novels, and hopes to continue getting paid to make stuff up.


  1. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 27 August 2013

    Marie Antoinette didn’t say ‘let them eat cake’. It was Marie-Theresa who said that 100 years earlier. Even she didn’t say ‘let them eat cake’ but rather suggested they eat brioche.

    I genuinely feel confused as to why we need to travel half way around the world to study the habits of the poor when we have more than enough at home to study (should that be what you wish to do).

  2. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 27 August 2013

    @Momma Cyndi, you are right Marie Antoinette didn’t say let them eat cake. Those people selling goods on the streets aren’t necessary poor and have a lot of money from the junk they sell.

  3. Another view Another view 28 August 2013

    Hear Hear Momma .

  4. chris chris 28 August 2013

    @Momma Cyndi,

    There was a Marie-Theresa of Spain (1638-1683) who said very little. And there was Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria (1717-1780), mother of Marie-Antoinette (1755- 1793), who had no reason to make such a comment, and certainly no opportunity to do 100 years before Marie-Antoinette. It was Marie-Antoinette, who was misquoted.

  5. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 28 August 2013

    Marie-Theresa was the wife of Louis XIV. The quote is from a book written by Jean-Jaques Rousseau when Marie Antoinette was only 9 years old.

    Sterling Ferguson

    I am not old enough to have any personal experience of what they were selling in the streets in 1640s but I don’t think it was brioche.

  6. Adri Adri 28 August 2013

    Chris, the Marie Therese that Momma Cyndi refers to was the wife of Louis X1V, the Sun King. She was indeed from Spain. Apparently she said “if there is no bread let the people eat the crust.” (Biography of Marie Antoinette by Antonia Frazer). If you are interested in French History I recommend “The Lost King of France” by Deborah Cadbury. Shocking history of Louis-Charles , Marie Antoinette’s son who died at the age of 10 while in prison during the French Revolution.

  7. PrettyBelinda PrettyBelinda 28 August 2013

    Some nations and people are just natural traders and merchants. They have the instinct to barter with goods, inherently sales people. They have the knack to set up shop anywhere they find themselves in the world. If any country deny them the to operate in the mainstream economy they will find a way to make money informally.

    We know that racism is rife in France, I wonder how the locals respond to these foreign nationals doing business as street hawkers in their country, and what is the nature of the conflicts and animosity?

  8. Kanthan Pillay Kanthan Pillay 29 August 2013

    We have similar patterns down here. The Congolese, for example, have the market on car guards. The Zimbabweans have the market on DIY labour out at Builders Warehouse Rivonia. The Malawians have the market on casual gardeners in my neighbourhood…

    Ignore the trolls focussing on the quote. This is well observed. Poverty has its class structure too, everywhere.

  9. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 29 August 2013

    Kanthan Pillay

    I am dreadfully sorry that you find a little bit of trivia to be ‘trolling’. Many of us find these little titbits of information to be quite interesting.

  10. Khanyo Khanyo 31 August 2013

    Interesting read, Fiona. Thanks for adding that the statement by Marie Antoinette was probably apocryphal.

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