The Paris of Donald Trump’s Imagination

Toddlers love to tell stories. Often they tell stories about their imaginary friends. On Friday, in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, President Trump told a story about a “friend” of his called Jim, who “loves the city of lights, he loves Paris. For years, every year during the summer, he would go to Paris, was automatic with his wife and his family. Hadn’t seen him in a while. And I said, Jim, let me ask you a question, how’s Paris doing? ‘Paris? I don’t go there anymore, Paris is no longer Paris.'”

Jim, Trump told his eager audience, is a “substantial” kind of a guy. I’m going to hazard a guess that he’s also middle-aged and white — toddlers’ imaginary friends are often avatars of themselves.

It’s easy to mock Trump for this nonsense, for making up fake friends and fake news. But this American fear of the streets of contemporary Paris isn’t new. In January 2015, just after the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher attacks, Fox News ran a notorious bulletin about what it called the “No-Go Zones” of Paris, naming and shaming the café- and boutique-lined streets of the Marais and other ethnically mixed and hipster neighborhoods lined with bars and vegan restaurants, areas as beard-ridden and unscary as Williamsburg.

Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, threatened to sue.

These were the very streets that were targeted in the attacks on Nov. 13 the same year; briefly, Fox News was right, though the exceptional resilience that has characterized the people of Paris in recent years meant that it was only a couple of weeks before they were out drinking and socializing in the very same area where the attacks took place.

The Bataclan, the concert hall where 90 people were killed that night at an Eagles of Death Metal concert, reopened last November, one year to the day after that murderous night.

There’s another Paris trope, a flipside to this one, like the other side of the same coin, exemplified by a piece in the Guardian just a few months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in which a journalist claimed that “central Paris feels like Marie Antoinette’s fake farm at Versailles where she used to play at being a milkmaid: a simulacrum of city life just minus the actual life. An ersatz play city laid on for the rich and deluded.”

It’s clear that Paris, perhaps the world’s favorite city, suffers from being the simulacrum for an infinite number of delusions and fantasies, not just of Trump but also of a certain type of gullible and ignorant journalist who seems to make their judgments at best from the back of a taxi, at worst without even bothering to leave their hometown.

The truth is that Paris, like London, is one of the most multicultural cities in Europe. Like all dynamic modern cities, it has undergone enormous demographic change in the last 150 years.

Historically, France has always been a country of asylum, with significant immigration from Italy and other European countries in the 19th century, from central and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, and waves of immigration from Asia, north Africa and sub-saharan Africa throughout the second half of the 20th century.

There are significant Portuguese, Syrian, Kurdish, Vietnamese and Tamil populations living in and around Paris. In high-density Parisian neighborhoods like Belleville, Chinese, orthodox Jews and Muslims live as neighbors.

There are around 5 million French Muslims in France, the vast majority of whom consider themselves to be wholly French, only a tiny minority of whom are considered by the security services to represent a danger because of radicalization. But in the echo chamber of current French electioneering, this tiny fraction of the population has come to represent the dangers fragmenting French society.

The real danger to France is that Trump’s friend Jim isn’t the only one to think that Paris isn’t Paris anymore. He has a cousin quite close in age called Jules, who was born in France, and he agrees with Jim.

Jules, along with many of his friends, is thinking of voting for Marine Le Pen in the upcoming presidential elections, in an effort to wrest back “their” France, convinced that things were better when the face of France was white.

Jules and his friends don’t live in Paris; like the Trump voters living in flyover states, these are people from towns in the south or in the industrial heartland of the north where unemployment is rife, who fear that their problems are being ignored, who are convinced that gays are being pandered to, and minority populations, specifically Muslims, are the cause of France’s perceived cultural and economic decline.

Le Pen’s canny crusade, borrowing from the Brexit campaign and Trump’s populist rhetoric, knits together fears about security, Islamist terror, unemployment, the decline of traditional industrial communities and the impact of immigration on jobs, and blames the out of touch political elite for ignoring the working class white population. It’s a formula that works, as we’ve seen in Britain and the U.S. It could work in France, and bring Trump and Putin the friend they need with power at the heart of the E.U. who could bring about its breakup.

Natasha Lehrer is a writer living in Paris.