I noticed the graffiti before anything else. As the Eurostar entered Paris, I was expecting a city of delicate architecture and scenic views, so seeing the spray paint against austere, industrial buildings was jarring. Travelling on the metro the next couple of days emphasized the prevalence of this trend: every spare inch of the tunnels was covered in graffiti. Really, an impressive feat of dedication.
In the weeks since, Paris has strayed from my initial impression. I’ve seen quite a few more elegant buildings and less street art, but that initial impression still lingers in the back of my mind. Perhaps it’s because every European city I’ve passed through (London, Munich, Barcelona) features the same surprising situation. In cities steeped in history, formality and etiquette, graffiti feels like a conscious act of rebellion, a declaration that the city is still alive and that there is no singular narrative of Paris, of London, of Munich.
The tension between the new and the old is part of Europe’s story. The refugee crisis that has headlined every newspaper for the past three months is but the latest example of that struggle to understand what, if anything at all, comprises the European identity.
France has faced this issue for decades. It resisted immigrants from Algeria, its colonial holding that gained independence in a brutal war, which culminated in the massacre of more than 60 Algerians. The immigrants were thrown off a bridge into the Seine — an atrocity covered up for years by the French government.
The city has also self-segregated into de facto immigrant zones in the banlieue, or the suburbs, of Paris. When I got off the metro in Montreuil, one of the suburbs, I was shocked by how all the architecture and storefronts were less pristine and how there were essentially no white people on the streets. It was nearly incomprehensible: the Bastille was only three or four stops away on the Metro and it felt like another world.
While tensions haven’t flared since the riots that overtook Paris in 2005, recent events haven’t necessarily helped immigrants feel more at home. Nicolas Sarkozy’s government passed a law that prevented any object covering the face to be worn in public; although under the guise of security and the separation of church and state, the law disproportionately affects Muslim women.
Most notable, though, is the rise of the Front National, an extreme-right, anti-immigrant political party that had lingered on the fringes for years before gaining surprising popularity in the past few years. Think Donald Trump without the self-aggrandizing buffoonery and with an extra dose of cold xenophobia; a poster near my house reads “100 percent Front National, 0 percent Migrants.”
Students at Sciences Po, the university where I’m taking classes, created an association for the Front National this year and received enough members to be recognized by the university, essentially a similar process to being recognized as a club at Georgetown. Yet, despite the minor benchmark, the new group became a national news story, a purported sign that the party was now recognized by the French intellectual elite.
And so, fitting my initial impression of graffiti as outspoken rebellion, the front doors of the university were tagged. Bright red spray paint condemning fascism and the Front National’s ideology glowed angrily against the beige doors and the asphalt on the ground, and despite the rush to paint over it, tinges of the red paint remained as a reminder. In the incredibly proper neighborhood of St. Germain-des-Près, where Sciences Po is located and which is not unlike Georgetown, the message felt like flagrant revolution.
France is certainly not alone in this struggle to welcome newcomers, as the past few months have shown that similar resistance exists in nearly every country in Europe. While one popular response is to cut off all ties with Europe and the outside world, pretending that strategy will fix the real struggle that exists inside each of these countries is silly.
Hostility to cultural difference is never the acceptable solution: European countries are losing their homogeneity quickly, and figuring out what values — rather than ancestry — truly define each nation must be an immediate priority.
What does it mean to be French? German? European? These questions can’t be answered by any individual; there needs to be a national and transnational reckoning, an honest and open discussion about the values that will guide the future of each country.
Maybe that’s why, in a time when it’s in vogue to ridicule the European experiment (often for good reason: the less said about Greece, the better), I feel cautiously optimistic about the European Union. At the surface level, the cities feel similar; yes, each has its own quirks, but they all feature a luxury of green space, meager skylines compensated by intricate ground-level architecture and gloriously efficient public transportation. More seriously, the problems the countries face often cross borders, so the solutions are necessarily continental as well.
And in spite of a column that talks entirely about Europe, my biggest takeaway is that it is impossible to ignore these questions of nationhood and acceptance in the United States as well. Even with America’s relative heterogeneity, the Republican presidential campaign has demonstrated that the divide between old and new, outside and inside, animates a large part of the U.S. population. Our national reckoning about what it means to be American looms more imminent each day. Maybe, to release some of the building pressure, it’s time to start investing in some spray paint.
Kshithij Shrinath is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Letters from Abroad appears every other Friday.