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Joyeeta Basu is the Editor of The Sunday Guardian.

A France Diary

An artist at work in Montmartre’s artists’ square. Photographs: Joyeeta Basu

he Iranian café owner selling paninis near the Pompidou Centre, Paris' modern art museum, had a simple take on the "law prohibiting the concealing of the face in public space". It's about politics, he said. The declaration came after several attempts to convince his customers that Iranian women did not wear hijab, so the law banning the wearing of face veil would not affect them. He was not very complimentary about Arabs, who, he claimed, were making the French public anti-Muslim. Marine Le Pen has been fanning anti-Muslim fears and the move to ban face veil by the Sarkozy government could well be an attempt to attract voters leaning toward the far right. At the same time, there is a strong belief in France that covering the face is retrograde and suggests oppression of women. Coupled with that is the concept of laicism (laïcité), which demands a secular state in which government and religion are separate. But this separation, in its narrowest form has come to mean no display of religious symbols in public. There isn't any scope for debate on this issue. To put it simply, French secularism is different from ours.

The Socialists are behind the 35-hour work week that France, especially Paris, basks in. In which other city, will shops and shopping malls/galleries shut at 7 p.m., or maximum 7.30 p.m., even when it is broad daylight? This gives the workers of the French Republic enough personal time before and after sundown to populate the umpteen cafés where Paris lives.

It takes less than half a day to get a hang of Paris' metro system. All one needs is a metro map and loose change. The Paris metro, known as the Métropolitain, was started in 1900 and is among the busiest in the world. It is an intricate network of colour coded lines, and trains are named according to their final destinations. So if you get your pink, purple or green right then it is a matter of minutes before you reach your destination; but you may need to change your colours a few times for that. The stations are old and musty, train doors need to be manually operated. The subways, especially in the artists' district of Montmartre, are lined with graffiti. But then in Paris even graffiti can acquire a life of its own, and then there are the musicians playing soulful tunes before extending their hats asking for money. Paris metro may lack swank, but it has character.

The French capital has a strong South Asian connection. Every scarf on sale in the city's touristy shops has been imported from India. Every second man selling bottled water in front of the Louvre or near the Eiffel Tower is from Haryana. The Africans pestering you to buy cheap replicas of Eiffel Tower break into "Hindi, Hindi, lijiye, lijiye." The face of the Sri Lankan chef baking pizza near Boulevard Saint-Michel lights up to hear you are from India. The Bangladeshi shop assistant near Rue de Rivoli reduces the price of his fare after speaking in Bengali with a fellow Bengali. Paris also has a strong Chinese connection: almost all souvenirs have been made in China, even the official ones sold in museum boutiques.

It is easy to differentiate between an Airbus engine and a Boeing engine from a distance. The Boeing engine has a metallic green casing, which the Airbus engine does not have. The other differences, as they say, are too technical and complicated for the reader's, and the journalist's, understanding. The Snecma factory in Villa Roche, 50 km from Paris, assembles commercial aircraft engines at the rate of 2.7 engines a day. Snecma manufactures military aircraft engines and also spacecraft engines. India's Mirage 2000 aircraft uses engine manufactured by Snecma. The company has a mechanic training centre in Hyderabad, the fourth such centre in the world. The other three are in France, China and the US.

Normandy is World War country. It was not just on Normandy's beaches that the final phases of the Second World War were fought, it was also in Normandy's rolling hills, orchards and bushes. Every town of some import has a battle to its name: Cherbourg, Caen. Fort du Roule, which stands atop a hill overlooking Gare de Cherbourg (rail station), held on for days before falling to the Allied troops. It was in Normandy that Rommel built his Atlantic Wall, a network of fortifications in anticipation of an Allied attack. But Rommel could not anticipate the actual attacks. The weather was so bad in the first week of June 1944 that he thought an Allied invasion would be next to impossible. He went off to Germany to celebrate his wife's birthday on 6 June. It was on 6 June that the D-day landings started. By the time Rommel reached Normandy late at night, his Atlantic Wall had been breached.

Normandy, pretty, green, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, is now tourist country.

The last word must go to the Paris bus driver: "I am waiting to see what Carla Bruni does if Nicolas Sarkozy loses in 2012. Will she stay married to him? I wonder."

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