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My first night in Paris, at a cook-out of some French family friends I remember being amazed by how passionately and almost dutifully everyone at the table began debating politics about half an hour into the meal. The argument did not end even after half the guests had left.
While Americans cling on to a history of political activism based on the involvement of every citizen, somehow the French have managed to get a leg up on us. That much became apparent to me when I turned around the corner from the Champ de Mars several days ago on the Quai Branly, jus steps from the Eiffel Tower, to find myself face to face with a giant sign attached to a bamboo framework that read in French and English, “Today the inhabitants of developed countries (20% of the world’s population) possess 80 % of the planet’s wealth.” I stopped in my tracks and looked closer at what I was seeing. Stretching away along the Seine I could see a bamboo maze of signs and giant beautiful blown-up photographs of the world’s flora and fauna. Bright zebras running in a herd of brown horses. A fierce lioness protecting her cub. Even some amazing photographs of that we rarely see elsewhere – neon green dust mites, bright red and purple bacteria. Under each photograph a little plaque shared some facts about the creature, which was matched with a large sign shouting out facts about the environment and social justice.
The factoids seemed to cover all major political topics – pollution, women’s rights, and poverty, sometimes even managing to combine all three: “Women’s labor accounts for 2/3 of subsistence agriculture in developing countries, yet they often have no rights over the lands.” Of course, I noted cynically, the factoids seemed to use America as the great example of what not to be – “If everyone had as many cars as the inhabitants of the U.S,” read one plaque, “there would be more than 5 billion cars in the world.” But, true to the self-critical spirit of France, I soon saw that there were just as many bashing France, and even commending some American cultural trends, such as widespread philanthropy. As another plaque informed me, “In the U.S., $1 in every $8 saved is invested in ethical funds. In France, it is less than €1out of €100.”
So what was this all about? Was this a French government plea for the people to recycle and be more mindful or the work of a devoted group of political activists who sprang the whole complex overnight, complete with overhead lamps to light up the facts and photos when it got dark? The answer lay for me only at the end of the exhibit – exposition in French – on the side furthest from the Eiffel Tower. The culprit behind this convincing critique of the way we approach environmental and political issues was none other than the famed French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand whose collection of photos The Earth Seen From Above has become a coffee-table staple on both sides of the pond. It all came back to me now. Several years back I had seen an almost identical exhibit, only of those older photos in Montreal – identical in presentation, not in nature, though. That other exhibit had been a purely aesthetic experiment, showing the earth to people in a way few ever get the chance to see it. This was something entirely different. This was using art for political progress’ sake. How very French!
Although the introductory plaque called the exhibit, ALIVE, “an amusing and airy labyrinth,” there was little of either about it. Seen from the Eiffel Tower above, the maze spells L’EXPO, and it is truly meant to expose the blithe tourists not just to French marvels, but also to that activist, rousing French spirit that has given France both its infamous strikes and the revolution. I don’t know if it made me feel any more alive, but it has certainly changed the way I look at that French word, exposition.