Let Them Eat Cake!

The Opulence of Versaille

The Opulence of Versaille

I suspect that most of us have heard the phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ and would hazard a good guess that we know who is supposed to have uttered those words. They have become famously attributed to Marie Antoinette, the Queen consort to Louis XVI, although the original French phrase ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’†, refers to brioche, an enriched bread made with flour, butter and eggs – but let’s not get into an argument about pastries!

A portrait of Marie Antoinette at VersailleIn the late 1700’s, Louis and Marie Antoinette lived in great opulence in the Palace of Versailles, just outside of Paris, whilst millions of ordinary Parisians, like the great majority of their countrymen at that time, were starving and destitute, and itching for revolution. The phrase has come to portray the ruling classes as insensitive, ill-informed and ignorant of just how dangerous it would be to hold on to attitudes such as these.

Whether Marie Antoinette actually had any sympathy for her unfortunate people – and it would appear she might have from a comment she DID make, “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness” – the French revolutionaries and history did not treat her so kindly and she felt the sharp bite of the guillotine blade in 1793.

Some 200 years later, and the poor and the destitute still roam the streets of Paris and still look for succour and relief from the more affluent.  On the Champs Elysees, one of Europe’s wealthiest shopping streets, the glittering facades of Mercedes Benz, Louis Vuitton and the House of Guerlain entice you to browse and exclaim at the prices. While just around the corner in the Avenue Montaigne and Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré the fashion houses such as Christian Dior, Chanel and Versace have no need to display price tags – because if you need to ask, ‘How much?’ you can’t afford it!

In amongst all of this showy extravagance, there are people who sit silently, holding up a paper cup in which there are a few small coins; their clothes more shabby chic than haute couture; or else they prostrate themselves, remaining motionless, their faces hidden. Yet they somehow blend into the scene,  almost invisible to the thousands of shoppers and tourists who manage to skillfully sidestep them without looking or pausing.

In 2011, these ‘delinquents’, as described by the French authorities, were controversially banned from approaching and ‘pestering’ people in several of the cities high profile areas but on a recent visit to the city, it was obvious that this was either being ignored or circumvented, and  I was presented with a moral dilemma that I hadn’t anticipated – to give or not to give?

Begging on the streets of Paris

Begging on the streets of Paris*

My initial reaction was that here were people in need, but at the same time I was aware of the stories of ‘professional beggars’ who made a good living scamming tourists. Indeed, the woman who dropped a ‘gold’ ring at my husband’s feet as we crossed a bridge over the Seine and exclaimed that it was our lucky day and perhaps we could reward her for pointing it out, got short shrift, especially when we observed her and her partner waiting to pull off the same trick on the next hapless tourist. There were also the youngsters, who thrust a clipboard under my nose near the Louvre on which there was a unnamed charitable petition sheet, which they urged me to sign and to donate €10 or €20 to help deaf-mute children, but which I regretfully declined,

At the same time there seemed to be so many that might legitimately be in need of assistance to simply afford their next meal while others might simply slip away at the end of the day and drive back home to their families in the suburbs – how was I to know which was which without being judgemental?

In the middle of these deliberations two bible verses came to mind,

Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
Matthew 5:42

and,

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7

It would of course be easy to not make any judgement at all and to give to each and every one, but realistically this wasn’t possible. Or to give to nobody, thus avoiding fear of discrimination, and also making me a miserable non-giver! In the end I came to a compromise, which wasn’t wholly satisfactory, but which I hoped meant that at least there was a fair chance that it benefited some – that is, I would keep the coins that we had gathered over the week in my pocket, and without checking would drop a handful into the proffered cups as they appeared, until my pocket was empty… as I said, an unsatisfactory compromise, because I knew I would be unable to use the coins once home, but it was a the option I went with

I am curious, therefore, as to what others feel or do in these situations. Perhaps you could let me know?

On a similar note, because unfortunately it is often the appearance of the person that goes towards our decision-making as to who we might help, this experiment, filmed on the streets of Paris reveals some interesting but not unsurprising attitudes. Please be aware that some of the comments made on this YouTube video are quite forthright: Les Poids des Apparences/The Importance of Appearances Experiment

† The phrase was actually recorded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Book 6 of his autobiography ‘Confessions’, which was written around 1765-67 when Marie Antoinette was nine or eleven years of age. The biographer, Lady Antonia Fraser believes it relates to Maria Theresa the wife of Louis XIV, but who the ‘great princess’ was, “who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, “Then let them eat pastry!” no-one can be absolutely sure.

*Neither of these photographs were taken by myself but are of genuine people in need on the streets

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