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The man at my newspaper stand asked me what I thought about the situation in New Orleans and U.S. government response to the tragedy. What could I say? From here it looked incredibly sad and, I'm sorry to say, shameful. Somehow, the shame is harder to handle here, because the French are by nature critical, especially when it comes to America.
News of Katrina probably drowned out reports in the U.S. of something shameful that happened recently in Paris: the third in a chain of fires at ramshackle apartments housing African immigrants. Scores of people died, including many children. Some of these people had been waiting for years in squalid conditions for the chance to move to public housing, which is woefully lacking. One of the fires occurred in the Marais, a district on the Right Bank beloved by tourists, unaware that very close to the Picasso museum and Place des Vosges there is another, less lovely face of Paris.
Meanwhile, it was announced that the glass-roofed Grand Palais, one of the city's great belle époque landmarks, built for the 1900 Universal Exposition, would reopen later this month. This is good news for Parisians and tourists alike, as the building near the River Seine and Champs Élysées had been closed for more than a decade because of the instability of its foundations. Now it joins its neighbor, the recently renovated Petit Palais, as a forum for cultural events and exhibitions.
And finally, the last factory in France making dark, strong Gauloise cigarettes closed, though limited production of the famed French coffin nails, favored by Jean-Paul Sartre, will continue in Spain. The French have increasingly preferred American-style cigarettes (Marlboro Lights seem especially predominant). They may even be starting to kick the habit, as reflected by a 23% drop in tobacco sales from 2003 to 2004.