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It was in the spring of 1814 that Napoleon's conquering army was rolled back on its heels. Having two years prior disastrously pressed its luck on an ill-fated and hubristic march on Moscow, it was no match for the Russian retaliation. The combined armies of the Sixth Coalition swept into Paris virtually overnight. For the first time in centuries, Paris's streets echoed with the footfalls of enemy troops. France, for a time the world's most progressive society, stood rebuked as the despotic Napoleon was chased from power and the desperate Charles Maurice de Talleyrand worked desperately behind the scenes to save Paris.
While the battle was decisively lost, the city was spared. The Russian army receded relatively peacefully. Napoleon would briefly return to the throne but had seen his ascendancy permanently checked by the initiative of Alexander I of Russia. In a surprising turn, the bitter clash between the once-friendly rulers would ultimately prove to be little more than a bump in the road of a massive intellectual project. France would have the last laugh as Russia-and indeed most of Europe-fell under the sway of the Republic's liberalizing reforms and philosophical advances.
Rarely has a country so emphatically defeated militarily enjoyed such sustained ideological success. But then, French culture has always energetically embodied contradiction: an overwhelmingly Catholic country that is famously amorous, a vigorous colonizing power that takes time to stop and smell the roses, a globe-conquering culinary tradition that elevates even the lowly snail.
In the 21st century, France's most notable contradiction is its flourishing multiculturalism in an era of determined national pride-a "salad bowl" society that resolutely holds onto its unique history and identity. The November 2005 Paris Riots illustrate the country's growing pains-despite its highly reflective national discourse. The country's long period of soul-searching following its brutal response to the Algerian insurgency has produced a body politic committed to responsible global action and military restraint.
Of course, the French, while they may debate how best to move forward in the post-colonial era, would never let intellectual rancor spoil a good time. In urban France-much more so than in neighbors Germany and Spain-public social life prevails, dominating even the family scene. Opportunities for public interaction and observation abound.
It is no accident that English has imported flaneur from the French. (Hint: use a French-English dictionary to look up the word flaneur). Knowledgeable visitors to Paris insist it is a city to experience on foot. Shade trees abound and twisting lanes encourage exploration-exploration that is constantly rewarded by centuries of investment in architecture, city planning and art. En route to almost any destination are certain to be free and low-cost spaces for meeting and mingling. Numerous sidewalk cafes, standup bars and public parks make it pleasantly difficult to simply move from Point A to Point B.
Physical space in French cities is marvelously colored by an outward-looking culture that aggressively adopts the most exciting fashions and artistic trends. Early African-American jazz and blues musicians found a warm reception they regrettably did not enjoy in many parts of the US. In the same vein, hip-hop has inspired a homegrown movement (with debatable results . . .). French tastemakers remain highly influential despite the pull of New York and the country's cultural exports-from brands to vintner techniques-have global reach.
Cosmopolitan France has promoted French culture and nationality through a well-funded national language academy, a protected endowment for international scholarly exchanges and a heavily invested commitment to improving quality of life and educational opportunities for the working class. On the other hand, the divide between city and country life is an integral part of French cultural identity. The tension between the two lifestyles provided fuel for the Revolution, as well as grist for writers, such as the scientific naturalist Emile Zola. There are also many French movies which explore this tension.
The pastoral French life praised for its masterful dairy and wine production is alive and well even today. It may be said that in national affairs there is Paris and . . . everywhere else. But try telling that to residents of Bretagne, for one. The French talent for putting sensual enjoyment at the center of daily life has led some to criticize the country for being sluggish in modern efforts at reform, but the rural rhythms found in secluded spots in any French city are seen by many French as a cultural triumph not to be done away with lightly.