I had a baby on Tuesday, a strange day to give birth in Paris. It was the 13th day of a massive strike against pension reforms, and unions had called for a big day of protest. We took an Uber to the hospital on Monday evening. Across the city, entrances to the Périphérique were at a standstill. Our driver said he wouldn’t be working the next day. ‘There’s no point. Paris is going to be blocked, with protesters going from République to Nation.’
In the spring of 1959 I won a National Science Foundation fellowship that enabled me to do physics anywhere I wanted to. I chose Paris. I had spent the last couple of years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and wanted very much to go to a city. Murray Gell-Mann was paying a visit to Princeton at the time. I had written a paper with a colleague suggesting how an idea of Gell-Mann’s could be tested experimentally. He dropped round to my office and asked what I was doing the following year. I told him. To my surprise he said he was going to Paris too, and added: ‘Stick with me, kid, and I’ll put you on Broadway.’ I didn’t then tell him that I was familiar with him from another life.
The fire in Notre-Dame de Paris was extinguished in the small hours of 16 April. But residual heat from the blaze has left several brush fires smouldering.
Notre-Dame is meant in part as a redemption of an architecture in eclipse.
Every generation gets the scam artists it deserves. To a list that includes Elizabeth Holmes, Dan Mallory and Billy McFarland, should we now add the name Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the Russian film director responsible for Dau, which finally opened in Paris at the end of January, and closes this weekend?
On 20 January, during the anti-abortion ‘March for Life’ in Paris, Thomas Salgado and other activists from Act Up arrived at a Metro station in the 16th arrondissement to take part in a counter-demonstration. Within seconds, they had been surrounded by CRS officers, who ordered them against the wall for an ID check. Salgado asked why they were being searched. To prevent a threat to public order, he was told. ‘No rights for you; only duties.’
Lycée Jean Quarré is an abandoned cookery school in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, near the Place des Fêtes. In October 2015, a reported 1000 refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers squatting there were evicted by the police. The NGO Emmaüs Solidarité now manages the building as a Centre d'Hébergement d'Urgence, or CHU, for around 150 refugees and asylum-seekers. Most of the current residents are young men from Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea and Libya.
‘Give us back May 68!’ a group of students shouted in front of the Odéon in Paris. On 7 May, the theatre had scheduled a May 68 commemoration. First there’d be a play, then some intellectuals and artists would talk. ‘We must emphasise the importance of the Odéon,’ the blurb said, ‘which … was the main platform for “everything is possible”. There, on the stage, everywhere in the theatre, a community of young people tried to invent a utopia and to live it. This was a contradictory and experimental space for speaking out.’ The students outside the theatre fifty years later had been protesting against a law that changes the conditions of access to university and introduces academic selection. They demanded to be let into the Odéon to take part in the discussion – to no avail. Inside, an audience mostly composed of smartly dressed white older people listened politely to the speakers. The theatre’s director called the police, who sprayed tear gas and arrested four students.
For several days now, the Seine has been drawing a crowd. The international press, tourists and Parisians have come to look at the river because it is uncharacteristically high. Before I had seen it myself, I assumed the reason for all the curiosity was novelty. We’ve been told that the chances of the river breaking its banks are extremely low, but Paris can so easily be mistaken for a city frozen in time that changes in its landscape, even temporary ones, ask to be witnessed. Setting eyes on the engorged river, though, mud brown and churning viciously around the bare branches of its towpath trees, stirred in me an unease I had not expected: that one day, though probably not today, the Seine may begin rising like this, and not stop. And it reminded me that Parisians have long harboured a fear of their city ending up underwater.
On 18 May, Le Parisienreported that parts of the 18th arrondissement, between La Chapelle métro station and the Périphérique, had been ‘abandoned to men only’: Women don't have a place any more. Cafés, bars and restaurants are forbidden to them … Groups of dozens of men, street vendors, dealers, migrants and smugglers, hold the streets, harassing women.
I’ve been to Paris a lot in the last year or so. When I get offered DJ gigs in the city, I usually say yes and, if possible, stay for an extra day or three. At the time of the terrorist attacks in the 10th and 11th arrondissements a year ago I was at home in Manchester, but I know the area quite well. In 2010 I saw Trentemøller perform at the Bataclan. A journalist working for Les Inrocks, a French magazine I sometimes write for, was murdered in the theatre. A club promoter I met in 2013 lost seven friends at one of the bars.
The controlled explosion at the Gare du Nord just after noon on Saturday was loud enough to sound as if it wasn’t controlled, but when nothing happened – shards of glass from the roof of the train shed did not fall on our heads, the station was for a few seconds absolutely and reassuringly silent – everyone carried on as if nothing had happened. I was on my way to lunch with friends before the rugby at the Stade de France – France v. Italy. The explosion was mentioned briefly at our table, then swiftly forgotten.
Last week the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, announced the total so far of apartment searches (1233), detentions (165) and charges preferred (124) since the state of emergency came into force shortly after the killings on 13 November. Dividing the country’s ‘Muslim’ population by the number of detentions we arrive at a figure of one for every 30,000 or so: this is not an anti-Muslim witch hunt. Nonetheless the emergency has been extended for three months and yesterday the total of arrests leaped, with 200 or more after the COP21 demonstrations in Paris – a big, scheduled march having been banned under the emergency – turned rough.
‘Terrorism and immigration are not the same,’ an Afghan migrant in his thirties tells me. Self-evident facts need to be reiterated in a state of emergency. He’s married to a French person – no names at this point – and expecting a French passport shortly. He’s worried, like all migrants of Muslim origin, about the next step in the confrontation with Isis: migrants were regarded with suspicion long before last week’s attacks in Paris. He’s with friends, new arrivals from Kabul and Jalalabad, queuing in the drizzle outside the offices of a refugee support NGO, Terre d’Asile, in the 18th arrondissement. They have folders of documents to help them make asylum claims, but they’re confused, and so am I: procedures have changed since I last lent a hand with a claim.
After a busy night for the police, France woke on Monday to news that more than 20 people had been taken into custody and 104 placed under house arrest. In the evening Hollande proposed a raft of measures to the General Assembly and the Senate involving tweaks to the constitution that enable the government ‘to manage a state of crisis’ and deal with the new reality (‘we are at war’). He also proposed 5000 more police and soldiers on the payroll by 2017, 1000 more border staff, 2500 new prison staff. More citizens with dual nationality would have their French nationality removed and be subject to ‘expulsion’.
When I lived in Paris in the early 1960s the Bataclan was a cinema. It had been converted into one in 1926. (Incidentally, bataclan means junk; ‘tout le bataclan’ is slang for the whole ball of wax, or all that jazz.) I don’t recall going to it: there were so many other cinemas. It was built in 1864 as a site for café concerts. You could have your dinner and listen to an act. From the outside the building looked like a Chinese pagoda: chinoiserie was the mode.
Sunday: we wake under blue skies to Nicolas Sarkozy calling for ‘the whole world’ to destroy Isis and demanding a ‘new’ immigration policy, as he steps away from a meeting with Hollande. Stern words on the first day of national mourning declared by the president. Last night Paris was half a city, maybe less. In the capital where the world’s first public audience paid to see a motion picture, the art house cinemas were closed like bakeries, the foyers of the multiplexes dark behind their plate-glass entrances. Few people on the streets, fewer on the metro: twenty passengers at most in a carriage on the Ligne 4; seven in a carriage on the little line from Châtelet to Mairie des Lilas. Nine o’clock, or thereabouts. One hundred and thirty dead, a hundred more with critical injuries in hospitals around the city: Lariboisière, St Louis, La Pitié-Salpêtrière, others.
The Jardin des Olieux is a small park just off the Boulevard Victor Hugo in Lille. Twenty-five or so homeless migrants have been camping there for a couple of months. Several of them are teenagers. Mamadé from Guinea, who is 16, told me that every morning they walk to a day centre near the train station for a meal, coffee and a wash. But they have nowhere to sleep except the park, and the police have taken away their mattresses. The French state in theory guarantees appropriate accommodation and support for unaccompanied migrant children, but there is an effective ‘presumption of majority’, according to a local lawyer, as well as long delays in the process which leave many on the streets for weeks.
The march in Paris on Sunday was called originally in honour of the dead at Charlie Hebdo’s offices. In the meantime the dead had become more numerous. By the time the marchers reached Place de la Nation yesterday many were carrying A4 print-outs reading ‘Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis flic.’ In addition to three dead police officers, four Jewish French citizens had died in the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes. The mood among yesterday’s vast crowds was quietly upbeat and self-assured. We were all ‘Charlie’ and we knew we were marching in step. Occasionally you saw the name Yoav (son of the chief rabbi in Tunis who was killed in Porte de Vincennes) on a home print-out. Often, when the crowd passed the rows of police vans lining the route there was spontaneous applause. By the time participants arrived at the destination and solemnity was no longer in order, a group of Syrian oppositionists began chanting: ‘Je suis Syrien, je suis Charlie.’ There were large pencils everywhere in evidence, one mutating into a Kalashnikov, with a shoulder-butt and magazine clip. A desultory teenager – 15 at most – strolled beside his parents with a placard reading: ‘Culture murdered by barbarians.’ A niggling wind got up but the Place de la Nation was becoming a happy-sad party by the time I left, around seven. Everyone was Charlie, for a day.
New Yorkers have been mobbing the Charles Marville exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 4 May). ‘Paris has gotten so expensive,’ I overheard one woman saying to her friend. ‘I used to stay at the Meurice all the time but now it’s $1500 a night!’ Marville was hired as Paris's official photographer in the 1860s to preserve traces of the old city, but also to capture Haussmannisation in action, the demolition and rebuilding necessitated by the new streets, regularised building façades and such monuments as Garnier’s new opera house. Still, to judge from the response of the crowds at the Met, it's the vanished cobblestones and shadowy courtyards, not the rubble and scaffolding, that are the stars of the show.
From Mavis Gallant’s Paris Notebooks: 10 May 1968. The bridges are guarded by CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité)... They must know they are hated now. They may wonder why. One fastening the other's helmet chin strap, as if going to a party. I mistake their grenade throwers for guns, and I think: if they have these guns they must intend to use them. Place Saint-Michel. I am part of a stupid, respectable-looking small crowd staring – just dumbly staring – at the spectacle of massed power on the bridge. Up the Boul' Mich'. Crowds, feeling of tension... Side streets leading to Sorbonne and Latin Quarter blocked by more police, and I have that feeling of helpless anger I had earlier today.
There are great tracts of space in Félix Vallotton’s paintings; they are not quite flat, but are built up from tiny feathered strokes in shades of the same colour: arsenic green walls and sofas like medicine phials in a chemist’s window.
Jessie and I were making our way to the Métro from the Jardin du Luxembourg when we literally stumbled – I think I tripped over a microphone cable – into the 29th annual Marché de la Poésie, an open-air, weekend-long festival of poets and poetry, with enough tents, booths, temporary stages, lecterns, folding chairs and rope lines to take up the whole of the Place Saint-Sulpice. The festival is big enough and famous enough to have developed a fringe (périphérie), a set of poetry-related events that continue until late June, in venues from the Portuguese consulate to the Halle St-Pierre in Montmartre. The organisers say that last year there were 509 exhibitors and 60,000 visitors.