On June 21, 2016 — the 222nd day of the State of Emergency declared by president François Hollande in the aftermath of the November 2015 attacks — I took advantage of a friend’s visit from the United States to plan a walk through North-Eastern Paris, providing us with a non-linear narrative of the French capital’s political struggles over the past 150 years.
According to the street signs we passed, this 8-kilometer walk took us from Palestine, between the Rue du Jourdain (Jordan River) and Rue de Palestine, to China (Passage de Pékin), Senegal (Rue du Sénégal), Russia (Stalingrad), Algeria (Rue de Tanger), Maroc (Rue du Maroc), Canada (Rue du Canada), and Guadeloupe (Rue de la Guadeloupe). These names indicate the (often post-colonial) origins of some of the areas’ residents. The walk was therefore as much a journey through mobilized distant geographies as it was a time machine through the palimpsest of the city’s political layers.
It began in Belleville, which became the last bastion of the 1871 Paris Commune during the bloody week that saw the Versailles army exterminate all resistance in its suppression of the proletarian society that had declared Paris’ independence from the rest of the Empire. The Rue Ramponeau is said to be the site of the Commune’s last barricade, upheld by only one man during the last days. Ironically, its site, at the intersection of the Rue de Tourtille, is now bordered by a small police station. The references to the Commune in the Paris streets are scarce as this part of French history is almost absent from the national narrative. The activist collective Raspouteam, however, helps to localize this history online, mapping out the chronology of the Commune. A few years ago, they also plastered the city with large posters illustrating scenes of the Commune in the locations of their historical occurrence.
Echoes of the numerous 19th century military interventions in Paris can be found in the current military deployment on the streets of the city. After the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, and the anti-Semitic attack on a Kosher supermarket that followed, “Opération Sentinelle” mobilized about 6,000 soldiers patrolling in front of Jewish schools and synagogues, including the one situated on Boulevard de Belleville, which we passed on our walk. The militarization of Parisian public space only intensified with the declaration of a State of Emergency the day after the November 13, 2015 attacks. Accordingly, our walk included a stop at the intersection of the Rue Bichat and Rue Alibert, where the terraces of the Café du Carillon and the restaurant Le Petit Cambodge (Small Cambodia) were targeted, leaving our friends dead or injured.
The canal neighborhood where two of the six attacks occurred has been the site of gentrification for several years and the State of Emergency police barricades alternate with construction site fences in front of new residential buildings designed for the incoming middle classes. The sterile properness of these new buildings not only contrasts with the lively mess of the Rue du Faubourg du Temple — we briefly stop at a Kabyle small canteen where a double portrait of the Emir Abd el Kader and French Marshall Bugeaud connect this local history to the colonization of Algeria in the 1830s — but even more so with the tents of homeless people living in the least monitored sides of the canal.
Leaving the Canal for Boulevard de la Chapelle, we witness the fenced remains of the two refugee encampments that used to live under the over-ground train tracks last winter. Walking a few dozen meters North, we find the Jardins d’Eole, where a new encampment has been set up by several hundred refugees in recent weeks, but was evacuated by the Paris police a few days before our walk. What is left on the site are police barricades, that could be seen and understood as the common architectural element of all current political nodes. There is also a security guard and his dog, together ensuring that no dwellings are reinstalled. Further on, feminist and anti-racist street art has been commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Rosa Parks train station nearby.
We finish the walk in the Goutte d’Or, a neighborhood primarily inhabited by a population of West Africans, and where, in January 2016, police officers shot a man to death who was allegedly wearing a paper explosive belt in front of the now-fortified local police station. A few meters further along, at the Barbès Rochechouart subway station — the only one on the entire grid that has turnstiles to prevent freeloading — several other political layers are concentrated: the location of the Tunisian department store TATI that has allowed the working class to access clothing at a reasonable price since the 1940s, the threatening gentrifying presence of a brand new brasserie, the preparation for the daily iftar during the ongoing Ramadan, as well as the site of the forbidden demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Gaza during the murderous Israeli war of 2014.
There are other political layers that could have been integrated in this territorialized walk — the battles for the liberation of Paris in 1944, the conflicts during the Algerian revolution in the late 1950s, the strong presence of the Tamil refugee diaspora near La Chapelle, the nearby existence of the Communist Party headquarters designed by Oscar Niemeyer on the Place du Colonel Fabien, etc. — but even their evocation cannot remedy the fact that politics does not (only) correspond to historical events; it is materialized through the every-day practice of the city space, as well as through the modification of the built environment that frames it. Historical currents leave their marks on every city. Walking, through its slow pace, allows the excavation of these marks that might otherwise remain ignored.
Photos and Map by Léopold Lambert.