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How France changes and is changed

Apropos of this just-under 2,000 word essay :

‘He refuses to work. We’ll have to get rid of him.’

And the French Revolution ? the journo asked. « Too early to say,» the politician sagely replied.

Baudelaire’s famous, La forme d’un ville change plus vite que le cœur d’un mortel, is literally (or close), The look of a city changes faster than a human heart.) We could say, A city reinvents itself


         Place d’Italie, 13th arrondissement, Paris. Two young men share a table and a bottle of inexpensive Bordeaux in a dimly-lit room on the top floor of a cheap hotel facing a side street. They’re keeping the volume down in the low-ceilinged, reverberating box, even if their neighbors in the flophouse aren’t so conscientious and traffic still races five floors below, horns honking into the night broken by bouquets of uproar from the working class bars. In this neighborhood, immigrants live side by side with factory workers from the French provinces.

         Dog-eared copies of The Social Contract and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Law lie half-open, pages marked, conversation rising and falling between the two. The choice of reading material marks them as members of a younger generation; their predecessors in Paris were more likely followers of Jean Grave’s Les Temps nouveaux, an anarchist publication that appeared from 1895 to the eve of World War I.

         There’s another presence in the room, one familiar to the two men who make cutting jokes in between philosophical observations. The year is 1920 and although the world is ‘at peace’ again, war, the stench and humiliation of defeat hovers like a character in a silent film. The two men’s home country is humiliated, invaded by both Japanese and Germans, the latter claiming the Shantung Peninsula and Tsingtao for themselves, and so, while revolutions erupt in unlikely Mexico and even unlikelier Russia – local reverberations of that latter cataclysm impossible to miss since Paris is flooded with downcast, demanding Russian ex-aristos banging on counters and demanding Service and make that quick ! – China must declare war on Germany if it wants to keep territory lost to the imperialists. Japan is the more implacable enemy, its invasion of the mainland continuing for decades.* The recent declaration of war by China at least gets the country a seat at the Versailles conference, where it will be humiliated yet again by Japan.  

(*What the American Vineager Joe Stilwell was doing pacing up and down China in the late 30s, bivouacked in Shanghai, is another story, one I could never pry out of the Old General, content to smoke cheap American cigars with his feet up in Daytona.)  

         In the aftermath of WWI France witnessed a wave of Chinese emigration, although anyone not living in one of the big cities can be forgiven for never experiencing it first hand. Stirred by ideological debates openly discussed across the world, enraged by China’s treatment at the hands of foreigners, the young were convinced it was possible to find remedies for their homeland’s agonizing descent, prompting the generation born at the beginning of the century to slip through Europe’s newly reopened borders, bypassing an aging political establishment that would rather they’d stayed home. Setting out in 1919 in search of the knowledge and experience they lacked, France loomed large in their imagination. By 1920, some 2,000 young Chinese, largely men, many from Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong and Jiangxi had landed in Paris, Marseille and Bayeux, studying while working in factories for their daily bread. The hard labor marked them but the exchange of ideas was crucial, too.  

            The two young men in the room on the top floor of this piece are, if you haven’t already guessed, Chou En Lai and Deng Xiaoping.

(Down on the street few notice the ornate plaque high overhead on rue Godefroy, attached to a modern building where the old flophouse once stood. A Chinese woman hesitated, her interest piqued. ‘Very few people interested in those things anymore,’ she told the photographer as he balanced on the curb, before they became quick friends, Paris-style, strolling around the neighborhood together while she related how and why she came to Paris. ‘For love,’ she said mysteriously, a modern twist on the old tale of setting out into the unknown. The photog is still waiting to hear the rest.)

         The hard to decipher marble and bronze plaque records Chou En Lai’s residence, his evenings spent sparing over ideas with the troublemaker Deng Xiaoping. Both men arrived in Marseilles on the André leBond in 1920, Deng, 19, the youngest on board, the two both members of the radical Fourth of May movement. Deng bounced between studies in Bayeux, where he worked in the Creusot mills to keep food on the table, later in Montargis in a Hitchinson factory built by Eiffel and finally on the Renault assembly line in Billancourt, Paris southwest. (The latter bombed by the Allies in WWII). It was in Montargis that bosses got fed up with his organizing the workers and circulated the note about firing the incorrigible organizer at the head of this piece.

         Chou En Lai is remembered, in the West at any rate, for his famous answer to a question about the lasting effects of the French revolution. ‘Too early to say,’ he replied, thereby feeding the Western mania for contrasting Chou with Mao, that cultivator of impulsive, disruptive change. The year was 1972, American journalists were flooding China and thought they had found the man with the long view standing stoically behind the throne. The phrase is indeed Chou’s but it’s the answer to a different question: what did he think of the 1968 strikes that brought France to a standstill ? That was only four years earlier then so Chou was responding to current events. And now it’s a question France will be asking itself after tomorrow’s near-national strike. (October 18, 2022.)   

         Later in life, the two men reminisced over their time in the city, Deng supposedly a fan of French food, more precisely that buttery warmth rising from fresh croissants on cold mornings… Paris changes you while you contribute to it, “however hard living may be here… the French air clears up the brain and does one good,” as the itinerant Dutchman Van Gogh wrote from Montmartre thirty years before. Extraordinary when you realize that one working class rooming house in the humble 13th gave shelter to not one but two future leaders of the Chinese People’s Republic.     

            Another presence, a decade older than the two Chinese, mercurial, hard to pin down if only because he was always changing addresses, is moving around the 13th at the same time. Call him Chou and Deng’s reverse daimon, air spirit to their earth. If those two are flesh and bone enjoying ‘the hotbed of ideas’ (Van Gogh again) this poet from the south is a one-man machine for poetry and independence. All three crossed paths at the Peace Conference in Versailles.

Nguyễn Sinh Cung, alias Nguyễn Tat Thanh, alias Nguyễn Ai Quôc , alias…

This poet, who would later get to know hard time in jails, kept his 13th arrondissement collocs (roommates) awake late into the night with visions of the world to come, concealing his message inside images and metaphors :

Suddenly a flute sounds a nostalgic note;
Sadly the music rises, its tune close to sobbing:
Over a thousand miles, across mountains and rivers,
Journey’s an aching grief. We seem to see a woman
Climbing a far off tower to watch for someone’s return.

It must be his non-stop delivery of that beautiful future that kept him forever packing his suitcase for the move from one rooming house to another. Or was it wanderlust ? Refused a French visa, the young poet travelled the world (pearl diving in Boston) and when he got back to the city of light, made the rounds. Like Deng and Chou, his life was a two-acter with starkly different mise en scenes, the low level dayshift as a photo retoucher and the night, when he moved about the city like a dandy, visiting the radical circuit, debating the shape of the world to come. The sharply dressed young man ventured out of the 13th, attending monthly dinners hosted by the Revolutionary Esperantists (!) at la Famille Nouvelle on rue Bretagne in the 3rd. (Strictly Bobo these days.) The poet watches us watching him in photos, sometimes scowling over a cigarette, as if we’d just interrupted one of his long monologues, at others those ink-black eyes tender and imploring.

All this is on the q.t. His legal status was iffy. He only creates his public persona when as a member of the Socialist party, he disrupts proceedings at the Peace Conference in Versailles, imploring the Americans to take a stand against French imperialism by recognizing Vietnam’s independence. That got people’s notice. Historians call it a ‘failed gambit’ ; fifty years later Ho Chi Minh, man of 200 aliases, was there when Vietnam showed the last invader the door. So much for historians !

Ho Chi Minh at a socialist conference in Marseilles.


         Is the city changing ? It’s changing again. No one ever steps on the same Paris boulevard twice. Can any ‘great city’ worth the name be like it was a hundred years before ? Picking up different surnames, dinner times and religious ideas, doesn’t it change without changing at all, or is that all pop psychology meant to put the liberal classes to sleep comfortably ? Lutece’s motto is Fluctuat nec mergitur. Goes with the flow without ever going under. Paris, legend and reality, is eternal because it permeates our thoughts while simultaneously evolving and becoming something new. Any other possibility is really, when you think about it, dreadful and essentially, un-Parisian. Museum City.

         What does any of this have to do Luis, the traffic cop ? He’s the funky, balletic maitre du circulation in the 13th, importing Caribbean style to the arrondissement pulsing with life from new generations of immigrants. Luis is from la Capital, Santo Domingo, so we had a good time talking about old roads and places on Hispaniola, and the Brugal that can be had for pennies a bottle. Luis, twenty five years or so in Paris – a fascinating, not at all normal trajectory, worth finding out more about ! - just celebrated his 60th birthday, which perhaps explains his dancing mood. His innovations in style can be seen at the intersection of Tolbiac, Choisy and Ivry, where traditional cafés, hipster worlds and Asian commerce overlap. Is all this exotic importation something new or old in the capital ?

         Not to worry, you lovers of the Paris that never dies, my friend Luis is in fact a worthy inheritor of the style of the dauntless traffic cops directing the flow at Paris’s big intersections for generations. He’s even got the white gloves to prove it. He’s just putting his spin on the job.

         A short photographic record of Luis’s predecessors follows.

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So, is the debate resolved, Immigrants are taking over Paris ? It sometimes feels like I’m entering a dream-time when I dive onto Métro 7 at eight in the morning, rubbing my eyes open to find the train running on the Shanghai no. 7, the car full of serious, silent, phone-obsessed young Asians headed to work. (A poetic revery no doubt influenced by my mother’s memories of the place where she grew up in the late Thirties.) But that experience is a statistical mirage, the compression of reality inside a shaking, jolting box on wheels : Villejuif where I live is populated by young French families and old, thirty-something Bobos streaming out of Paris in search of a small pied à terre avec jardin. Part of the Red Belt, the village is also a preferred retirement hub for over-the-hill bank robbers, who have their own bar where they swap stories of the golden days before security cameras were everywhere. Is Villejuif going Chinese ? Incrementally, over the next hundred years ? I’ll ask the man who runs my tabac, he might know. He came here in Chou En Lai’s footsteps.

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Part II

There will be a second half to this essay, under construction now. In the meantime, you can subscribe, for free or for some ridiculous sum will keep me in coffee, or if all that’s too much to ask, you can like the piece and leave a comment below. Writers and critics who aren’t towing the company line have few or no paying outlets and so here we are in the wilds of cyberspace on Substack. Living, rebarbative, questioning community is rare these days. We all know how we got here. Question is, how do we get out ?