Forty years af­ter Paris’s May ri­ots is an op­por­tune time to ponder the city’s heart and soul, writes Murray Lau­rence

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

ILIVED in Paris in the mid to late 1970s and was re­minded re­cently of the rea­sons that first took me to France, when I stayed for some time in a stu­dio on rue Dauphine in the Latin Quar­ter. In 1976 I rented a small apart­ment in rue San­tos Du­mont in the 15th ar­rondisse­ment, mid­way be­tween the metro sta­tions of Con­ven­tion, Plai­sance and Vau­gi­rard.

Un­til then my in­ter­est in France had been nour­ished not by the study of French at school, alas, but by the tu­mul­tuous events of May 1968, when I was a univer­sity stu­dent.

It was an in­spir­ing time to be a stu­dent of pol­i­tics. We had the Great Pro­le­tar­ian Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion in full frenzy in China, with the West fac­ing what was seen as an ap­palling, nu­clear-armed, revo­lu­tion­ary men­ace. Viet­nam was be­com­ing an apoca­lyp­tic hor­ror and In­done­sia was emerg­ing from the tur­moil and Kon­frontasi of the Sukarno years. There was the Prague Spring, the as­sas­si­na­tions of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy within months of each other, and in­cen­di­ary groups such as the Black Pan­thers and the Baader-Mein­hof gang trau­ma­tis­ing so­ci­ety. Stu­dents ev­ery­where were con­fronting the au­thor­i­ties and nowhere more so than in Paris, where the gov­ern­ment of Charles de Gaulle was brought to the brink of col­lapse.

Daniel Cohn-Ben­dit, the charis­matic French stu­dent leader, de­picted in the press as a dan­ger­ous ag­i­ta­tor (he was the au­thor of Ob­so­lete Com­mu­nism: The Left-Wing Al­ter­na­tive and even the com­mu­nists damned him as a ‘‘ Ger­man an­ar­chist’’), was my hero. This led me, among other sub­ver­sive acts, to paint the words Viva Red Danny (prov­ing that I knew no French) on the foot­path near Syd­ney’s Kil­lara sta­tion.

So when I went to France in 1976, it was more to ex­pe­ri­ence the af­ter­glow of May 1968 than any­thing else, and many of the for­eign stu­dents I met were thrilled that the 10th an­niver­sary was ap­proach­ing.

The Uni­ver­site de Vin­cennes, set up to im­pound the rad­i­cals in an en­clo­sure of their own de­sign, seemed to be an an­ar­chic zone burst­ing with en­ergy and ideas, pop­u­lated by sub­ver­sives, rat­bags and refugees from ev­ery­where. Its fa­mous far-left phi­los­o­phy de­part­ment had Michel Fou­cault as its head (if head is the right word for a place with no per­cep­ti­ble or­der).

Cohn-Ben­dit had been ex­pelled to Ger­many, but his idea of the univer­sity as an axis of in­sur­rec­tion, sparked when he was a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Nan­terre, was thriv­ing in the chaos of Vin­cennes.

In­evitably, I also dis­cov­ered a mul­ti­fac­eted city that as­ton­ished me from the minute we ar­rived at Gare du Nord. And it still does. Paris was home to many of the in­ter­na­tion­ally known in­tel­lec­tu­als who had sup­ported the stu­dent move­ments, in­clud­ing Jean-Paul Sartre (who had said that the stu­dents, by tak­ing to the streets, had ‘‘ put imag­i­na­tion in power’’) and Si­mone de Beau­voir.

It was a pow­er­ful thing to feel their pres­ence; we stu­dents would oc­ca­sion­ally go to the cafes that their writ­ing had made fa­mous, even if we could af­ford no more than a cof­fee. I once saw Sartre come out of his apart­ment on Boule­vard Ra­s­pail — the oddly turned eye was un­mis­tak­able — and walk to La Coupole at Mont­par­nasse. Even Samuel Beck­ett, re­cip­i­ent of the Croix de Guerre for his sup­port of the Re­sis­tance, lived in Paris, as did com­bat­ants and fugi­tives rep­re­sent­ing ev­ery imag­in­able po­lit­i­cal cause in ex­ile, from Eritre­ans to Ira­ni­ans. The nou­veaux philosophes such as Bernard-Henri Levy and An­dre Glucks­mann were about but their right­ist swerve had yet to ex­ert much in­flu­ence.

By the time we moved into rue San­tosDu­mont — af­ter stay­ing in a cou­ple of cheap ho­tels and with an Iraqi man met loi­ter­ing around Gare du Nord (who stole my Mao cap) — I re­alised that even the street names in Paris told a wealth of sto­ries.

With a lit­tle re­search I learned that Al­berto San­tos-Du­mont was a Brazil­ian who in much of the world was con­sid­ered the fa­ther of avi­a­tion but, typ­i­cally, in Aus­tralia we had never heard of him.

In 1901 he ac­quired ex­tra­or­di­nary fame when he flew a di­ri­gi­ble from St Cloud to the Eif­fel Tower, and in 1906 he be­came the first per­son to fly a self-pow­ered aero­plane in Europe. San­tos-Du­mont was also noted for his style: he in­spired and pop­u­larised the wrist­watch (in­vented by Louis Cartier, who ob­served that San­tos-Du­mont needed both hands to pilot his con­trap­tions). He was an ide­al­ist who com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1932, de­pressed about the use of air­craft in war.

This is Paris, I thought, a place that doesn’t name streets and pub­lic places af­ter colo­nial no­bod­ies and self-in­flat­ing big shots. Per­haps it is the con­tempt that comes from fa­mil­iar­ity, but it seems to me that in Aus­tralia we rarely rise above the dull in our civic names.

Con­ven­tion is named for the Con­ven­tion Na­tionale that gov­erned France from 1792 to 1795, over­throw­ing and ex­e­cut­ing Louis XVI; the agree­able Plai­sance is named af­ter the ham­let that once stood there, while Vau­gi­rard takes its name from a lo­cal Ro­man path.

Nearby is Volon­taires, which hon­ours the vol­un­teers who in 1793 took to arms to de­fend the revo­lu­tion against roy­al­ist threats. Mont­par­nasse-Bi­en­v­enue is among the many com­pos­ite names: Mt Par­nas­sus is a moun­tain in Greece ded­i­cated to Apollo and the Muses (the Par­nas­sians were a group of 19th-cen­tury po­ets), while the whim­si­cal-sound­ing Bi­en­v­enue hon­ours Ful­gence Bi­en­v­enue, an en­gi­neer whose achieve­ments in­cluded im­prov­ing the city’s wa­ter sup­ply and cre­ation of the metro.

Gaite is an area of dance halls, the­atres and bars, and Ale­sia is the place where Julius Cae­sar de­feated and cap­tured Vercinge­torix. So Greeks, Ro­mans, leg­endary Gauls, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, po­etry, pas­toral sen­ti­ments, joy and in­no­va­tion are cel­e­brated in a ra­dius of just a few kilo­me­tres.

To reach the Al­liance Fran­cais, where I stud­ied, I gen­er­ally alighted at Sevres-Baby­lone. It is named for a bishop of Baby­lon, Bernard de Sainte-Therese, as­signed to serve in part­ibus in­fi­delium (in the lands of un­be­liev­ers). He lived in this area, such bishops not be­ing re­quired by Rome to live among un­be­liev­ers. The Sevres part refers to the town where the royal pot­tery was es­tab­lished.

I trav­elled daily from Con­corde to Ar­gen­tine and then to of­fices across Paris to teach English. Place de la Con­corde, then called Place de la Revo­lu­tion, saw the guil­lo­tine fall on Louis XVI and thou­sands of oth­ers.

Champs El­y­sees-Cle­menceau recog­nises the eter­nal Elysian Fields of the an­cients and Ge­orges Cle­menceau, a politi­cian whose im­mense con­tri­bu­tions in­cluded a lead­ing role in the Paris Com­mune, im­pris­on­ment for declar­ing a repub­lic, pub­li­ca­tion of Emile Zola’s fa­mous let­ter J’ac­cuse (which took up the cause of the wrongly im­pris­oned Al­fred Drey­fus), friend­ship with and sup­port for the im­pres­sion­ists, and par­tic­i­pa­tion with Woodrow Wil­son and Lloyd Ge­orge in the peace treaty at Ver­sailles. Charles de Gaulle-Etoile, as well as hon­our­ing the war hero and pres­i­dent, refers to the hair-rais­ing star­shaped round­about, with Napoleon’s Arc de Tri­om­phe at its cen­tre. Ar­gen­tine, mean­while, is not the only street to be named af­ter a South Amer­i­can coun­try.

There are nearly 300 sta­tions on the Paris metro (this ex­cludes the RER sub­ur­ban lines). Ev­ery line will trans­port you quickly and cheaply to your des­ti­na­tion while stim­u­lat­ing the imag­i­na­tion with a seem­ingly ran­dom cel­e­bra­tion of events, places and peo­ple. Writ­ers, sci­en­tists and artists are hon­oured: Voltaire, Vic­tor Hugo, Louis Aragon, Louis Pas­teur, Pablo Pi­casso, Ray­mond Que­neau, Michelan­gelo, Diderot, Zola and Alexandre Du­mas. Many more (in­clud­ing Samuel Beck­ett, James Joyce and other for­eign­ers) have streets named af­ter them.

Great lead­ers thus hon­oured in­clude Robe­spierre, who was guil­lotined at the end of his Reign of Ter­ror in 1794, the Machi­avel­lian Car­di­nal Riche­lieu and Si­mon Bo­li­var, the lib­er­a­tor of South Amer­ica, as well as gen­er­als, par­ti­sans, saints and politi­cians.

Many names arouse cu­rios­ity, echo his­tory or are so at­trac­tive you can’t re­sist look­ing fur­ther. Some favourites: Filles du Cal­vaire, named for a Bene­dic­tine con­vent, and Pyra­mides, which cel­e­brates Napoleon’s vic­tory and en­try into Cairo in 1798. Then there is Pere Lachaise, home to the ceme­tery of that name where many no­ta­bles and ir­re­deemables lie, in­clud­ing Mar­cel Proust, Chopin, Moliere, Os­car Wilde and Jim Mor­ri­son.

Oth­ers in­clude Mar­cadet Pois­son­niers, for the fish­mon­gers who used a nearby route into Paris; and Cluny la Sor­bonne: the Musee Cluny is housed here on the site of Ro­man baths, and the Sor­bonne is named for Robert de Sor­bon, con­fes­sor of Louis IX.

Place de la Na­tion ac­claims the ‘‘ tri­umph of the repub­lic’’, hav­ing for­merly been Place du Trone, then os­cil­lat­ing grandly be­tween roy­alty and revo­lu­tion; and Stal­in­grad marks the heroic defence of that city by the Red Army dur­ing World War II (the Rus­sian city’s name was changed to Vol­gograd in 1961).

Qua­tre-Septem­bre is named for the day in 1870 when, af­ter a de­feat in the Fran­coPrus­sian war, Parisians re­volted, over­threw Napoleon III and in­stalled the Third Repub­lic. Tri­nite-d’Esti­enne d’Orvres hon­ours a hero of the Re­sis­tance who was shot by the oc­cu­py­ing Ger­mans; La Motte Pic­quetGrenelle is named af­ter a sea­man who was ac­tive in sup­port of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion. And, of course, there is Bastille, site of the prison stormed on July 14, 1789, ig­nit­ing the French Revo­lu­tion and giv­ing France its na­tional day.

We know so much of it is rhetoric, but the themes of re­sis­tance and revo­lu­tion in Paris are, for some of us, ir­re­sistible.

www.franceguide.com Susan Kuro­sawa’s Depar­tureLounge col­umn re­turns on June 14-15.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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