J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY REVOLUTIONARY IDEAS
Forty years after Paris’s May riots is an opportune time to ponder the city’s heart and soul, writes Murray Laurence
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.