This diverse district is a symbol of the French capital's successby Jonathan Derbyshire / November 14, 2015 / Leave a comment
My wife and her sister recently sold a tiny flat on the third floor of an undistinguished building in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. It had belonged to their father and before that to a friend of mine. We’d been graduate students in Paris in the Nineties and my friend had ended up staying, falling in love with a French woman with whom he had a child. When they sold up to my father in law, they stayed in the east of the city, in the neighbouring 20th arrondissement. This was their—and my—”quartier“. And it’s where many of the victims of the attacks in Paris last night were slaughtered.
At least 80 dead (according to the latest reports) at the Bataclan concert hall on the Boulevard Voltaire, where we saw Massive Attack (I think—though the memories are murky) some time in the Nineties and where, 15 years later, I sat on a sunny terrance with my wife and children after a day spent wandering up and down the Canal St Martin. At least 19 dead outside a café on the corner of rue de Charonne and rue Faidherbe. There used to be a place on rue Faidherbe where students could get cheap meals—we’d eat couscous and merguez there—as well as a branch of the municipal library particularly well-stocked with philosophy books (my book-buying budget was no match for those of the French students in the seminars at the Ecole Normale and Ecole des Hautes Etudes, so I relied on the city’s libraries). At least five dead on the terrace of a restaurant close to the Place de la République, where we once saw James Brown perform during the annual Fête de la Musique
I’ve been watching French television pretty much non-stop since the news of the horror in the 11th broke last night. This morning, one of the talking heads was saying that these weren’t “symbolic” targets like the offices of Charlie Hebdo or the Jewish supermarket in Vincennes where the Kouachi brothers and their accomplice made their pitiful claims on posterity. He couldn’t have been more wrong. The 11th is a symbol of Paris’s success—and that’s why, I suspect, the killers did their worst there. The 11th is where students and young professionals, the kinds of people who’d have been thronging the bars and cafés of the rue de Charonne last night, live cheek-by-jowl with “bourgeois bohemians” of child-bearing age and alongside the descendants of North African immigrants (Sephardic Jews and Muslims alike) and a sizeable chunk of the city’s West African diaspora. The Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper, who lives in the neighbourhood, put it very well: “I have lived in Paris for 13 years. I had always thought the city worked very well… There are homegrown terrorists, but most Parisians mix pretty well across ethnic boundaries… Greater Paris has 12m often rather irritable people crammed into too small a space but until now it has flourished. In fact, Paris is a miracle.”
He’s right—it is. A couple of years ago, Kuper and I had lunch in the “quartier“. We met at a café opposite a halal butcher and next door to a grocery store run by Algerians. There’s a Chinese “traiteur” just down the street that is favoured by workers in the wholesalers in what has become Paris’s new garment district, the so-called “Sentier chinois“. And a couple of blocks away there’s a synagogue and, a few hundred metres further on, a Catholic Church. Between them is the rue Keller, one of the centres of gay life in Paris and the street where Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, lives. It’s a miraculous, cacophonous jumble—and intolerable, I suppose, to anyone wishing to remake the world in the image of some other-worldly ideal of purity or other.