Friday Night in Paris


The Rue Mosnier With Flags, Édouard Manet, 1878

by Justin E. H. Smith

A series of attacks occurred earlier this evening in Paris. While the full death toll is not known, it has already far surpassed the total number of victims in the attacks on Charlie Hebdo (and on a kosher supermarket two days later) with which we rang in this bloody year. President François Hollande had been attending a friendly match of the national team against Germany when grenades went off at the Stade de France north of Paris in St. Denis. He was whisked away of course, and a short time later declared a state of emergency throughout France. It is being reported that the borders of the entire country have been shut. Just a few moments ago a hostage stand-off at the popular concert venue, Le Bataclan, came to an end with the deaths of two terrorists, a twist the jocular California band The Eagles of Death Metal, who do not in fact play death metal, but rather ‘desert rock’, could never have imagined when they set up their show a few hours ago.

I was on a train from Turin as the crisis began. If I had set out an hour later I suppose I would not have made it across the border. On the train, out in the fields, I was among the only people whose 4G connection was working, and so I became an information-relay station for frightened Italian vacationers and Parisian students returning home to their families. At issue for us was the safety of the Gare de Lyon, where we were to arrive, not so far from Le Bataclan. Surely the conductors have been notified, I told my sudden flock. They would not simply pull into a train station under siege. We’ll be fine. (Later in the evening bomb threats at the Gare de Lyon would briefly appear on Twitter, as they would for almost every major site in the city.)

So we arrived at 11:30, and loudspeakers were speaking euphemistically of ‘events’ that had occurred sur Paris, a strange and rare preposition that indicates something is going on citywide. As a result of the events, taxis could not approach the station, and we who had just arrived were invited to take public transportation. I thought of London, 2005, and said to myself, No way, I am not getting into the metro. I was able to secure for myself the last Vélib (a city-owned loaner bike) at the station. I had already heard that large portions of the city were blocked off, but at least on a bike I would remain master of my own fate. I went north, to the Place de la Bastille. There were hundreds of police there, and gendarmes, and men coming out of camouflaged trucks, themselves wearing camouflage. I continued north, towards Le Bataclan, for no other reason than that I wanted to get home. Three minutes or so past Bastille, up the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, I hit the police barricade. I asked a policeman, smoking and posing, if he had any ‘advice’ for someone like me, who simply wishes to get home, but lives on the other side of the barrier. “My advice is for you to stay in the security zone. I know you’re pissed off, but it could save your life.”

Scattered people tried to convince the stone-faced policemen that they lived just on the other side of the barrier. A group of Magrhebin boys was hanging around smoking pot. They heard me speaking English on my phone and said: “Yeah, man.” People milled, and chattered. I heard a retching sound and caught a glimpse of a young man vomiting into the bushes. The police looked on. In the end, it was a late Friday night in Paris, and no act of violence could transform the city entirely. Only 100 or so meters from the barrier, I would later learn, a methodical massacre was still going on, with automatic weapons, at a concert of the Eagles of Death Metal.

I manoeuvred through side streets, pulled out GPS on my iPhone, and eventually made it to the Canal St. Martin, near the Petit Cambodge restaurant from which the first reports of a Kalashnikov attack had come some hours earlier. I turned on narrow street after narrow street, hoping to find a way to reach one of the drawbridges over the canal, and pass into the safety of my peripheral apartment near the Buttes Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement. On narrow street after narrow street, the voices of men in camouflage holding guns yelled at me from a distance: Turn that bicycle around. When I finally made it home, I flipped on all the sources of news, and let it all flow in, writing nothing, saying little, for two hours or so.

This is by now a familiar habit. On January 7 I spent hours sitting and listening to the radio and the TV simultaneously, keeping open multiple windows in multiple languages, as the story of my neighbours in the Buttes Chaumont terrorist cell slowly took shape: the back story to the Kouachi brothers’ hit on a group of ageing cartoonists. The anxiety that first came to stay with us here in Paris that day never really went away. Tonight is its full reawakening, but not the appearance of something altogether new.

A dinky French academic society with which I have a close but unofficial affiliation had been planning to hold its next meeting in Tunis, in Spring, 2016. This was going to be great victory for the Francophone Tunisian organisers, who had hoped that a conference devoted to a European Enlightenment philosopher in their country would send a message to the native forces of dark and irrational violence. Then, in June of this year, 38 people were killed in the Tunisian coastal city of Sousse, by dastardly hitmen who stormed the beach from the water, dressed as frogmen. The little academic society began to quiver, and made the cowardly decision to move its next meeting back within the safe confines of the Hexagon. We do not yet know how many times more people were killed in Paris tonight than were killed in Sousse.

A month or so ago I began to work on the online forms to apply for a faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley. As I filled in the blanks, I kept thinking about what it would be like to work in a place where the public-university budget is basically the loose change that is left over once all the prisons get their share of the pie. I determined I couldn’t go through with it, I could not return to my home state, but had to keep living here, in self-imposed exile. Tonight messages are flooding in from California, beseeching me to reconsider my position, asking me if I’ve had enough.

The lesson for me tonight, before the bodies have been counted, before the inevitable forces of reaction and phobia set in, before the time of endless analysis and of the posturing of the impotent men in power, is this: there is nowhere else to go.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith.