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Eric Hazan: Scaling the Walls of Paris

By Karl Whitney.


Eric Hazan’s book The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps was published this week by Verso.

3:AM: Your book is very much concerned with boundaries – either walls around Paris or the division between quartiers. Why are these boundaries significant to you?

Eric Hazan: I think Paris had a very particular growth: it grew like an onion, with a series of concentric layers. And that gives a quite special geography to the city, which is not exactly the same as it is here [London] for instance. And what was striking, when I began to work [on the book] was how sharp can be the border between one quartier and another one. Elsewhere in the city, it’s less precise, and even there can be transition – small pieces of the city – and all that makes, when you walk through the city, a very special psychogeography. I think it’s because the layers are so densely connected; there is this extremely dense – much more than here – there is nothing like what we call in French terrain vague: space, imprecise, where there is nothing, with not exact borders. There is nothing like that in Paris – I mean, inside the boulevard péripherique [the dual-carriageway built around Paris on the former site of the Thiers Wall].

3:AM: It’s interesting that you talk about the division between different areas. You quote people talking about Belleville and Ménilmontant: there seems to be a certain memory of how one relates to the other, but people distinguish in quite different ways what is part of Belleville and what is part of Ménilmontant, depending on who you talk to.

EH: The difference between them is, Belleville was a village, and Ménilmontant was not: there was not a town hall, a council – before the election, I mean. Before the election of 1860, Belleville was an autonomous city, and Ménilmontant was not. It was more or less a part of Belleville. That’s why it’s not that easy to tell precisely where Belleville finishes and the other begins. There is an agreement to say that la rue des Couronnes is a reasonable border.

the invention of paris

3:AM: You talked about the psychogeography of the city, and your first chapter talks about the concept quite a bit. In terms of the concept, and in its interest in dividing out the city, your book recalls the Situationist International and their early urban experiments. How important is the Situationist conception of psychogeography to you?

EH: I think the word and the explanation they give for it is excellent – was excellent, and is still valid; for Paris, and for everywhere. It is an excellent word. I shouldn’t say I use that concept every day now. They were very good at that time. During those few years they were excellent. And though there were very few of them, they had a huge impact on, for instance, the May ’68 events in Paris. But that has been told many times. I can tell you it was true. In the vocabulary, which was new: there was a new vocabulary, a new semantic, and in great part it was theirs.

3:AM: And was it very much drawing on the early urban ideas of the Situationists in May ’68, less so than Society of the Spectacle, or was that also influential in some way?

EH: Société du Spectacle is from ’67 I think. At that time they were very very good. After that there was a decay. They were good, but they were very much inspired by Lettrism, by Cobra, by very interesting avant-garde groups dating from the ‘50s.

3:AM: Your book is subtitled, at least in English, ‘A History in Footsteps’, and in French it’s Breton’s ‘il n’y a pas de pas perdus’ [‘there is no such thing as a lost footstep’]. Walking seems a central practice in your book – not just your own journeys, but those of Baudelaire, Hugo, and the insurgents in 1848. Could you explain the close association between Paris and walking?

EH: The English subtitle, I’m not sure I like it so much, because it looks backward, like a historical guide, which the book is not – at least, I didn’t want it to be that. I don’t know if I succeeded. But walking and the city is not a new story, but it’s not such an old story either. It begins at the end of the 18th Century with Rousseau, with Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, with Sébastien Mercier. Before, of course there were people who walked in the city, but the city was not the subject of literature, of writing. There were no guides. There were excellent historical books on Paris since a very very long time [ago]. But even in novels which are located in Paris, there was almost nothing on the city itself. It was not a subject, until the end of the 18th century. Since then, yes, of course: every book which is located in Paris has many figures walking in the city; it’s become completely usual.

3:AM: I’m thinking specifically of the idea of the boulevards being created for parading, and the emergence of the flâneur from that.

EH: Yes, les boulevards, they are probably the first great avenues, large and comfortable to walk. Because before, there was the Palais-Royal of course, but walking in the Palais-Royal was: two or three times [through it], the tour, and then it’s over. Les boulevards, you could walk and walk and walk on pavements, lighted quite early: the gas lighting appeared on the boulevards. And they were certainly the first place in Paris where there were cafés. So yes, you’re right, it’s certainly a place in which people walked a lot. And, Baudelaire…

3:AM: What’s interesting to me is how somebody like the Situationists, the idea of the flâneur is filtered through Walter Benjamin, and the Situationists turn what is initially seen as a leisure pursuit into something more potentially radical.

EH: Yes, it’s true. By way of the dérive: it was not explicitly political, but in fact it was. It was, for them, le Continent Contrescarpe, it was almost what the Maoists might call a territoire libéré. But today, I think la flâneurie, the exploration of a Situationist-type cannot be done anymore inside Paris, you have to cross the boulevard péripherique, because inside – the living Paris inside is not that large. It’s reduced to the northern, north-eastern part of the city, [the third and the twentieth arrondissements]. The others are transformed into a vast museum. For a Parisian, I mean; for a foreigner, it’s different. For a foreigner, of course, if you stand in front of the plate on which it’s written that here Balzac has written Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu and Picasso has done Guernica, well, it’s impressive.

3:AM: So, you believe that a city should be a functioning, complex space; it shouldn’t just be a case of preservation of the past: it should be able to function on other levels as well.

EH: Exactly. As always, when the city is too dense, too crowded, too tight, then the existing wall is dismantled and a new area is annexed to the city. That has to be done now, but for geographical and political reasons it’s much more difficult than it was before, because the boulevard péripherique, it’s a huge ditch – huge; very large, very large. The fermiers-genereaux wall was one metre large, and then [with the boulevard péripherique] you have a ditch of one mile. It’s difficult to bridge that gap, and politically, it’s a risk; these poor people, these blacks, these Arabs, who were so difficult to expel from the centre, if you annex these cities you will get them back inside Paris, and I don’t think they like the idea so much – I mean, those who are at the head of the city. For all these reasons, what should have been done already, this new layer, it’s not for tomorrow. But it has to be done.

3:AM: What shape would that take? There were vague proposals for an architectural design that would link the suburbs to the centre.

EH: They claimed they wanted to link, but in fact, all of the plans they published are made to separate. It’s completely crazy – they don’t want to link. They are keen on the idea to link in a centrifugal way, like a centrifuge machine, they will link the poor together far away from the centre, to allow them to go from their bed to their work, without [allowing them] to penetrate the city, just stay outside.

3:AM: From your descriptions of different areas Paris in the first section of the book, what comes through is your fondness for Belleville and the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Is your liking for these areas based on their historical resonances, or do you have more personal attachments to each place?

EH: It’s true. Belleville, there is something special in Belleville. You have Chinese, Arab, Blacks, old Tunisian Jewish who play cards all day and insult and shout in Arabic, and between all these people there is a kind of harmony. They live together very peacefully – very peacefully. I sometimes dare to say that the Boulevard de Belleville is a prefiguration of one state in historical Palestine. They live together, they know each other, they don’t mix too much, but they accept their presence very well. Barbès [Rochechouart, near the Gare du Nord] is more difficult; there is a brutality in Barbès. I don’t know why, but there is a brutality. Probably, the geography is different: it’s less large, the pavements are narrow, the métro down the middle [of the street] makes noise. It’s very noisy. Le boulevard de Magenta is a very brutal Haussmannian boulevard. The geography is different, and the population is… no, the population is not that different. It would be interesting to precise why Barbès is much more brutal than Belleville. I have no clear explanation for that. But it’s psychogeography, eh?

3:AM: There’s a claustrophobic element to it, in terms of your description of Barbès, in that it seems closed in, like a canyon – you describe streets as canyons at certain points. Whereas Belleville is on a hill, there’s a lot of fresh air.

EH: Yes, it’s open space.

3:AM: But Belleville also underwent massive destruction in the 1960s…

EH: The top of the hill. The top of the hill was completely destroyed under Pompidou. In the book there’s a footnote with a quotation from Debord on that subject which is very good. He said that you cannot think that could have been done without real hate. And it’s true, it’s true. These buildings were built with hate. But fortunately, the lowest part of Belleville is not that destroyed, as destroyed. Pompidou died in time, I think. I should say too late, but…

3:AM: Just in time, nevertheless.

EH: Oui.

3:AM: Better late than never.

EH: [Laughter]

3:AM: You briefly mention the Sacré-Coeur, but don’t go into detail. Is this absence significant?

EH: Oh, it’s well known that it has been built as an expiation of sins committed during la Commune. But I don’t remember if I have specified the Rue du Chevalier-de-la-Barre… Clemenceau was the mayor of Montmartre in the 1890s, something like that, and at that time he was a leftist. He had been a leftist. He was maire radical of Montmartre, and he succeeded to give to that small street which was named Rue des Rosiers, which goes uphill until the Sacré-Coeur, the name of le Chevalier-de-la-Barre. Le Chevalier-de-la-Barre was a young guy of 24-25, something like that, who was judged and killed and tortured at the wheel under Louis XV because he didn’t take off his hat when the procession was in the street. The name of the street was given during the construction of the Sacré-Coeur.

3:AM: In the section on Red Paris in your book, you concentrate on the nineteenth century history of the city, particularly the ‘June days’ of 1848. Why is 1848 a landmark event in this book?

EH: I think it’s a landmark because it’s the end of the old dream, the dream that the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, hand-in-hand, would finish the work begun in 1789. The old dream was broken in these four days in which the bourgeoisie killed, by the thousands, Parisian workers. In the book I explain that Victor Hugo, when he tried to uprise the Faubourg Saint Antoine at the moment of the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he was talking with a guy he had known before, a worker. And the guy told him: okay, okay, congratulations, you are trying to resist the coup d’état, but we, the workers, won’t go with you, because June is too close. We didn’t forget what you – not you, Monsieur Victor Hugo, but you the pouvoir [power], you the députés – what you did to us, we didn’t forget. And Hugo is very impressed by that. He relates that in Histoire d’un crime – History of a Crime. He realises that a break has been done during these days.

3:AM: Was there even a division amongst the bourgeoisie during 1848?

EH: No. The proletariat was alone. The chief of the barricades, all of them are unknown people. A shoemaker, a carpenter, never a journalist or an intellectual. I don’t think so many bourgeois were on the side of the proletariat, of the workers.

3:AM: So they’re abandoned, you said.

EH: Oui.

3:AM: I just wanted to talk about the publisher you founded, la Fabrique. You published, reasonably recently, the Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection, and I understand that there was a strong reaction from the authorities in France [the arrest of the so-called ‘Tarnac Nine’]. Does this reaction signify that books continue to play a key part in political struggle?

EH: When the book was published it was in Spring ’07. There was no reaction at all. When the people in Tarnac were arrested, the judge was convinced that they, or at least one of them, had written that book. Because it’s important for them because they’re anti-terrorists now. You’re not put in jail because you have done something, you’re put in jail because maybe you could do something. It’s a preventative justice: the goal is to prevent acts and to prevent things it’s good to know the intentions, and to know the intentions it’s good to know what you read and what you write. And for that reason the entire text of the book was in the file of accusation. In spite of the fact that they were not able to have the proof that one of the prisoners had written it. It gives a light on what the anti-terrorist law is in France. I don’t know how it is in this country [the U.K.], but in France it is clearly a preventative justice, and in a preventative justice you are not put in jail because you have killed your wife or have stolen a box of biscuits in a supermarket, but because you belong to a group who maybe could, one day, do something.

3:AM: La Fabrique also publishes texts from the nineteenth century. Why do you think it’s important to keep these texts in print?

EH: Not to keep, because they were out of print. Because I think that the nineteenth century is important to understand the twenty-first [century], maybe more than the one between them. My opinion, and it’s a personal opinion, is that if we want to revive the idea of the practice of communism, we should avoid doing it in the terms of Leninism or orthodox Marxism. Leninism and orthodox Marxism have completely occluded – made invisible – the tradition of French revolutionary socialism of the nineteenth century – Blanqui and the others – which are easy to make invisible because they didn’t build a system. It’s a way of thinking which is extremely interesting today. For that reason, we think, at la Fabrique, it’s worthwhile to publish these otherwise impossible to get texts.

3:AM: You talk briefly about 1968, and call it ‘the first modern revolution’. What do you mean by that?

EH: Because the problem was not the problem of power. It was not the storming of the Winter Palace. It was completely different. It was something like a cultural revolution.


Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 19th, 2010.