Return to Château Rouge

I’ve been back in Paris a couple of weeks now, enough time to pick up some impressions and offer a status update. If we’re checking boxes, the basic story is pretty much what it always is with me and Paris, ever since we first met in 1965– complicated. But coming back at this moment certainly provides plenty to think about. It’s six months after the November 13 killings, with France still officially under state of emergency legislation, plus social protests are heating up about the government’s new labor laws. You’d expect things to look pretty different.

But it hasn’t played out like that, mostly the reverse– everything looks about the same as when I was last here, a year ago. That’s especially strange in the Château Rouge neighborhood where I stay (I’ve rented the same apartment here for the last six years; here‘s my description from last year). It’s rowdy, filled with African immigrants, with dubious activities happening on every corner. On my own corner, it’s mainly prostitution and late-afternoon, free-range outdoor beer drinking; the next street over, it’s street merchandizing– counterfeit perfumes, African fish and vegetables, and everything in between. There’s no sign anyone’s cracking down on this. Despite the state of emergency, the cops aren’t around more often than last year, and the street merchants don’t seem less numerous or more jumpy about being caught; there actually seem to be more prostitutes, especially late at night. One step up the merchandizing chain, there’s the same collection of shops, selling African fabrics and foods and offering to unlock that cell phone you happened to get from a friend.

It’s the sort of place that would provide a field day for American-style broken windows policing— you know, the theory that people who commit minor crimes are likely to have committed bigger ones, so the cops should bust people for even trivial offenses, then sort out what else they’ve done. Plus the French authorities say they worry about low-level hoodlums turning terrorist. You’d expect to see arrests and ID checking every few minutes, but it all looks just the same as it did pre-November 13.

But then I was out yesterday on some errands, and encountered for the first time one of the real post-November 13 novelties: soldiers patrolling the streets in full military gear, sub-machine guns, camo, helmets on their belts, just what they’d wear on a NATO mission to Afghanistan or Estonia. They were in groups of four, coordinating their movements, and they all looked very tough, very different from the soldiers who for years have patrolled French airports and railway stations. Those soldiers often look like randomly-selected high school kids. The guys I saw yesterday looked like extras from a 1950s Foreign Legion movie– the message was, they’d been around and seen a lot.

Here’s a picture taken from the Web–

soldiers in paris

The specifics made it all extra weird. This was mid-morning, on some completely standard city streets, places that had no tourist monuments or religious hot spots. As it happened, I was also out late last night, in the city’s fanciest neighborhood, just when you might expect policing to step up– and not a cop or soldier in sight.

Of course I turned to the internet when I got home, and learned the government’s putting big resources into these patrols: 10,000 soldiers in all, half in the Paris region, half of those in Paris itself, at a cost of 1 million euros daily. But it’s awfully hard to picture this as a serious policiing initiative– it’s just too episodic and discontinuous, not to mention too scary. Who’s going to approach these guys with tips about suspicious activity on the next block? Most everyone I saw on the streets was just trying to avoid eye contact and stay out of the way, just in case bullets started flying– I mean, those sub-machine guns can’t be optimal weapons on crowded city streets, not to mention all the Afghanistan-ready gear the soldiers were carrying around.

So whatever else is going on, there’s a heavy element of theater in these street patrols. Think of it as a a kind of performance art. That’s not in itself a criticism. Historians (like other social scientists) have learned that power always includes an element of theater, it’s never all about brute force, it’s always partly about managing impressions. So what impressions are being managed here? What’s the message supposed to be? Some guesses are–

1) France faces a war problem, not a policing problem. You might think that’s crazy, given that the November 13 attackers were home-grown hoodlums, not ISIS imports, but (so goes the message) France is responding to global threats, because the battles over there in Syria have now spread to over here.

2) Whoever you are, don’t mess with the government, because they mean business. They’ve got the soldiers, they’ve got the guns, they want you to see them, and they want the soldiers to look as military as possible.

3) And don’t look for compromises, efforts at dialogue; don’t look for neighborly cops-on-the-beat, the kind who’d chat with kids and joke with shop-keepers.

It’s all in keeping with the one change I have noticed in the neighborhood landscape this year.  When I first started renting here, there was a rickety neighborhood mosque, and usually there were a lot of people hanging around chatting following prayer services.  Then a big sign appeared, promising a spiffy new Islamic cultural center, and pretty soon after that the existing mosque was leveled; construction equipment appeared, and it looked like the site was being prepared for serious building.  This year, the construction equipment’s gone, and so also is the sign. I haven’t looked into what’s going on, but the least you can say is, street theater happens via silences and absences as well as via armed patrols.