Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Paris Journal XI: Les Banlieues

Paris is the City of Light, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the object of love poems as well as the backdrop for some of the great narratives of Western literature. Once an art student, Hitler’s destructive instincts were inhibited when it came to the prospect of bombing Paris, as compared to, say, London. Paris was a jewel to be acquired, and it’s a wonder that when the Russians routed Napoleon’s armies, they didn’t march on Paris and turn the tables on the Francophilia that had infected the Russian aristocracy from the time of Peter the Great, when French was the de facto second language for the upper classes. The bawdy Pigalle and the meat market of the Bois de Boulogne still exist, though their primacy is threatened by the Internet, whose pornographic version of Paris is probably able to outdo the Folies Bergères or any of its more risqué clones. But there is another Paris that most tourists never see—the so-called Banlieues. Banlieue is the French word for suburb, but these suburbs are nothing like Scarsdale or Short Hills. They are violent places filled with unemployed youth, the disaffected residue of France’s former colonial adventures, particularly in Algeria and Morocco. Intermittently, the seething discontent breaks out in violence. If we look at France as a person, we might say that these eruptions are like the repressed emotions that create neuroses in an otherwise healthy-seeming individual. In France and its cynosure city Paris, the dichotomy is especially vivid. Beauty is bought at a price, and nowhere is this more epitomized than when we travel from Paris’s extraordinary center, with its Pantheon and its Beaux Arts architecture, to the desecrated housing developments (much like “the projects” in the ghettos of Chicago and New York and the council housing in the UK) of the outskirts, where the legacy of the conflict dramatized in Gillo Pontecorvo’s cinéma vérité masterpiece The Battle of Algiers is still taking its toll.

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