A Rage for Abstraction

Jeremy Harding

  • The Other Paris: An Illustrated Journey through a City’s Poor and Bohemian Past by Luc Sante
    Faber, 306 pp, £25.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 24128 6
  • How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People by Sudhir Hazareesingh
    Allen Lane, 427 pp, £20.00, June 2015, ISBN 978 1 84614 602 2

A stand-off in Sudan in 1898 between the British and the French was attended by a prodigious rattling of sabres in London and Paris. The two armies in the field never came to blows, but France lost face at Fashoda and a tide of Anglophobia engulfed the Parisian press. It lasted through the Boer wars and beyond. Le Petit Journal, a scurrilous right-wing Republican daily, which rounded on Dreyfus, then Zola, took up the cudgels on behalf of oppressed Afrikaners. Among the sins it couldn’t forgive the British was the deadpan expression of Joseph Chamberlain, secretary of state for the colonies, when he toured the battlefields of South Africa. The paper had a point: the Boers fought – and lost – one of the first modern anti-imperialist struggles in Africa. Britain’s concentration camps in South Africa gave the world a glimpse of wars to come.

Le Petit Journal had a healthy print run, half a million in its heyday: it reeled in readers like idle fish on an appetising bait of faits divers. Parisian hoodlums – a particular type known as ‘apaches’ – were said to be keen browsers, partly because the paper loved to relate their fearsome deeds, and in return its editorial line rubbed off on them. They became human parchment for the journal’s opinions: in 1902 the police arrested 15 apaches and found they were covered in tattoos – among them, images of the Boer leader, Paul Kruger.

Apaches, as Luc Sante explains in The Other Paris, were propelled to fame by imaginative fin-de-siècle journalists and pamphleteers who felt the city was at risk from ‘an army of crime’. The cause of the arrests, and the sudden celebrity of the apaches, was the discovery of a corpse near Père Lachaise, armed to its rotting teeth with switchblades, revolvers and a hatchet. The crime scene pointed to a feud among new, state-of-the-art gangsters – ‘violent poseurs’, Sante calls them, ‘fully attuned to the image they cut, on the street and in the press’ – and Parisians were flattered by a sense of their own modernity. The moll in the mêlée – her nickname was Casque d’Or – switched her affections from one rival gangster to another and raised the stakes as they fought over her ‘crown of strawberry-blonde hair’.

Sante’s ‘other Paris’ is a poetic guide to the city’s underworld across six centuries, a threepenny opera with a milling crowd of beggars, gangsters, whores and constables, attended by artists, insurrectionaries and intellectuals. Sudden death on the streets, the guillotine, the prison cell or – in the case of public figures – a ruined reputation, loomed over this mixed population. Readers enrolling on Sante’s guided tour should abandon hope at the gate if they’re expecting to go on to purgatory and paradise. For Sante hell is too invigorating to leave behind: murder, intoxication, libertinage, art and revolution are sublime forms of self-expression. At the head of this parade is the rogue poet François Villon, imprisoned in the Châtelet in 1462; on the last float, the heroines from Jacques Rivette’s 1981 movie, Le Pont du Nord, are waving goodbye, along with the two keynote Situationists, Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem.

The Other Paris is also an elegy to a lost era of rebelliousness. The hold-all counter-culture that Sante commemorates – including muggers and writers, painters and thieves, drunks and austere revolutionaries – is no longer a threat to the world his underdogs despised. ‘Market forces’ have done the job they failed to complete. The next stop, if there is one, will not be a carnival of danger, with knives flashing and ‘wild-eyed’ women lifting their skirts on the barricades as soldiers open fire (an incident from Victor Hugo’s Choses vues), but a rearguard action against insecurity and the erosion of rights – to jobs, housing, public services, freedom of movement, asylum.

For Sante, one suspects, the jig is already up. He is depressed by the tendency of big Western cities to banish people on low incomes and sweep away their traces. There are, he admits, ‘a few places in Paris where the poor can live, but the requirement is that those places be inhuman, soulless, windswept’ (he’s referring to a redevelopment in the 19th arrondissement, not to the banlieues). ‘In the past,’ he writes, ‘the poor were left to hustle on their own … The bargain they are offered today assures them of well-lit, dust-free environs with up-to-date fixtures, but it relieves them of the ability to improvise’ or ‘carve out their own spaces’. Much later in the book, Vaneigem is invoked to reinforce the theme: ‘Large numbers of former proletarians now have access to the comforts once reserved for a small elite’ – this was published in 1961 – ‘but isn’t it rather that an increasing amount of comfort usurps their needs and creates an itch for consumer demands?’ Sante, like Vaneigem, wants the poorer classes to be gnarled and intransigent, manning the last barricade against white goods and decent housing. He might as well ask the same of the rich. Yet he loves his characters for their failings and their impenitence.

One of the liveliest spaces carved out by the poor in Paris was the ‘cour des miracles’. Miracle courtyards, which date from the Middle Ages, were clusters of cottage tenements in insalubrious parts of the city, off-limits for the police, where a ‘permanent feast of misrule persisted’. Con artists, criminals, and presumably their children, were the denizens of these autonomous compounds. They had their own cant, borrowed by Villon, and depended on duplicity to turn a penny. Their ‘miracles’, as Sante explains, were performed every evening when the crippled, the scabrous and other fakers came home from work and set aside their parts, like bit-part actors walking off the lot. ‘The blind could see, the hunchbacked stood straight, the clubfooted ran and danced, leprous skin became clear and unblemished once their disguises had been put away for the night.’ Over the centuries the miracle courtyards swelled with more honest indigents; they became known as cités – a word associated nowadays with public housing projects – but Sante’s coterie of ne’er-do-wells remained in charge. In Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo described a typical cité as a ‘monstrous beehive’, where ‘the hornets of the social order repaired in the evening with their plunder’.

Sante distinguishes his characters by genre, or degree of misfortune, in a series of marvellous chapters dealing with policing and prisons, hospitals and disease, and the ragged livelihoods and lifestyles of extramural Paris, known as the ‘zone’ – a vast area of wasteland beyond a customs wall built around the old fortified city limits. A chapter on ‘insurgents’ contains an exemplary thumbnail history of 1848, a flawless account of the Siege of Paris in the winter of 1870 and a dead-eyed résumé of the Commune the following year. During the siege, Sante reminds us, hunger drove Parisians to extremes: mouse pâté with fur in the mix; cats and rats; ‘dog-liver brochettes’. Eventually the specimens in the Jardin d’Acclimatation were ‘sacrificed in inverse order to their popularity: yaks, zebras and water buffalo in late October; antelopes a week later; in mid-November boars, reindeer, the kangaroo, the cassowary and the rare black swan’; finally ‘the two beloved elephants, Castor and Pollux’.

There is a tremendous promenade chapter on ‘vice’, in which the players are brought together on stage. The rich and powerful are here – including Edward VII and Hermann Goering – along with artists and ordinary johns; modest people who make a living out of sex, others who end up used and destroyed; well-heeled pimps and madames. At the edge of this satyricon is the vice squad; it was known originally as the ‘Brigade des moeurs’, but went through several renamings as generations of bureaucrats switched their attention from STDs to homosexual ‘inversion’ to drugs and back to brothels in case they were dodging taxes.

Sante has dug up a menu from a brothel run in 1915 by ‘Mlle Marcelle Lapompe’, actually Renée Dunan, a feminist writer in her early twenties, who later took up with Philippe Soupault, Francis Picabia and the tricky André Breton, though she’s largely absent from the Dada/Surrealism record. Mlle Lapompe charged 4 francs and 95 sous for complicated sex with ‘the maid’ and upped it five sous for the same complication with ‘the waiter’: a travesty of equal pay, unless of course the waiter was really the maid with a pencilled moustache. Hitler called Paris the ‘whorehouse of Europe’ and the Nazis had few objections. But Islamic State – for whom Paris is also ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’ – has no use for sex work. Sante thinks of the city more affectionately as ‘the world capital of contradictions’.

The Brigade des moeurs, he tells us, opened a register of homosexuals in the 1840s. Homosexuality was not ‘specifically illegal’ in the 19th century, but male prostitution was. It was the subject of much discussion in the 20th when a chain of brothels run by Count Radziwill’s former valet – Jupien in A la recherche du temps perdu – came to light after a raid in 1918. Proust was picked up in one of the sweeps: ‘rentier, 46 years old’, the police report reads, ‘102 boulevard Haussmann’. Paris had ‘always been more accepting of lesbians’, Sante tells us, with a customised café scene, and clubs like Le Monocle, which opened in the 1920s. Gay women were prominent in the entertainment industry, among them Suzy Solidor, who sat for some of the painters – there’s a famous après-Deco portrait by Tamara de Lempicka from 1933 – and Yvonne George, a Belgian cabaret star who swept the poet Robert Desnos off his feet.

Members of the Brigade des moeurs were biddable, and liked to get a slice of the action, whatever it happened to be. They didn’t have much in the way of convictions, in any sense, especially when it came to pornography and drugs. The painter Gustave Courbet was ‘cited for possession’ of pornographic work, though Sante doesn’t tell us what it was. The year was 1867; in 1866 Courbet finished L’Origine du monde, which would have qualified, and perhaps there were still incriminating traces in his studio.[*] The Brigade had no serious anxiety about opium until the 1930s, and little interest in hashish until the 1960s. ‘Vices’ tended to overlap in reality, and often in the eyes of the department, which worried for years over a tenuous link between murder and homosexuality. Yet when cocaine flooded the Paris underworld between the wars, pimps moved more quickly than officers of the law to neutralise the dealers: cocaine was destroying sex workers faster than old age, or STDs, which the state was doing its best to control.

Revolutionaries, nameless or famous, play an important part in Sante’s book. The image of Louise Michel, who makes a star appearance, is among many – archive photos, postcards, prints – which Sante began assembling years ago. Michel was not a delegate of the Paris Commune: women didn’t have the vote in 1871 and couldn’t be elected. But she was one of many women who played a role in support of the new, shortlived arrangement. Some, like the leaders of the Union of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded, were well educated; many more, who served as ambulance workers and built barricades, were not. Michel, known as the Red Virgin, ran a grassroots debating society; she set out an agenda for educational reform; she bore arms. When the Commune was suppressed and the French government put survivors on trial, she was sent to a penal colony in New Caledonia.


We come across her again in Sudhir Hazareesingh’s sharp-eyed survey, How the French Think, as she returns to France in 1895, after more than one prison term and a spell in exile, to become the Commune’s ‘most potent living symbol’. Several of Sante’s characters turn up in Hazareesingh: Auguste Blanqui, so clearly well-suited to lead the Commune that Thiers had him arrested on the eve of the insurrection; Proudhon, a male supremacist exponent of bucolic socialism; Léo Frankel, a Hungarian jeweller and the Commune’s only Marxist. Hazareesingh sees the defeat by Prussia and the suppression of the Commune as a turning point for 19th-century political sensibilities. The republic that emerged from this twofold shame was pragmatic and bent on maintaining public order. Where was the enduring French belief in social transformation supposed to go next?

Hazareesingh, a political scientist, and a proper historian of ideas, sees it shifting away from metropolitan France to focus on the colonies, which underwent a huge expansion during the Third Republic, peaking at 12 million square kilometres and 70 million subjects by the end of the 1930s. The early French socialists, including Saint-Simon, had liked the idea of venturing overseas to seed ‘progressive’ theories on untilled ground; Etienne Cabet had already founded a socialist community in Texas in 1848 and the ideas of Charles Fourier had inspired American followers to set up phalansteries. But as the empire grew under Louis Napoleon, enthusiasm for far-off experiments had less to do with transforming France than with engineering other people’s societies. Early on, in 1845, Cabet had set the tone, by describing colonialism as ‘the conquest of the ignorant universe’, and in the 1880s Jules Ferry, who had shed his early idealism and was now the serving prime minister, could invoke ‘the right of superior races over inferior races’. For Hazareesingh, the universalist principles of the Revolution were rapidly giving way to a ‘differentialist order which distinguished between subjects and citizens and condoned systematic violence against native populations’.

His book is not just about how the French think, but about the way these thoughts appear to non-French thinkers with a plausible claim to the cold light of day. He notices a marked tension between ideas and practice – for instance, Republican universalism and colonial discrimination – but is careful not to ascribe it to any disingenuousness or self-deception rooted in French culture. He prefers to see it in terms of a longstanding, garrulous interest in the life of the mind. The French aren’t the only nation given to thinking out loud, but the kind of thought that distinguishes their intellectual canon is ambitious, often ‘abstract’, as he understands it. He likes the essayist Emile Montégut’s remark that no other culture exists in which ‘individuals are so oblivious to facts and possessed to such a high degree with a rage for abstractions’.

Hazareesingh is keen to steer clear of parody, but we have to keep an eye on our own prejudices as we proceed. ‘Abstraction’, after all, might only be the continuation of one conversation about a second that refers to a third, and we can tell that French intellectual tradition is often happier than its rival Anglo-Saxon versions to put the world – and the fact – in parenthesis for as long as these conversations are worth having. We know, too, that it’s happy to reason on the basis of statistics but loath to slam ‘facts’ on the table like marked aces: France has a Thomas Piketty but no Malcolm Gladwell. It worries about experiments that naturalise themselves out of business: why go off to live at the edge of a pond, like Thoreau, when you may as well explore the relation of human sociability to nature over a book on the subject, or a lavish transformation of raw into cooked? (It’s also noticeable that nature writing hasn’t caught on there as it has in the UK: in France writing is still first and foremost a performance of culture. A writer venturing into the wild with a smartphone and a notepad has got to be joking; only scientists and civil servants should be doing this.)

The evolution of French thinking has been led, according to Hazareesingh, by ‘the prodigious, captivating power of imagination’. Working through his elegant, often funny book you begin to see much of the thought, like the art, as a studio project. Painting is not one of Hazareesingh’s subjects; even so if we think of Monet gesturing at the fields of Giverny in 1880 and announcing that here was ‘his very own studio’, we get a glimpse of a general modus operandi that queries the distinction between outside and inside in order to bring everything indoors under the heading ‘work’. Just as the city was a proper object of the mind for the assiduous 19th-century flâneur, and later for the psychogeographers, so the world itself exists to be domesticated and transformed by means of radical homework, often done with an eye to what other thinkers make of it.

Hazareesingh’s exposition of political thought and public discourse over several centuries suggests – to me at any rate – that the wish to abstract is linked to an enduring fascination with otherness. An ‘other Paris’, another France, another world entirely: Hazareesingh is a reliable guide to the long history of ‘alternative’ ideas and the writers who ‘imagined that power could be held and exercised in a radically different way’. Some of the finest commentaries in his book unpack this ‘utopian disposition’ in French thought from Rousseau onwards. He includes a synopsis of L’An 2440 by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, published in 1770, in which the narrator wakes from a long slumber to find mid-25th-century Paris basking in a ‘sense of natural equality’. The rich have abandoned ostentatiousness; the clergy are no longer living the high life; artisans work shorter hours, and everyone is happy to pay tax. History – ‘the shame of humanity’ – is not taught to children and a lot of pointless literature has been thrown on the bonfire, including 600,000 dictionaries, 200,000 volumes of jurisprudence and poetry and 1.6 million travel narratives.

From there we move to Fourier, Cabet – another book-burner – and Saint-Simon, through to the Commune and onto 20th-century socialism. In a short section that takes us ‘from the Communards to the Communists’, we encounter a new movement in which the impulse for transformation has recovered its purchase after the earlier circumspection of the Third Republic. By the end of the 1920s, with around 30,000 members, the Communist Party was becoming an apprenticeship and ‘a practical goal’ for many working-class French committed to another version of society: membership would eventually peak at around one million, with a popular vote of five million. The French party went on to internalise whatever was good about the Soviet model and repress the remainder: as Hazareesingh explains, Stalin was seen by party members as a providential figure. ‘May your benevolent Light reign on the planet for many more years,’ a reader’s message, published in L’Humanité, announced on his 70th birthday.

Hazareesingh’s look at the post-May 1968 era leaves aside a curious moment of utopian dérive, as the theoreticians at Tel Quel ‘broke’ from the Communist Party in 1971 (the party lived to fight another day) and set off in search of a more exotic, ennobling other: Maoist China, five years into the Cultural Revolution. In 1974, two years after the French Communists and Socialists signed the ‘common programme’ and set Mitterrand on the road to power, Tel Quel organised a works outing to China (Roland Barthes was among the distinguished guests). Shortly afterwards, the journal abandoned Maoism. Under Giscard’s technocratic authoritarian regime, radical alternatives – neither Maoism, nor Stalinism – continued at the margins of the common programme but in 1981 Mitterrand’s victory signalled a lull. He won around 52 per cent of the vote. It was only after his election, in Hazareesingh’s view, that mainstream French socialists became fully reconciled to the idea of private property (‘theft’ according to Proudhon) and a mixed economy as ‘unmovable features of the French polity’. In power Mitterrand went further, preparing the left for a post-socialist landscape in the 21st century.[†]

Unworldly idealisms – no less respectable for that – still find their echo in the rhetoric of modern French governance. Enormous effort has been spent trying to wrestle difference into sameness and produce a single, consensual identity; in the process, vestiges of the utopian idiom have been folded into Republican discourse, where they hibernate for decades, emerging now and then as proof of high aspiration in public life. In his speech to the Security Council against the bombing of Iraq in 2003, Dominique de Villepin described the UN as the ‘guardians of an ideal, a sense of conscience’, and France as a member state which had ‘never ceased to stand upright, in the face of history, and before mankind’. The speech was also a plea for reason and, as Hazareesingh says, the last, great public demonstration of ‘Cartesian aplomb’.


Otherness and difference still exercise their fascination, but the terms have changed. French Muslims – sometimes a self-description, sometimes not – are now the refractory other. Non-Muslim France has tried to incorporate them by coercion, coming down on the veil and the burqa; for their part Muslims have tried to integrate: a younger generation registered to vote in large numbers after 2005 and helped secure Hollande’s electoral victory seven years later. High youth unemployment, seclusion in the banlieues, a growing disgust with the West’s policies in the Arab world, two horrific terror attacks, and disagreement among non-Muslims about the nature of Republican inclusion, mean that common ground is scarce. In these conditions utopian instincts easily mutate into eloquent pessimism, defeatism, even dystopian visions like those of Eric Zemmour, a compulsive bringer of bad tidings, who believes that migrants and their descendants are forcing France towards ‘de-Christianisation and de-Francification’.

Zemmour, whose family left Algeria during the colonial war, shares the ‘substitutionist’ view put forward by Renaud Camus – Gallocentric, openly gay, coyly anti-Semitic – that a ‘great replacement’ of the indigenous population is underway, as people from the Maghreb ‘counter-colonise’ the Hexagon. Hazareesingh has no time for him or his friend, the essayist Alain Finkielkraut, whose 2013 bestseller, L’Identité malheureuse, bemoans the ‘self-effacement’ of the native French, a population of ‘strangers in their own land’. ‘In his drift towards this self-pitying and xenophobic nationalism,’ Hazareesingh writes, ‘Finkielkraut illustrates how far the declinist obsession has pushed mainstream French thought away from its Rousseauist and republican heritage.’

Another kind of shove has come from the performer-polemicist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala and his entourage of pick-and-mix extremists, but the dystopian tone in this case is confident and aggressive, rather than ‘décliniste’; often the main object of hostility is ‘Zio-Judaism’, as the ideologue Alain Soral, an associate of Dieudonné, put it in 2004. Israel/Palestine remains a source of bitter meditation in France. In March, speaking at a dinner for Jewish community leaders in Paris, the prime minister Manuel Valls denounced anti-Zionism – take that to mean criticism of Israel’s policies – as ‘a form of anti-semitism’. Under this pall of confusion, sworn enemies like Valls and Dieudonné can toil ahead, in tandem, to rekindle the Jewish question.

Hazareesingh is reasonably sure that the ‘integration’ of North African French is working, but he speaks as a multiculturalist not an assimilationist. Textbook assimilationism has failed, while laisser-vivre of the kind that makes sense to him has carried the story of integration beyond the riots of 2005, when there was still much to play for, even if it isn’t clear what happens next. The French, he writes, are ‘riven … with contradictions’. He lists some of the most striking at the end of his book: ‘instinctively attached to the ideal of democratic governance, but vulnerable to the temptation of the providential hero’ (Bonaparte, De Gaulle, eventually perhaps Marine le Pen); ‘clinging to a belief in the enabling capacities of the state, but forever complaining about its distance from the citizenry’; ‘averse to communitarian conceptions of society … yet willing to devolve ever greater freedoms to regional political institutions’; ‘decisive architects of an economically liberal Europe, but profoundly contemptuous of capitalism’; ‘increasingly retreating from the public sphere … yet capable of turning out in their millions on the streets of Paris to reaffirm their Republican values’.

In a secluded space with plenty of northern light, these values are easy enough to represent. But movement of human beings back and forth across France’s borders is something no administration has mastered to its satisfaction since the 1970s. Foreign policy, too, puts ‘French’ values under scrutiny, as governments project their equivocations beyond the studio into a globalised world that their electorates resent for its encroachments. One regime after another bangs the drum for universal rights and human dignity, while pursuing a narrow course that has little to do with either. The dissonance of France’s foreign adventures is loud and clear at home, in the workshop of French identity. The Elysée and the Quai d’Orsay do not hold a monopoly on ambiguity, volte-face, compromise and double-standards in the Middle East, but France has the highest proportion of inhabitants in Western Europe – about 7 or 8 per cent – with ties to the Muslim world, the majority of Arab origin.

There are still ‘alternative’ visions in play. In March the Nuit Debout movement, a spontaneous commons, started gathering at night in Paris, then elsewhere. It has brought out thousands of people to express their impatience with the government (or rather, the political class: ‘The people who represent us have no idea who we are,’ a student nurse told Le Monde in April. ‘We’ve moved too fast by comparison with them’). Nuit Debout was triggered by opposition to proposed labour legislation – the 35-hour week, overtime rates and terms of contract are at issue in a country with long-term youth unemployment at around 20 per cent – but rapidly announced itself as a many-faced ‘convergence of struggles’. At the time of writing, the trade unions have mobilised against the reforms, even though they have been driven through the lower house by special decree.

There is, too, the marginal ‘alternative’ of a nebulous Islamist international; successes in Paris in 2015, along with the growing authoritarianism of French secular values, will encourage this apocalyptic strand. But leading the field by a comfortable distance are those who dream of a ‘French’ France. An Ipsos poll published in March gives the Front National a narrow victory in round one of next year’s presidential elections if Nicolas Sarkozy is the centre-right candidate, and second place if it’s Alain Juppé (either way, Hollande does not go to round two). Extreme French nationalism has a firm foothold, but how do its exponents think, and where do they go in search of intellectual respectability? To Voltaire on the Jews, ‘born with raging fanaticism in their hearts’, eventually ‘deadly to the human race’? Or Ernest Renan on Islam and ‘the intellectual nullity of the races that hold, from that religion alone, their culture and their education’? Perhaps it’s wiser, with Algeria and Vichy lurking in the not-so-distant past, for ethnic conservatism not to invoke a lineage at all: trouble ahead is its strongest suit.

[*] The painting itself didn’t sell until 1868. The last private owner was Lacan, who bought it in the 1950s. After he died in 1981, it passed to the French state in lieu of tax.

[†] In Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present, a collection of essays, several published first in the LRB, David Bell agrees with many on the left that the ‘parenthesis in the history of socialism’ for which Mitterrand called in the early days of his presidency ‘has never closed’.