Monday 11 December 2017

A decision on the life and death of liberty, fraternity and equality

The dead are everywhere in Paris and form a long queue through history as you visit the city

Guillotined: The execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793 at the Place de la Revolution
Guillotined: The execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793 at the Place de la Revolution

Miriam O'Callaghan

Paris. A warm evening on the first Friday in May and the dead are everywhere: beneath my feet at Place de la Bastille, in my ears at the Opera, behind my eyes at Place des Vosges, under my skin at the local Ecole Elementaire Publique.

Its plaque reads: "In memory of the pupils of this school deported between 1942 and 1944 because they were Jews, innocent victims of Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy Government. They were exterminated in the death camps.

Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron

Lest we forget."

As if, Madame Le Pen.

In Place des Vosges - the old Place Royale - the sun sinks over the sand, symmetry, centuries; kings, queens and all their favourites; emperors exiling and exiled; small boys playing football, eating ice-cream under the lime trees; a beautiful Parisian mother healing or preventing the broken heart of her even more beautiful young-adult son; her ramped-up control, stillness signalling mother-to-mother her properly-concealed rage, hope, fear. Her power.

I send photos of this past, present and Maison Victor Hugo to my daughter. When I add shots of election posters for Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, she responds "plus ca change… say bonsoir to Lafayette!"

But I know the tomb of General Lafayette, who stood with George Washington, can't be seen tonight. It's behind wooden gates at 35 Rue de Picpus, one of only two private cemeteries in Paris. Here on the site of a destroyed convent, the sticky heads and bodies of 1,306 men and women were flung into pits, fresh from the guillotine at the nearby Place du Trone-Renverse, now Place de la Nation. Picpus was one of the trio of Cimitieres des Supplicies - Cemeteries of the Punished - in Revolutionary Paris. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were disposed of at La Madeleine, Robespierre himself at Mousseaux, now Parc Monceau.

In 1796, the land at Picpus was bought in secret by the Hohenzollern Princess Amelie whose brother was guillotined and buried there. Thereafter, Madame de Lafayette, wife of the General, whose beheaded mother and sister also lay at Picpus, bought a plot within it. In 1807 she became one of the first of the Punished's families to be buried there. Others followed. Including her widower Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, "America's favourite fighting Frenchman".

Being buried at Picpus requires proof of connection to its original dead, not all of whom were aristocrats or avid supporters of the decapitated Citizens Capet. Among the 1,306 buried in two graves of 304 and 1,002 are numerous churchmen, soldiers, commoners, the 16 Carmelite nuns commemorated in Poulenc's opera Les Dialogues des Carmelites, the poet Andre Chenier.

I know Picpus and its neighbourhood from Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano's search for 15-year-old Parisian Dora Bruder, who went missing before her Vichy-facilitated arrest and transportation to Auschwitz.

The major round-up of France's Jews by the Gestapo and French police began on July 14, 1942 - Bastille Day. The zenith of Operation Spring Wind was July 16 when 13,152 Jews in Paris were arrested, 4,051 children among them. Most were held at the indoor cycling-track, the Velodrome d'Hiver with few toilets, little food, one tap. After five days they were dispatched to Auschwitz transit-camps such as Drancy.

Uncovered police files show the Gestapo wanting to arrest 27,427 Jews in the Paris hinterland. That they managed less than half that number is testament to the humanity of the individuals who went out to warn them. Equally to those who risked their lives to hide their neighbours, unwilling for Parisians to witness another Reign of Terror in another hot July.

All day I have seen Paris at its easy, inclusive best. Yet I know that in the year after Charlie Hebdo, Jews left France for Israel in what were termed "record numbers": 8,000 in fact. The young woman who lives in Versailles and insists on bringing me where I want to go, because it is near where she works, told me in excellent English that Parisians are afraid. They are afraid of terror. They are also afraid of Le Pen and the worst of what she signifies.

"Le Pen is about another kind of hate," she explains.

Will she be voting?

"Of course. Le Pen is in the second round. It is my duty." Her tone suggests it won't be for Marine. "Macron?" "Oui, Macron," she smiles, asking if I'm afraid of what Brexit signifies about 'my country' Britain.

I'm Irish, I explain.

"Oh, I love Ireland!" she says. "The people are kind".

But if this intelligent, beautiful Frenchwoman of African descent were to read some of the below-the-line comments or social media posts about anyone from the lower latitudes coming north to work to improve their lives and that of their new 'home', she might change her mind.

That night l'Opera Bastille is staging Wozzeck by Alan Berg. It's booked solid but hoping for a return, I'm swept up by mostly Parisians, perfectly put-together in designer urchin wear and Milk-Tray-Man black, streaming through the security gates as the foyer bells ring.

In the lobby, an ultra-marine woman with no head is flying toward me from the wall. She is Yves Klein's Victoire de Samothrace. Now, I don't care there are no tickets: I can I spy on her for longer from my gift-shop hide.

The pencils that I buy say laissez-vous porter. Broadly, let yourself be taken (by the music). Usually, I would and do. But not tonight. And not by Berg on this weekend of the elections. Because inside the theatre is a paranoid man with terrifying visions. For Wozzeck, the earth is opening, the sky is on fire, bleeding, full of omens. He sings "all is still, as if all the world had died". In the last two years, outside the glass walls of the opera house, the world of the families of the 235 people murdered in terror attacks has done exactly that. In a sense the elections themselves are about the life and death of liberty, equality, fraternity, regardless of which side you are on.

Post-election, I have hope for Macron. Having watched and listened to him for a year, I believe he is not the photo-shopped, wrinkle-added confection or 'creation' suggested by Marie Benilde in Le Monde Diplomatique. "A product of the elite… the darling of the media for good reason: his neoliberal, Europhile, Atlanticist, modernist message, delivered in a shout, sounds like a blend of editorials from Le Monde, Liberation, l'Obs or l'Express", she wrote.

Certainly, his arrival at the victory-speech podium precisely at the last bar of Ode to Joy was immaculate. I wonder where he practised his pace? Yet, after the heat and hate of the campaign there was something affecting about this slight man in white shirt and dark-blue coat, walking against a breeze and a dark-blue sky to his own and possibly France's destiny.

But Macron has only a moment. Unless he makes radical change in how politics and economics work for the French people - and by extension other Europeans - he will become another Renzi.

Yes, Macron is right: the world is watching France. And for those who want to see urgent change at the Centre, there is simply no more room or stomach or patience for more of the same. Moreover, we are bored by and angry at the old Right and Left adding ceramic turbines to what are Airfix models of Iron First and Bleeding Heart, while the skies over them - and us - are thick with the stealth-craft of Hate, Fear, Othering.

With 11 million people voting for Le Pen, Macron is only too aware that polarisation has given up its sly creep to strut across politics and society. His speeches, delivered by a thinking adult to other thinking adults, indicate his grasp of two further, urgent realities.

Firstly, that while austerity might have steadied EU economies, it mutilated and isolated too many Europeans.

Secondly, that traditional Centrists have had it with the kind of consensus that rendered them both invisible and inaudible. Therefore, Macron can be in no doubt that unless the Centre will say and with alacrity 'yes, we didn't listen enough', 'yes we hear you now and we will do so much better', it won't be going anywhere except to a microsurgeon to reattach what European electorates will have handed to it en masse: its testicles.

Night falls over Paris. As darkness runs down the hours to the traditional embargo, the bars are full, and full of the election. A prosperous-looking man at the table beside mine is voting blank. With my reviving French I think he is saying "who can think of voting for Le Pen or Macron?"

He stands to leave, kisses his companions. "It's Melenchon or no one. A demain!"

Sunday Independent

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