Four soldiers move towards me, shining boots, soft berets, dull guns. Their eyes flicker between windows and doorways and catch on odd shadows. They move stiffly, their bodies rendered tense and tired by the performance of their vigilance. We are in Le Marais, and for a second I feel like all five of us are alien here; the soldiers for their incongruous presence, and me for being the only civilian who is shocked by it. Around us the wealthy Parisians swirl, fastidiously pretending that the soldiers are invisible. The scene is as absurd as it is terrifying, the bustling crowd pretending that the four armed men in their midst simply do not exist. I guess this is why I stand out when I stare, when I raise my phone and take a picture. Suddenly the soldiers’ tension splits into a burst of noise and movement. They shout in French, I apologise in English. It is made clear to me that I cannot leave until I delete my photos. Reluctantly, I do so. The soldiers go back to their patrol. I sit down in a café, order a drink, and think about these men who are meant to be spectacular but want to be invisible.
Later I come across a police station. A dozen cops stand outside, smoking and chatting. Some crack jokes, whilst others keep their submachine guns trained on the six teenagers pressed against the station wall. They stand silent and rigid, hands-on-head-face-to-the-wall, the story of their long detention written in the sag of their arms and their backs. I do not know why they are being held there, but none of them can be much older than 15. They are all people of colour. One of the cops sees me. Once again, I do not get a picture.
It’s striking how smooth the streets are. It is said that after the revolt of 1968 the authorities removed all the cobblestones, and replaced them with asphalt. It turns out this isn’t true, but it feels like it should be.
All those parts of the city that could be fragmented, all those pieces that became dangerous by their fragmentation, all those places that threatened to reorganise the fragments, all of them have gone now. They have disappeared anything that could be broken down, picked up, thrown back. A new surface has been laid over Paris, and whilst it looks like glass, brick and stone, it has the consistency of asphalt. “Les années passent, pourtant tout est toujours à sa place/Plus de bitume donc encore moins d’espace” goes an NTM lyric “The years pass, but all remains the same/More asphalt and thus even less space.” Paris has one consistency, one surface, and at the moment most of it insists it is Charlie.
The insistence is total, traversing legality and illegality, planning and policy. There is graffiti in Montmarche and great banners on the Hotel De Ville. Everywhere you go they catch you with an affirmation that is really an interrogation. “I am Charlie” they say “but who the fuck are you?” Someone has started writing “COEXIST” on the walls, but the city spits the word like a threat. It is hard not to think of the call for coexistence as another form of asphaltisation, another smooth sameness to cover unconformity. Paris does not buy into diversity, it buries it.
In French the verb “to forget” is oublier. It comes from the Latin obliviscor, its meaning inscribed by its components; ob (over) and levis (smooth). In France, one forgets by smoothing over. Maybe this is why the Parisians do not see the soldiers in Le Marais; the armed men are just another part of the asphalt.
Paris is a wholeness, a totality, a texture, a skin. Its fragmentation is the condition and the consequence of any rebellion within it. Mutiny only happen in the pieces of Paris. In 1795 it was the Fauborgs which first split into revolt; Saint-Antoine, Saint-Marcel, du Nord. In 1871 it was the working class neighbourhoods, Buttes-Chaumont, Montmarte, Belleville. In 1968 it was the Latin Quarter, the barricades on Saint Jacques, des Irelandais, de l’Estrapade. But since ’68 the asphalt has defeated those elements which threatened its unity, displacing those it could move and burying those it could not. Like the settlers used to say; la valise ou le cercueil, the suitcase or the coffin.
But in 2005 there are riots again. The rebels have new fragments, and now they are called Clichy-sous-Bois, Montfermeil, Sevran. Paris has secured itself, but beyond the Boulevard Periphique the Banlieues begin to burn. Inside the city, the Parisians panic as they feel the violence beginning to encircle them. Michael Parenti wrote that in films like Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) or Shaka Zulu (1987), “the settler is portrayed as surrounded by ‘natives’, inverting… the role of aggressor so that colonialism is made to look like self-defence.” But as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have argued “the image of a surrounded fort is not false. The fort really was surrounded, is besieed by what still surrounds it, the common beyond and beneath – before and before – enclosure.”
Should we talk then of fortress Paris? As Léopold Lambert has realised, the Boulevard Periphique constitutes what is, to all intents and effects, a modern city wall. His collected pictures each depict a “gate -and that is indeed their official name- to the Fortress Paris.” It is impossible not to be convinced by them. Paris is a walled city, a city surrounded. It knows the threat it can’t quite see, that lies just beyond the Boulevard, just beneath the asphalt.
Balibar talks about the displacement of frontiers towards the centre. The construction of a border between Paris and the Banlieues is the most terrible and perfect example of this.
Night falls as I wind my way along the Seine, feeling desperately alone amidst the dreaming couples. The city lights catch and shatter on the surface of the river, but the fragments they leave are fleeting and harmless. The couples pause to pose on the bank, behind them the river splits around the Île de la Cité, white walls rising out of the black waters. In centuries past, the people would retreat to the island when the city came under attack. It steel feels like a castle to which Paris is forever falling back, at the centre of the Île de la Cité is the church, the police station and the court. Whiteness, violence, law. Paris surrounded by the Banlieues, the island that is the city.
This is the first time I have ever been on my own in a foreign country. As I walk I realise that I haven’t really talked to anyone in days, and that I don’t know a soul for hundreds of miles. Trapped in the company of myself, my mind wanders. I am seized by a sudden desire to be thrown out of Paris, to be repulsed from the city as vehemently as it repulses me. I want no part in this violent dreaming, this romance patrolled by armed men. But Paris will not throw me out, instead I feel the persistent tug of the asphalt on my skin. Two cops pass me without so much as a glance, and I feel sick. As much as I pull away, my whiteness pulls me back, enfolds me into the annihilative project of this city. With a dull sense of horror, I feel the smoothness of the road under my feet, and wonder if the asphalt was laid out in my honour.
And he indulged in another bleak dream, the gigantic city in ashes, nothing left on both sides of the river but smoking embers, the wound cauterized by fire, an unspeakable, unparalleled catastrophe out of which a new people would emerge. So the tales going round excited him more and more: whole neighbourhoods mined, the catacombs filled with gunpowder, all the great public buildings ready to be blown up, electric wires connecting the blast-holes so that one single spark could detonate them all together, large stocks of inflammable material, especially oil, enough to turn streets and squares into a sea of flame. The Commune had sworn it would be so if the Versailles force entered; not one would get past the barricades blocking the main crossings, for the roadways themselves would open up and buildings crumble into dust, and Paris would go up in flames and swallow a whole world.
Émile Zola, The Debacle (1871)
Combien de temps tout ceci va encore durer
Ca fait déjà des années que tout aurait dû péter
Dommage que l’unité n’ait été de notre côté
Mais vous savez que ça va finir mal, tout ça
La guerre des mondes vous l’avez voulu, la voilà
Dorénavant la rue ne pardonne plus
Nous n’avons rien à perdre car nous n’avons jamais rien eu
A votre place je ne dormirais pas tranquille
La bourgeoisie peut trembler, les cailleras sont dans la ville
Pas pour faire la fête, mais pour foutre le feu
Mais qu’est-ce, mais qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour foutre le feu
How much longer will all of this last
For years everything should have already exploded
Too bad our side has never been united
But you know it’s all going to end up badly
World war, you wanted it, here it is…
From now on the street will not forgive
We’ve nothing to lose for we’ve never had anything to begin with
In your place I would not sleep well
The bourgeoisie should tremble, the gangstas are in town
Not to party, but to burn the place down…
But why, why are we waiting to set the fire
Suprême NTM, Qu’est-ce qu’on attend (1995)
 Stefano Harney, Fred Moten, The Undercommons, Fugitive Planning and Black Study, New York; Minor Compositions, 2013, 17
 Ibid, 17
 Leopold Lambert, MILITARIZED ARCHITECTURES /// Fortress Paris part 1: The Gates, June 7th 2012, http://thefunambulist.net/2012/06/07/militarized-architectures-fortress-paris-part-1-the-gates/