du Nord and Gare de l’Est are twin stations on the
right bank of Paris. Gare du Nord serves not only London
and Brussels but also Charles de Gaulle Airport. Gare de
l’Est serves Eastern France as well as Eastern Europe
up to Berlin, Frankfurt, Moscow and further. They are not
real twins for they don’t look alike, but being so
close to one another, they deeply mark the urban landscape.
In their vicinity you’ll find the famous Terminus Nord
and Flo, two of the brightest brasseries in Paris; huge places
offering excellent food and wine served up by those Parisian
garçons dressed in bow ties and black aprons that
hang down to their shoes. Many chic hotels await the visitors,
as it's an easy stroll down to Montmartre, the canal Saint
Martin or the Palais Royal.
Walking southward from one of those stations, you would pass
thorough Faubourg Saint Martin or perhaps Faubourg Saint Denis – two
of the most picturesque Parisian neighbourhoods. If you cast
an eye down the side streets though, you might be amazed to find
that not only fancy hotels await the visitor, but also cheap
ones - and even very cheap ones. The kind of hotels you would
rather expect in the hotel districts of third world countries.
You’ll also notice a number of employment agencies offering
low paid jobs and ethnic, fast-food cafes where middle-aged men
eat huge meals standing upright before high tables. Resting there
a moment, you’ll begin to hear the familiar buzz and click
of industrial sewing machines in workshops hidden from view in
those very typical pedestrian passages running street to street
between the buildings. Also, instead of the Molièrean
French you learned in school, you might be surprised to hear
Turkish, Arabic, Polish or Telugu.
Cast a closer look then. Those faces are not exactly what you
would expect as French, are they? So many Africans now - or do
they come from the West Indies? And this Chinese lady there,
what is she doing on the sidewalk of the Boulevard de Strasbourg,
a plastic handbag dangling on her arm? Would she be a prostitute?
If you dare ask, you will discover that her price is 20 euros
for 10 minutes of her time and that she hardly speaks a word
of French although she's already been here over five years.
So there we are - the stations! Of course, because you’re
a clever observer, it’s no mystery to you that torrents
of immigrants spilling down from those twin stations have, in
the course of the past century and-a-half, flooded the neighbourhoods
with different cultures linked to world dramas: the Jews, the
Poles, the Algerians, the Blacks, the Turks, the Serbians - now
the Chinese and the Chechens. They all remind you of tragedies
read in newspapers or history books.
But the latest don’t need any writing about because you
can see them yourself. Midway between the Gare du Nord and the
Porte Saint Denis, built by Louis XIV, is a charming square called
Place Alban Satragne. A sign informs the visitor that this tiny
patch of greenery has been carved from the fields of the Saint
Lazare farm which was once part of a huge convent of the same
name - le Couvent Saint Lazare - in the 17th century. During
the day, swings, seesaws and sandbackets attract kids and their
moms for a bit of recreation. But why don’t you come at
night? No kids, no young ladies, only men - plenty of them. Young
men with dark complexion and dirty clothes. Why don’t you
ask them what they are doing here at dusk? The answer is that
they live here, that this is their home and their own private
Paris. You can talk with them - most of them speak a clumsy English.
They'll be delighted to have someone interested in their presence.
Most of those men come from Chechnya, Iraq or the former Yugoslavia.
Why they chose this place is unknown - probably word-of-mouth.
At times there have been sixty to seventy slumbering behind the
bushes in sleeping bags offered by the homeless associations.
Now there are only a couple of dozen. They are in their twenties
to forties - proud men, not beggars, not wanderers. What they
escaped needs no explanation. Why they came to France is more
of a surprise. In their countries, in the middle class families
that most of them came from, they were raised on stories of France
being the country of Freedom and Human Rights. When they heard
France, they thought of the Enlightenment, of Jean-Paul Sartre,
of the founding fathers of Europe, of the great French Revolution,
of surrealism and so on. They have saved and tucked away money,
helped along by family and friends, crossed many risky borders,
walked long distances across high, wintry mountains, been ripped
off and sometimes beaten. They have been frightened to death,
but they have also met, all along their journey, wonderful and
hospitable people - everywhere. Everywhere except here in Paris.
They keep wondering – these refugees - why people treat
them the way they do here in the homeland of Liberty. No one
talks with them. Actually they are baffled by their encounter
with the French. Living in a public garden needs some form of
organisation. At the beginning of their adventure, in 2005 and
2006, the first wave of those freedom-seekers managed to keep
the place tidy, shitting in newspapers and cleaning up after
themselves, disappearing during the day, keeping themselves straight.
But it didn’t last long. The neighbours reacted quickly.
Actually there were two sorts of reactions from the nearby residents.
The self-righteous reaction was a demand for ejection addressed
to the city. A majority of the young urban middle class wanted
those people swiftly kicked out. ‘With the taxes that we
pay, they should find a decent place for those people, shouldn’t
they?’ A solid minority leaned towards compassion: ‘Poor
people! What can we do? Let’s feed them.’
What those young men asked for wasn’t charity - not pity,
but a job, a way of making a dignified living and more than anything
else, an encounter with the local people, with the Parisians.
Some of those men were eventually lucky enough to find a quick
escape, to zip away from the street with the help of a friend,
so the Place Alban Satragne was only a provisional harbour for
them. Some tried their luck going to England. But some men remained
None of them found any of their dreams of France. As a citizen
of Paris and former inhabitant of the community where these young
men ended up, I attended a debate of the neighbourhood council
under the chairmanship of a deputy mayor about the problem raised
by this incongruous presence. Wasn’t it an opportunity
to appraise the real feeling of hospitality of our great people?
my astonishment, on the appointed day, the room was filled
with neighbourhood residents. The proof of strong concern,
I thought. First, the two main political parties debated
a perfectly sterile search for responsibility. Then a very
elegant diplomat from Iraqi Kurdistan made a long speech
about his people, his struggle and his government’s
policy. Then a famous Catholic association argued with a
Communist organisation about the root causes of this situation.
All through those speeches, a woman kept screaming – ‘Go
and talk with those people, not about them!’
Finally, the discussion was left to the audience. Most of them
wanted the state or the city to ‘take care of those poor
men’ without they, themselves, having to bother. Some thought
the police were the solution. A group of do-gooders decided to
organise regular meals in the square, during which neighbours
and the homeless residents of the park could speak with each
other. Then, a few minutes before the meeting ended, a clumsy
man stood up and, scratching his grey hair, said in a low voice: ‘I
know the right thing to do is to offer one of those men the hospitality
of my place. This is probably what they would do if the situation
were reversed. But I must confess that I live in 15 square meters
and I don’t dare to do it. That is all I can say.’
Marc Hatzfeld is an anthropologist living in
Paris and working (both as a researcher and a consultant) on
as homelessness, juvenile delinquency, immigration, suburban
life and respect. His recent books include Petit
la banlieue (2004), Les Dézingués (2006), La
culture des cités (2006) and Petites fabriques de
la démocratie (2007).