A Paris we no longer know

A tour through the murkier side of the City of Light

The Eiffel Tower is seen at night in Paris, France, November 23, 2015. The capital will host the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) from November 30 to December 11. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

(Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Midway through his history of the murkier side of the City of Light, Luc Sante quotes café and cabaret historian Alfred Delvau on Parisians: “To live at home, to think at home, to eat and drink at home, to die at home—we find that annoying and uncomfortable.” It’s impossible to read this passage—or this book—without thinking of November’s terrorist attacks, and the city’s defiant response. To be en terrasse is not just to see and be seen, but to be close to others, whether friends or strangers, leaving oneself open to the diversity and randomness of life.

For Sante, this philosophy was thriving back before the bankers’ money rolled into Paris, before Georges-Eugène Haussmann paved over slums—and theatres, too—to build boulevards, before both sanitation and more pernicious kinds of cleansing. Sante finds the “soul” of Paris in Les Halles—not the modern-day shopping mall, but the market that existed on its site, a “biosphere” of “personal and sensual” commerce. Having limned the vanished way of life of the working class and underclass in Manhattan in Low Life, the Belgian-born Sante does the same here with the French capital, with a dollop of romanticism and a distaste for the antiseptic present.

From the Middle Ages to the Second World War, Sante unearths the stories of poets, prostitutes, pimps, pornographers, drunks, ragpickers, washer-women and bandits—characters every one. We wouldn’t want to meet them all in a dark alley, but for Sante they were part of a healthy panoply of life that arose from a willingness to accommodate people, in and outside the law. Where grim housing projects in today’s banlieues breed isolation, and worse, the suburbs once were vibrant communities, with soccer pitches and bars springing up among rubble and dumps.

Sante is well aware of the pitfalls of nostalgia—resistance to change, he avers, can lead to reactionary views, and ideology of every stripe is the real enemy. Monarchists, republicans, collaborators, anarchists, and now pitiless bureaucrats would homogenize the city, by whatever means. The Other Paris suggests opposing ideologues have more in common with each other than they do with anyone else: nowadays, as the march of big money razes more of the city’s colourful past, “boards of directors are lousy with” former 1968 student revolutionaries. Today’s hardline Islamic State gunmen have their historic counterparts, ironically, in anarchists—one of whom, in November 1892, threw a bomb into a café where an orchestra was playing. For Sante, the answer is not to take up arms and mirror the enemy: “There will never be a time when the wish for security does not lead to unconditional surrender.”

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