11:52:35 pmCategories: Fieldwork, Places, History

“The martyrs of Charonne”

Yesterday, I had planned an academic expedition to L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales again, this time for a lecture on the sociological use of documentaries where they would also screen a “cinema verité” film on young Parisians’ vision on happiness from 1960 (Chronique d’un été). But chances wanted that I should stay in the neighbourhood and, in fact, be witnessing the making of a documentary on recent French history.

Not long ago, I had included the communist newspaper L’humanité to my RSS desktop reader (that every morning kindly fills my laptop with hundreds of news in English and French). L’humanité appears for some reason high on that list of news, just under BBC and À toutes les victimes. In this instance that was luck, because about 20 minutes from the time I was turning on my computer and having my morning coffee there were to take place a commemoration ceremony for 9 people who died due to police brutality in a demonstration 8th of February 1962, during the Algerian war… It had happened at Métro Charonne, just 10 minutes from where I live. And I had no idea about it…

(The Internet was conspicuously silent on the ceremony to take place, but I found out that Indymedia had published a text the one day that I was unable to access the web (or even leaving the bed due to some stomach ailment anthropologists possibly are subjected to experience qua anthropologists in the field, wherever that field might be).)

What is the point of this long intro? Apart from making a (methodological) point of the importance of serendipity in fieldwork, I of course also want to make a claim about the invisibility of certain facts in the collective memory and history of this country.

In the autumn, I learnt that on 17th of October 1961 the Parisian police threw more than 200 (we will never know the exact number) peaceful Algerian demonstrators into the river. The recentness of such a brutality in a European capital is shocking to me. So is the lack of attention devoted to it. After the commemoration ceremony yesterday, I scrutinised the buildings around the metro entrance to see if there were a memorial plaque there. I found nothing that would remind the passer-byes of what had happened just some 40 years ago (but it seems there is one on the inside of the station, I’ll have to go and check…). However, at the open debate/meeting at the town hall afterwards I was to hear that the intersection between Boulevard Voltaire and Rue Charonne is to be named Place de 8 février 1962.

After the crushing of the demonstrators (150 wounded, in addition to the 9 deaths) the police tried to make up the most ridiculous lies, as they had after La nuit noire, 17th October 1961. However, between 500 000 and 1 million people participated in the funeral cortège to the cemetery Père Lachaise. But the chief of police, Maurice Papon continued in his job for years afterwards… (The same Papon – and this is something I must admit I don’t understand – had also had a high position during the Vichy Nazi collaborating government and taking part in sending more than 1500 French Jews to extinction…) These facts are known to the French today, but I must admit that they are so shocking to me that I don’t understand why they haven’t got more attention.

The French state has probably known better than most that l’oubli (forgetfulness, oblivion, omission, oversight) is fundamental for any nation (Ernest Renan, 1882: Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?) But over and over again the recent years, not to say months, it has become apparent that this long lasting and biased oblivion has to come to an end.

(As I write this, France 2 is broadcasting a critical American documentary on the laïque (secular) French state, at the moment focusing on the controversy around the Muslim headscarf. I hear a veiled girl say; “Integration, that’s finished. That was our parents’ generation. I am French. I’m born here”).

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