Belleville is a political neighborhood. Maybe that is why I am drawn to it. Most people vote left–socialist, communist, etc. In the late 1800’s, one out of ten Parisian anarchists lived in Belleville and the area played a central role in the Commune. Belleville is up high–the highest spot in Paris is in it–and it is easy to imagine the cannons pointing down on the city below.
The goal of the Commune was to turn businesses into cooperatives and then federate them. The battles were bloody, with the Commune existing for a while but then defeated. The last barricade to go down was in Belleville, at the intersection of rue Ramponeau and rue Tourtille.
Belleville is what the French call a “popular” district or what we would call “working class.” When Haussmann modernized Paris, nearly a half million people were displaced. A half million! Most of them moved to Belleville and to other eastern parts of Paris. In recent years, it has been a district of immigrants.
Belleville is political today, too. There are numerous neighborhood organizations. One, La Cantine des Pyrénées, offers free food and popular education, including adult French classes and monthly movies.
Another, the Place des Fêtes Collective, holds monthly neighborhood parties in a square at the intersection of working class and more gentrified areas. “We are inhabitants of the quarter who organize ourselves to strengthen our links, break down self-segregation and awaken solidarity.” “Workshops, collective kitchen and popular banquet, free garage sale, concert!”
Another group, Droit à la (Belle)Ville, pushes to end upscale development in the quarter. The name takes off from philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city (droit à la ville) and makes it into the right to Belleville. “Rich out of our neighborhoods: Let us remain in Belleville.” “Stop speculation: The quarter for the inhabitants not for speculators.”
There are some anarchists in the quarter as well. There’s even an anarchist archive, Le Jargon Libre. “Comrades, wake-up! In our name, every day and everywhere, LIBERTY is judged, condemned, executed and ‘commits suicide’.” “Poetry. It leaves the salons and goes down into the streets. In this way, it ceases to be a streetwalker.”
I have wanted to explore this anarchist archive and library and so was delighted to learn there was going to be a fundraising concert and used book sale there. The first singer, Bianka Nera, accompanied by Frank Williams, sang some tunes and then broke into Italian opera. Italian opera outside on the sidewalk in the heat of a Paris summer evening!
And then one of the most important protest singers in France, Dominique Grange, sang some of her old songs, accompanied by a fine accordion player, Alexis Lambert. A member of the gauche proleterienne (the proletarian left) in ’68, and one of the most important women in the movement, Grange sang at demonstrations and for striking workers at their job sites. “A bas l’état policier” (Down with the police state!) seemed especially meaningful today, with mass incarceration and migrants in cages. A society of cooperatives sounds relevant, too. Maybe the ’68 radicals, and the Commune, were just a bit before their time
It was thrilling and inspiring to hear her–and to imagine her singing her radical French folk tunes to striking workers–and a fitting way to spend my last night in Paris.