Vol 1 No 9
War in the 18th Arrondissement
Living in Paris one can hardly fail to be conscious of the Algerian War. Not only are the newspapers full of it, but the outrages of the Secret Army Organization — whose sign like that of the outlawed neo-Fascist party Jeune Nation is a Celtic Cross, or a cross within a circle — are now so numerous and widespread that most Parisians have their own plastic explosion stories, just as during the Blitz most Londoners had their own bomb stories.
Attacks by members of the Algerian National Liberation Front are now fewer, but much more lethal, and much more rigorously investigated by the police. Perhaps the police favour a French rather than an Algerian Algeria, despite the clear self-determination policy of President de Gaulle. Certainly Parisians believe so and will point out that no right-wing terrorist has ever been arrested and brought to trial. This is not quite true, but so nearly so that it does not seem worth denying. Algerian terrorists are, on the other hand, made to feel the full combination of violence and efficiency which characterizes the Municipal Police, the Republican Security Company and the National Gendarmerie. One night this summer the FLN launched a full-scale attack on the Paris police forces, losing thirteen men killed and four wounded and taken prisoner (a curiously inverse ratio to normal battle casualties) without having accomplished anything significant. One policeman was walking home, thoughtfully carrying his sub-machine gun, the mechanically superb MAS 54, when three members of an FLN commando attacked and wounded him; he promptly killed all three. Next morning Le Figaro carried a photograph of the huddled bodies, fatally grouped; mute evidence that the Paris flic is quite as quick on the draw as was any Western sheriff and much more formidably armed.
But death accompanies every agent, gendarme and guardian of the peace on his duty. His adversary is almost certain to be armed with knife, gun or hand grenade; perhaps all three. The raider will probably be in a car much more powerful than the under-powered police Renaults or ponderous Citroën Black Marias. Moreover, the FLN commando will regard the killing of a flic not as an unavoidable necessity, but as a tactical triumph in itself. This is worth remembering when the insular and often insolent English visitor sneers at the armament of the Paris police, or comments on their alleged trigger-happiness. Yet so far as I can trace there is no recorded instance of police wounding a passer-by. In Britain when some sub-youth, race-rioter, or lunatic wounds or kills a policeman there is rightly an outcry in the Press for better pay, better conditions, better protection; here the fact is merely recorded. The policeman is another member of the armed forces and, if he is killed, it is in the line of duty. Today it is the invisible firing line of a war that is officially being fought on the other side of the Mediterranean.
Although, however, one cannot help being aware of the Algerian war in Paris, one is only conscious of it in a single district. That is called Chapelle.
In French usage, Chapelle means not only ‘Chapel’, but any sort of closed society and it is often applied to the Masons; thus it in one sense corresponds to the English ‘clique’. This is rather an apt description of the district of Chapelle, save that it is divided into two violently-opposed cliques: the public and the police.
Legalistally speaking, Chapelle no more exists than does the ‘Republic of Montmartre’, which is in the same arrondissement, the 18th, collectively and officially called Butte Montmartre. And indeed visitors coming from Central Paris, as most visitors do, in order to ascend the hill to Sacré Coeur either by the funicular railway or the dizzy, knee-swelling flights of stone steps, must pass close by Chapelle. For to do so they will cross the boulevard de Rochechouart, a popular local shopping centre, which also does a brisk trade in selling meals and souvenirs to the poorer or more adventurous tourists who cannot afford the prices of the establishments on the hill. At one end is the place Pigalle, centre of right-bank night life for tourists who are likely to meet Parisian Muslims in rather unattractive occupations: peddling pornographic postcards; pimping; soliciting as homosexuals; or molesting foreign women with a startling lack of discretion and discrimination. At the other end is the boulevard de la Chapelle where the whole Muslim population is engaged, either as a primary or secondary occupation, in the Algerian War. Most visitors cross the boulevard de Rochechouart without ever knowing that they have bypassed a battlefield.
The boulevard de la Chapelle is the southernmost boundary of the district known as Chapelle. To the north it is bounded by the boulevard Ney, which is rather reminiscent of parts of the North Circular Road and, like it, a suburban factory area; to the east, the rue Marx-Dormoy heads north to become the rue de la Chapelle; to the west it is the boulevard Barbès that heads north to become, with a western slant, the boulevard Ornano. This deviation is the only thing that prevents Chapelle from being a perfect oblong. Reading north to south and west to east it is defined at each corner by four Metro stations: Porte de Clignancourt; Barbès - Rochechouart; Porte de la Chapelle; and La Chapelle. The district is divided in two by the great marshalling yards that run from the Gare aux Merchandises in the north to the Gare du Nord in the south. Thus British visitors coming to Paris from Calais or Dunkerque must traverse the district in the last stage of their journey, as they fumble with their luggage and fret about porters and a taxi.
This vast railway cutting divides the district physically and psychologically. The east is industrial and still supposedly communist; a Frenchman of the bourgeoisie still thinks of it as part of the ‘Red Belt’, though the removal of many workers to the glass and concrete garden suburbs and the relatively high wages paid nowadays by the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer seem to have toned it down by several shades. In the thirties it was a great place for organizing demonstrations; and the area still manages to raise a contingent every 14th of July to march to the place de la Bastille and brawl with the Republican Security Guards (as did their predecessors with the Garde Mobile whom the
CRS supplanted), whose barracks is conveniently close at hand to this shrine of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. During the Occupation Chapelle provided a section of Francs-Tireurs Partizans, the Communist element of the Resistance, who, rising rather belatedly while their non-political comrades of the Forces françaises de l’Intérieure were battling bloodily in the 5th and 6th Arrondissements, were still in time to harry the Wehrmacht in those fateful days between August 19 and 25, 1944, before General Leclerc’s 2ème Division Blindée went through Paris like a dose of French liver salts, leaving the late Ernest Hemingway to drink champagne at the Ritz Bar. The erstwhile headquarter of the F-TP is now an outfitters’ in the boulevard Barbès; this year, despite the half-dozen names of the fallen recorded upon the commemorative plaque, it was perhaps the only plaque of its kind in Paris not to bear flowers and a wreath. For the communist element has retreated before the Muslim invasion and perhaps no longer likes to be reminded of a working past in the prospect of a petit bourgeois future. Eastern Chapelle can now look down its nose at the towering tenements of the once superior western half; for the leftist sector has become the right side of the tracks.
The Western side, and the whole of the boulevard de la Chapelle to a depth of three or four streets, has become almost exclusively Muslim. This is the description given by the French Press to the Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan workers who have gone to live there, the former being the vast preponderance. Actually it is rather a loose description as the presence of so many ‘Muslim’ bars in Chapelle shows; it is rather like describing all Englishmen as ipso facto members of the Church of England; for very many Muslims cast off their religious restrictions upon coming to France. Even so simple an act as the traditional ‘passing the bottles’ in a gang of navvies can cause the break. However the description is convenient in a sense, because the only other term used is ‘North African’, which strictly speaking includes the colons, or Algerian settlers numbering more than a million who have lived in the country for several generations. The Metropolitan French dislike describing these people as French, since many of them are Spanish-speaking and of Spanish stock, or else the children of Italian immigrants. Secondly, the colons consider themselves as much Algerians as the Arabs or Berbers. It would be convenient to call them ‘Christians’, in contradistinction to ‘Muslims’, but the finicking French journalistic tradition of anti-clericalism forbids this. One writes instead of ‘Muslims’ and ‘Europeans’, though the former may in reality be Christians and the latter Lebanese.
At all events, the settlement of Muslim workers in Paris has led to Chapelle becoming a sort of Notting Hill, though in fact very few of what the French call ‘Black Africans’, as against Arabs, go there. The ‘Black Africans’ are known as peaceable, sober, industrious and regular with the rent: consequently they are welcome in respectable areas where the word ‘Muslim’ is an anathema to Parisians; there is no colour bar as such in France. The influx of Muslims into Chapelle has been largely due to the deterioration of the west-side property thanks to the marshalling yards; and also the opportunities for unskilled labour in these same yards and nearby factories. And it has led to the development of a district in which Arabic is heard more frequently than French and couscous are more in demand than vegetables. The only uncharacteristic thing about these Arabs is also their only outward sign of French culture: an addiction to alcohol.
The other and traditional Arab vice is shown by the fact that almost every hotel in the boulevard de la Chapelle is a brothel. There are a fair number of brothels in the district; and the filles — both Muslim and French — also loiter in the cafés and on the corners. France has, of course, officially banned brothels and it is only in Chapelle that they are openly tolerated; the reason is simple: they provide the police with links and intelligence centres among an otherwise almost implacably hostile population.
Until the Algerian uprising began, seven years ago, Chapelle had no special tradition of violence other than for that sort of brawling which may be expected in a poor district, full of communists and foreigners. When the Algerian War began, however, the National Liberation Front, or FLN, soon began to see the advantages of levying contributions from the relatively affluent Muslim workers in France. But many Muslim workers saw things in a different light. To begin with, a great number of them were already sending a large part of their earnings home fortnightly to families in Algeria; and again, some of them were by no means in sympathy with the war, still less with the FLN. Many belonged to the Algerian National Movement, or MNA, which pledged itself to secure an independent Algeria in association with France, and to achieve this end by peaceful means. The MNA was originally quite as strong, if not stronger, than the FLN, but suffered as must all liberal-minded movements in competition with extremists; it was moreover pledged to non-violence. The stage was thus set for gangster-style extortion and political terrorism, with all its attendant vendettas.
The FLN were, from the outset, the aggressors. At first, they were chiefly concerned with intimidating their fellow-Muslims into paying up to the fighting funds or paying more. Refusals meant a hand grenade thrown into a café frequented by the MNA, or a burst of automatic fire through the window. In more serious cases, the FLN would place a dynamite charge in the hall of an hotel during the small hours. The favoured weapons were machine pistols and, very occasionally, knives; but poisoned darts have been used several times. In the first blood-letting the FLN commandos in France as in Algeria tended to kill anyone rather than not to kill at all. Very often they were insufficiently briefed in identification and would pick the wrong man; as in the case where they killed two innocent passers-by and let their intended victim escape; or on the occasion when they shot a nurse to enter a hospital and finished off one of their own wounded members in bed, whereas the man they were after was lying injured further down the ward.
There is one peculiar facet of the Algerian War as it is being fought in France: both sides tend to attack their own potential supporters and backsliders rather than each other. There is no recorded example, for instance, of a clash between the OAS and the FLN. The FLN at first concentrated on wiping out the MNA and then upon intimidating the great bulk of the Muslim population. Later, as strong characters refused to pay, they resorted to individual assassination pour encourager les autres. On the other side, the settlers’ terrorist organization known as the Red Hand (symbolizing the Muslim Green Hand of Fatima dyed red for vengeance) and, more recently, the Secret Army Organization (OAS) has concentrated on intimidating those Frenchmen who actively favour Algerian independence, usually Gaullists, or liberal-minded intellectuals. It has been the liberals on both sides who have suffered at the expense of the extremists. The OAS is usually careful not to take life in France and has issued a directive to this effect; but President de Gaulle and Muslim journalists are apparently fair game. The Red Hand members are, however, experts in assassination, both of FLN diplomats and arms dealers. Most of their activities have been outside France: especially in Federal Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Czechoslovakia, where they have carried out any number of ingenious murders (the German illustrated weeklies put the figure at more than 200), destroyed ships and aircraft with cargoes of arms for the Algerian rebels, and all without one member ever having been brought to trial. They are less scrupulous than the OAS and recently injured a streetful of Italian children while blowing up an arms dealer.
The FLN, however, has become more ambitious since the funds began to flow in. Thanks to the fact that arms can be sold freely in West Germany owing to a loophole in the Federal Constitution, they soon became formidably armed, despite the successes of the Red Hand. This section of the FLN is known as the Special Organization, or OS, and it soon had the funds and organization to buy or steal cars. The OS then specialized in attacking the Parisian police.
There have been running fights between the OS and police cars in many districts, including one in the fashionable avenue de l’Opéra. There have been even more numerous attacks on Paris police stations; but here again they have conformed to the fratricidal pattern because they are directed against centres of the Muslim auxiliary police, called Harkis, against whom the FLN feels a particular animosity. The station most frequently attacked is called the Goutte d’Or and stands in the boulevard de la Chapelle. This is particularly suitable for high-speed attacks because it has a dual carriageway separated by the stanchions of an overhead Metro, permitting two-way attacks, to say nothing of being set in a triangular block, so that it can be approached three ways. The tactical standard of such attacks is seldom high: the raiders drive past a station with guns blazing and attempt to throw grenades through the door; then they throw more grenades into the street to discourage pursuit. Because such stations are in poor Muslim districts where the children play in the street, many of the victims of these chance grenades are Muslim children.
The police have not been slow to retaliate, and, as I have already indicated, a suspiciously high number of Muslim terrorists are killed in proportion to those taken prisoner. Even the prisoners are almost invariably injured and many die before they can be brought to trial. There are rumours that certain police stations use the sort of water and electrical interrogation that was described by the Communist editor, Henri Alleg, in The Question as having been used on him at the Parachutists’ headquarters in Algiers. Reports of beatings-up are widely believed. And the other day I saw sudden confirmation of police brutality, so casually carried out and observed that I can only believe it to be commonplace. And it was a reminder that the Algerian War is also being fought in France.
One Sunday when Paris had been alerted against another right-wing military putsch, a friend and I went for a late lunch to the rue Marx-Dormoy. The Chapelle district, like any workers’ quarter, had many good and cheap restaurants. This one is a lorry drivers’ pull-in, which used to be called ‘Restaurant aux Routiers’. It is characteristic of the changed social climate of communist Chapelle that it recently changed management and has been renamed ‘Café des Chauffeurs’.
We left the Metro at La Chapelle and walked up the rue Marx-Dormoy, only to find the place closed for the annual summer holiday that drains the capital each August and part of September. So we retraced our steps and turned the corner into the boulevard de la Chapelle en route for the boulevard de Rochechouart, where one can always get a meal.
The first thing we noticed about the boulevard de la Chapelle was that a series of temporary barricades had been erected, slowing traffic to a crawl and blocking side-turnings; the second was that there were more police about than passers-by; the third that most of the girls were missing from their accustomed doorways; and the fourth that the atmosphere was like that of a film set, and the film would have been High Noon.
The police were in groups of twos and threes. One man in each group carried a sub-machine gun and sometimes a second man was similarly armed. They also, of course, wore standard pistols and batons. The men with automatic weapons had their uniform pockets stuffed with extra clips of ammunition. The groups were standing on both sides of the street so that they could enfilade any attacking car. They were at twenty-foot intervals along the frontage of the Goutte d’Or block and continued all the way up the sides of the triangle to the intersection behind the station. There must have been at least forty of them. In the far carriageway, beyond the overhead Metro, there were three Black Marias, coach-sized, filled with armed police. The Goutte d’Or suddenly seemed like a lonely outpost in a savage land, though we could still see the dome of the Sacré Coeur over the rooftops.
There were two guards outside the station itself, standing behind breast-high concrete shields, each with a machine-rifle. There were two more standing and regarding the few passers-by.
As we approached, the two latter stopped a group of three Muslims and a Frenchman who were coming in the opposite direction. The Muslims stood passively with their arms raised and their legs straddled while they were searched for concealed weapons: always a humiliating and rather disgusting business even when done by experts, as these police certainly were. Then the Muslims were pushed and shoved into the station. The Frenchman, who was very tall, middle-aged, and carrying a brown paper parcel, produced some papers from his wallet. A policeman took these and searched him. Curiously enough he did not bother about the parcel. Then they began to push him too inside. As he passed the concrete shield at the door he made some remark to the guard; we were still too far away to hear what was said, but perhaps it was the old crack about the flic being no better than his gun. It was certainly ill-considered. The guard laid down his sub-machine gun, measured the prisoner and hit him. The prisoner was trapped in the angle of the entrance. Every time the guard bit him the prisoner’s head snapped back against the angle of the door-frame. The guard hit him eight times in all, using both hands like a professional. He was a big, broad-shouldered flic and all the blows were correctly delivered straight from the shoulder, the weight of his body behind them, using the knuckle part of the fist. Every blow hit the prisoner in the face. When it was over the other two flics carried the prisoner inside. His fingers were still entangled in the string of his parcel.
As we passed, the guard was looking down at his knuckles and smiling. He had a little Errol Flynn moustache. The old whore who was sitting on a chair outside the brothel next door to the Goutte d’Or got up and went inside. She was looking eloquent, but she said nothing. Beyond the Goutte d’Or block, the shopping crowds were out. We went into the first Muslim café and ordered wine. It was the first time a barman has ever run to serve me. There were only a few Muslims in the place, drinking or reading newspapers, but the barman kept looking from them to us. He snatched away our glasses almost before we had emptied them and I had to remind him of the reckoning. Perhaps he didn’t want to get the name of mixing with Europeans.
We had lunch in the boulevard de Rochechouart and then returned to the Goutte d’Or where things were as tense as ever, and the eastern end of the boulevard de la Chapelle was still being shunned. We watched a Harki patrol come out of the station and followed them for some way on their beat. There were five of them and they walked like infantry rather than police. The flaps of their holsters were under the butts of their pistols. When the brigadier leading the patrol crossed the street to investigate the occupants of a café he was followed at a few paces to the left by a second man. Then a third crossed and stood outside, facing inwards. The other two remained on the opposite pavement and faced outwards towards the ends of the street, resting their right hands on the butts of their pistols. They acted in this way without the brigadier having to give orders. They stopped and searched all Muslim passers-by with a sort of brutal good humour. They even made a joke about a bullet scar in the entrance doors to a rather charming private courtyard. But they were intensely alert, and constantly checked the upper windows as well as those at street level.
Apparently the tension was caused by a report that the OS intended to blow up the Goutte d’Or that day, in the belief that its garrison would be weakened by having to send men on anti-putsch exercises in central Paris; but the police got news of the plot. The next day the tension had relaxed to normal: police were still posted round the block and at both sides of the street, but there were only a dozen of them. And people no longer seemed afraid to pass the Goutte d’Or.
Indeed, the residents of Chapelle appear to have become immune to the tension. I had an example of this later in the week when I dined in a French home there, and mentioned the incident to my hostess.
‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘there’s been no trouble here. The shootings and the stabbings have always been at the other side of this block.’
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