Paris Récit

Paris Récit : Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, 15th April 2019

Paris, France. Rear of Notre Dame shot from boat moving along Seine. Rear of Notre Dame from bridge. Pigeons, people sitting on benches, camera tilts to recall front of Notre Dame. Exterior of the cathedral’s stain glass window, fades to interior shot. More of the stained glass windows from interior (they appear to glow). More exterior shots of Notre Dame from moving boat. Close ups of gargoyles. Tree lined Seine from moving boat. Fishermen in three tiny stationary boats on Seine (poles protect them). Two barges tethered together travelling along Seine.
— Description of the video

As it always seems to be the case with situations like this, I heard about the fire at Notre-Dame by chance – after seeing a tweet by an American expressing sadness at the sight of the Cathedral on fire. The French Ambassador to the United States in an interview later shared how he was surprised by his reaction – he felt like he, himself was burning. Then he was shocked to realise that he was crying.

The intensity of my own reaction also came as a surprise. I kept thinking about it that night and into the following day. I don’t feel French in any sense, though I’ve lived in Paris for more than a decade and my son has grown up here. I’m not Catholic, even if my parents were and would have identified this way until they felt alienated from the Church after the Second Vatican in the 1960s; none of their children went to Catholic schools. But I grew up in an environment that was influenced by this religious and cultural heritage. With grandparents named Byrne, Prendergast, O’Halloran and Munday how could it be otherwise.

Awkwardly, I tried to find some way of paying respect to the event and how I felt: I shared this video of bells, marking the Cathedral’s 850th anniversary on Twitter - afterwards noticing that some kind of white rights/believer person in the U.S had liked it, unfortunately.

Some time ago I remember reading someone make the comment that people (in the West) are more affected by the loss of heritage – the Taliban in Afghanistan destroying the 6th century Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 or Daesh laying waste to mosques and museums in Syria and Iraq – than the deaths of people in the same locations. This is true in terms of how journalists approach these stories too, the way they build up the shock-drama element, the sense of pathos.

Perhaps people find it easier to express sadness over the loss of “culture” the same way they are more likely to donate to crises linked to natural disasters rather than political violence. This might reflect cultural bias – or racism – but it could just as much stem from a tendency to lean towards the tragic in an almost literary sense, while seeking to be included in the narrative. Much of the despair expressed worldwide over the fire at Notre-Dame resembled this, with many adding personal recollections of their visits to Paris to their expressions of shock.

Apparently, again gleaned from a cursory look at Twitter there was a reaction to the international expressions of sympathy, with many exhibiting a “fuck France” attitude. Much the same dynamic played out after the terrorist attack at The Bataclan in 2015 - with many feeling frustrated by what they see to be the event’s over-exposure, compared with other like events in poorer parts of the world or where the people affected by it are not predominantly white.

You Retweeted Jacinta Koolmatrie‏ @JKoolmatrie Apr 16

Jacinta Koolmatrie Retweeted Rae Johnston

Can’t help but think about how silent everyone is when it comes to Indigenous heritage. It is destroyed daily but instead of being met by singing and mourning, we are met by armed police #Djabwurrung

Rae Johnston‏Verified account @raejohnston

Devastating news about Notre Dame, a genuine shame to see a beautiful, historic, spiritual place destroyed. In Australia, this happens all the time - usually for the purposes of mining, development or - in the case of the 800+ year old Djab Wurrung birthing trees - a highway.

Historians Alexandre Gady and Claude Gauvard detail in a France Culture video that the Cathedral had been threatened before: during the “terrorist phase” of the French Revolution and then later in 1871 by the Communards, who tried to torch the Cathedral, alongside other buildings in Paris, as the “capital of the reactionary bourgeoisie” (to use their phrase).

During the First World War, the Germans tried to intimidate the French population by targeting Notre-Dame in an air raid but bombed the nearby Saint-Gervais church, leading to 100 deaths. The Nazis during the Occupation didn’t dare “touch” it, being well-aware of its significance for French people.  

The French Ambassador to Washington when describing his reaction mentioned how he walked past Notre-Dame daily.  This detail reflects something of the nature of shock and how it’s experienced. After the massacre at The Bataclan I also held onto this kind of reaction (I kept thinking about how I had seen a show there just weeks before, in the same place where so many were killed).

But it also says something about the way Notre-Dame is seen by people living in Paris. It is part of the landscape, albeit an essential part – remember that all distances begin there.

I have been inside Notre-Dame only a few times. (The last visit turned me off, it was jammed with tourists, filming or taking photos on their phones. It’s always surprised me how laidback the French are about the impact of mass tourism on places of enormous cultural significance, it’s almost as if they accept the influx in certain places if other places are “spared”. Thirteen million people visited Notre-Dame each year. Place du Tertre in Montmartre, a square with low-rise buildings near Sacré-Coeur where Picasso, Modigliani and Utrillo lived and Renoir had a studio is similar in this regard. Today it’s unvisitable, so crowded with people you can hardly move around, a kind of Disneyfied hell-hole with men in berets offering to draw you as a cartoon figure, spruiking their talents in multiple languages).

Notre-Dame was - is - the background to parts of my life here: a place I saw when doing other things in my day-to-day, when getting out at Saint-Michel, or buying books at Gibert Jeune. A place I walked past, and met friends nearby.

But it also has deep spiritual and emotional importance in Paris - for Parisians and French people in general - that’s hard to express. Speaking about it with my son, trying to find the words, I said that the fire bothered me more than if the Sydney Opera House had similarly been damaged. Quick as a flash, the soon to be 13 year-old replied, “That’s because you’re from Melbourne.” (Okay).

Outside the mildly humorous competition between France’s two richest men to out-donate each other, in the words of The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty

“In three days, the cathedral has been pledged €100m (£86m) from Francois-Henri Pinault, the ultimate owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent; €200m (£172m) from the Arnault family of Louis Vuitton fame; another €200m from L’Oreal owners the Bettencourt Meyers family, and €100 from French oil giant Total.”

… some aspects of the Notre-Dame story are particularly touching. The Fire Brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier who insisted on entering the cathedral with the firefighters - the heat of the fire reached 800C - and helped salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ. Fournier was also present during the aftermath of the massacre at The Bataclan in 2015, comforting the injured and praying over the dead.   

And then the work of the firefighters themselves, who symbolise Paris in a way that isn’t duplicated to the same degree, to my knowledge, elsewhere (seen jogging in groups in shorts throughout the city, selling tickets to the annual ball outside the various Town Halls). It came down to 15-30 minutes between the total building’s destruction. All focus was on ensuring that the fire didn’t reach the gothic bell towers, where one of the bells - the 13 tonne Emmanuel bell - could have sent the towers crashing down.

These videos, too, I find deeply moving, of people coming together spontaneously to sing and pray, while watching the fire. Some with tears in their eyes.  

This is the final piece of music played at Notre-Dame before the fire.    

Paris Récit: ‘La Ritournelle’ Sébastien Tellier, feat. Tony Allen (Politics, Record Makers, 2004)

Surprisingly my tolerance level for schmaltz, the eternal swoon is higher in music than in other art-forms, if this song by Sébastien Tellier is any guide. My feeling of affection for this song is genuine and real. This music touches my heart even if its techniques of manipulation are so explicit, all those strings, and so on the surface. Notice how Tellier sings his words of apparent devotion, the addition of the coy, or twee backing vocals after the line where he sings a line ending with 'I love you.'

Central to the music’s impact is the drumming of Tony Allen. There is such beauty to be found here, the way Allen maintains a kind of coiled precision in his drums, without his performance feeling caged in. This is the mark of his genius the way he keeps the rhythm so perfectly, with the impression that it could break out at any moment (as it does, just slightly, before the verses come in).

Oh, nothing's gonna change my love for you
I wanna spend my life with you
And we make love on the grass under the moon
No one can tell, damned if I do

Forever journeys on golden avenues
I drift in your eyes since I love you
I got that beat in my veins for only rule
Love is to share, mine is for you

Tony Allen is such a wonder on so many levels; he deserves all respect and praise that comes in his direction.

One listener said that this music is ‘a song for hope.’ I understand this. I have been listening to it on repeat over the past weekend until now, I’m not part-time in terms of my preferences, letting it flow into my psyche, as I make my way around Paris, letting the music become part of me, allowing it to soothe me.

Listening to it when walking through the grimy underground space of Les Halles and observing how people tend to congregate together, stand and move in groups, leaving space at the edges near the concrete walls; how they push forward in their movement, forcefully trying to be somewhere else. What I keep thinking is that even though this music is deeply sentimental, allowing us to feel a proximity with others it is equally manufactured. It is real and fake at the same time. It is the musical equivalent of the cinematic version of Doctor Zhivago

where the archetypal Russian male character is played by an Egyptian with an incongruous moustache. And yet, it loses none of its power for that, just as the final moments of the song is Tony Allen’s drums, unadorned, it allows us to transfer something of ourselves onto it as if it were a mirror. A musical surface offering solace. For this reason, I am grateful for its existence.


Reading Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality – Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986, trans William Weaver   

Two days ago, I made my way down Avenue de Clichy to the northern edge of Paris, where I collected the documents needed for my son’s entry to middle-school; this part of the city has always appealed to me, partly for its raffish edge (the bars/restaurants with all the chancers, scroungers, the kinds of outsiders you might find in a Lou Reed song, circa 1978).

Grimy, but it’s also an extremely physical, a sensual urban space – partly because of the very many trees that provide cover, dappling the concrete in shadows – but largely because of the constant movement of people. This is not an elegant environment, but rather an ‘uncontrolled’ space that reminds me of Zamalek in Cairo – it has the same faded grandeur, very dusty - a place I visited when I was a teenager with my parents, perhaps because of the unkept forgotten architecture; the way the residents live in tiny spaces, in darkened rooms that look out on to the street.

This part of Paris could be any southern city, somewhere where there are warm nights, subtropical: densely populated and insalubrious. Close to the final intersection that marks a redevelopment site, or sites, I saw this ‘hut construction’ filled with some books, kept together with thick black tape.

I moved forward to take a photograph of the ‘hut’ on my phone. A man suddenly was standing beside me, with an impatient feel, so I stated the obvious – and said what I was doing, that I was taking a photograph. I then went on to ask the obvious, ‘Can we take these books?’ You can, he said, and walked away. Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality in English translation.

The collection of essays, written for newspapers mainly includes a piece that I have since learnt was deeply influential on activists wanting to disrupt the messages put out by the media, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’ .  

‘The mass communication universe is full of … discordant interpretations; I would say that variability of interpretation is the constant law of mass communications. The messages set out from the Source and arrive in distinct sociological situations, where different codes operate,’ Eco wrote.

Such thinking is now commonplace – almost reified, it often seems via the simplistic stances of mass media versions of Identity Politics. Back in 1967, though, this idea that the way someone interprets a message was context-based – or as it became known later, identity-based – was new. When I was studying journalism decades after this essay was published, it was still open for debate, with some believing that the media had the power to directly shape and form opinion in a unified fashion, as if the message was similar to a syringe inserting information/viewpoint directly into the public’s consciousness.

There is much to appreciate in this collection, a highlight for me was his 1979 essay, more like a piece of reportage, on an Afro-Brazilian rite of the Candomblé, ‘Whose side are the Orixà on?’ It is very vivid, full of detail and recreation of an experience with people desperate to fall into a trance and thereby lose themselves for a moment.

Much of it is funny as well, with a wry touch, especially the beginning section where Eco asks himself questions about the value of the real and the fake, as he visits a series of wax museums in the United States and the Hearst Mansion, where he writes what offends is the ‘voracity’ of the selection, what is distressing is the 'fear of being caught up in venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavour, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sexual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass.'   


'Avenue de Clichy' Louis Anquetin, 1887

Avenue de Clichy, 2017

Avenue de Clichy, 2017

Paris Récit: Strasbourg-Saint-Denis

Just a few minutes, before the stop Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, a young woman

Dressed in a T-shirt that shows the word Belfast sits down beside me, reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire, page 38-39, ‘She was my darling: difficult, morose -- But still my darling …’

So, he asks me: ‘What happened with that friend of yours you couldn't reach, that one in the US ...'  It ended up being okay, I guess you could say that, um; it turns out he was depressed - he's fine now.

You can understand, you can understand – just imagine, just imagine … How it would be.

‘Maybe, though me, I’d much prefer it,’ he says, so says Fousseyni. ‘Better than how it is here, with all the hehehehehehehehehe …’   

Scrunching up his face, he repeats: ‘Hehehehehehehehe’  

Giggling once more, this man from Mali does his best impression of the fake-laugh of a white Frenchwoman, la blanche in all her hypocritical duplicity.

‘Come on, now Fouss, here, in Paris you can breathe;

they leave you be. It’s not like when you’re out on the street you’re being shot by the police,

it’s not like in the Etats-Unis.’  

Mmmm, Fouss pauses, scrunches his face once more, says, mmmm.

He’s not so sure.

Says he’d much prefer it over there, in the US, at least over there in the US, it’s direct,

It’s in your face, the racism and all that bullshit, and all that crap and nastiness is made explicit, it’s something you can see.


Paris Récit: Square des Batignolles (Barbara 'Perlimpinin' & Malik Djoudi 'Sous garantie')

'Let’s go visit the ducks,’ this used to be one of my most common weekend statements with my son when he was younger, and then I’d put him in his pram and we’d set out. Either up through Abbesses, that is currently ‘between seasons’, still selling thick jumpers and scarves (marginally discounted), or if he were still little and at that not-noticing age, down through Pigalle past the sex shops and revues to arrive at Place de Clichy.

When we first came to Paris, we (my son’s father, my son and I) stayed in a minuscule studio rental, first at Place de Clichy up the street from a transvestites/transsexual revue. Very early in the morning, when our little boy woke up, crying – still jet-lagged – his father would take him out to the all-night cafés and feed him some croissant in small pieces. 

We then moved to another short-term rental, just around the corner from the Square des Batignolles (one night our son woke up, making sounds that sounded like a barking seal, we called a doctor who gave him an injection to calm his lungs, I think that was what it was, and give him some peace and allow him to sleep).

The Square des Batignolles - an immaculate public park in the 17th arrondissement - is forever associated with the French chanson, ‘Perlimpinpin’ by the much-loved singer Barbara; there is a pathway, close to the water where the ducks are named after her ...

The video includes footage of children, filmed at Square des Batignolles in the 70s. This song was selected by the government as the symbolic tribute for the victims of the 13th November terrorist attacks during an official performance, it begins with these words: 

Pour qui, comment quand et pourquoi? Contre qui? Comment? Contre quoi?/ C’en est assez de vos violences./D’où venez-vous?/Où allez-vous? Qui êtes-vous?Qui priez-vous?/ Je vous prie de faire silence./ Pour qui, comment, quand et pourquoi? S’il faut absolument qu’on soit/ Contre quelqu’un ou quelque chose/

Je suis pour le soleil couchant/ En haut des collines désertes. Je suis pour les forêts profondes,/ Car un enfant qui pleure,/ Qu’il soit de n’importe où,/ Est un enfant qui pleure,/ Car un enfant qui meurt/ Au bout de vos fusils/ Est un enfant qui meurt./ 

The song ends with declaration of resistance, for want of a better word, and affirmation of life:

Vivre, Vivre/  Avec tendresse, Vivre/  Et donner Avec ivresse!

Today, then, I sit on the grass, bare feet, at the Square des Batignolles – listening to music, the radio (while circling exhibitions of interest in the weekly guide).

French composer Malik Djoudi ‘Sous Garantie’ (2017) described as the young hope of French synthesiser pop and dance of the ‘new romantic’ (in English, in the original text). 

I can’t make out the words, I don’t understand them, but I like the sound and the muted intensity. I’m in-between here. I try to find the lyrics when I come home, but they are not yet released. I’m surprised we can sit on the grass, normally an attendant comes and tells us not to; sometimes blowing a whistle at us, or running after people (again blowing the whistle) who go onto the grass, or when it is time for the park to close.

This is the sweetness of Paris for me, in essence, the way the locals make the most of the sunshine, trying to get some contact with nature in the public spaces. 

In front of me there is a father with a little girl aged around 18 months or less, she steps all over his chest, step step step step; all over his body, his legs. He doesn’t make a sound of any complaint. He picks her up and throws her gently in the air. This little girl is very quiet in her matching pink outfit and lime-green-rimmed sunglasses – that are perfect circles, protecting her eyes from the late afternoon sunlight. 

Paris Récit: At Abbesses métro

Deep, deep in the underground of the Abbesses métro there is a choice: take the stairs, the what appears to be, feels to be, hundreds of steps to come to the external entrance, or wait for the lift. Parisians always wait for the lift, fully aware of the struggle of making the ascent, especially those last final steps. Tourists eager to finally see Sacré-Coeur, can you imagine, see the exit sign and enthusiastically start gambolling up like little goats with great gusto.

Yesterday there was a couple waiting for the lift, who didn’t look French though they were not speaking, so I don’t know for sure if they were foreigners. They were a bit heavier than the French standard, wearing clothes that were also a bit heavier (though, of course, French people; French women especially love wrapping themselves up in thick scarves this Spring-like weather as if they were Scott of the Antarctic).

In French there is a word and concept that is not easily translated into English, that of the regard, as you can see here, the word itself carries multiple meanings, or perspectives:

regard nm
(expression des yeux) expression, look n, eyes npl
Elle a le regard vif et pétillant.
She has a lively, sparkling look.

regard nm
(action de regarder), look n, (short) glance n, (long), gaze n (figurative) eye n
Elle porte un regard très juste sur les choses.
She brings a very exacting eye to bear on things.

Note how in the two examples above, the subject is feminine. This 'look' can also be much more subtle, or nuanced; a person might say that the regard of a person is gentle, or affects them in some way. It refers to the way someone looks at something and the expression on someone’s face; the act of seeing and being seen.

Also waiting for the lift was a woman in her early 20s at most; with that shapely bird-like young woman’s body that seems not yet formed, not yet changed by her experience of life, with such tiny legs like driftwood. She had long blonde hair that she played with absent-mindedly, as she talked with her friend (and later tied into a long pony-tail that swayed as she moved).

The woman in the couple wearing heavy clothes would have been in her late 30s or older possibly, had dark red lipstick and an attractive face. She also wore jeans. And how she looked at this younger woman; she could barely direct her attention elsewhere.

I watched her watching the young woman. The expression on her face transfixed me, as it was a combination of curiosity and, possibly, tenderness marked by loss. I was intrigued by this and the way she could not look elsewhere, there was a certain hunger in the way she looked at this young woman that did not reflect the situation as it existed in that moment.

Now I know most people reading this would say it was ‘jealousy’ – how we like to believe that women are jealous of other women – but this would not be correct. Her expression had a softness about it, especially in the way she seemed so compelled to look at the young woman who was completely unaware (and yet her look was not maternal).

Others might refer to the silent man standing beside her, standing there staring at the announcement bar above the lift, but he was absent. Those same people might argue that there was some story of infidelity behind this (perhaps this woman had found a secret cache of imagery of a bouncing cheer-leading archetype – long hair cutting into her back like ribbons, or rivulets as she shook her body - on his laptop, when the mid-afternoon sun made the expression on the teenage girl’s face difficult to make out, distinguish …) 

Now could be the point for me to introduce some critique – and the temptation is strong – of how women are perceived when they are no longer young, but this would be completely inappropriate, far too heavy-handed; the older woman looked at the younger woman as if she were an exotic species, a flower she had never before seen.

Paris Récit: Police attack on Théo Luhaka, Aulnay-sous-Bois

On the 2nd February, during a stop and search of one of his friends, a 22-year-old man was brutally assaulted by police in Aulnay-sous-Bois (a poor neighbourhood north of Paris) and is now in hospital recovering from rectal injuries, caused by a police baton. One officer has been charged with rape, another three have also been charged with assault: all have been suspended.

‘There was blood everywhere, on the walls,’ the lawyer defending the man commonly referred to as ‘Théo’ by the media said. During the assault, the police are said to have called Théo Luhaka a ‘negro’ (it might also have been the French equivalent for nigger) ‘bamboula’ and ‘bitch’ and spat at him. For days after the assault, the impoverished housing estates to the north of Paris erupted in anger: cars were burnt and Molotov cocktails thrown in running battles with the police. The French President, François Hollande visited Mr Luhaka in hospital, where the young man called for calm.    

For reasons that remain a little opaque for me, I’ve found it difficult to write on this subject, even though it’s such a simple story - the facts write themselves - and such a familiar one.  

I live in northern Paris, but it is a completely different world to that of Aulnay-sous-Bois. If I walk down the street about five minutes, I’m in a largely immigrant neighbourhood, but in my immediate vicinity it’s cafés filled with tourists and women wearing very long coats and pearly-white sneakers. The extreme deprivation that marks out the poor neighbourhoods surrounding Paris, places like Aulnay-sous-Bois, with its rows of anonymous housing estates is less obvious in my area (though, of course, it is here as well, as is the aggressive police presence).  

Perhaps my ambivalence reflects tiredness about how this story keeps repeating and nothing gets done, alongside broader feelings of suspicion about how news stories of police violence against black men (and boys) play out in the dominant culture, whether it’s Aulnay-sous-Bois, Baltimore or the juvenile jails of the Northern Territory, Australia. (And it is gendered, non-white women are also victimised, of course, but the images we see repeated on the news tend to be of men being hurt, beaten, suffocated or shot)

In the end, I wonder about the value of broadcasting this brutality, without an exploration of the broader context, or statement of explicit political demands. Does the widespread dissemination of images of non-white people being hurt serve to further reinforce racist stereotypes, I wonder, while inflicting further harm on the victimised via the denial of their basic right to privacy? Surely, in the end, this right to be private, to decide how we are seen and perceived by others, is what makes us human.  

And even though it’s rarely said, I also wonder if this dissemination of imagery of violence against non-white people reflects a ghoulish perversity that has a long history, stretching back to the plantation and killing fields of Colonial Australia. Often people, usually white, say racism towards non-white people reflects ‘fear of the other’. It's not always this, racism in its most brutal form enacts a desire to humiliate, to insist upon another person that they are less than human, nothing more than bodies.

For a period of time, my Facebook feed was filled with images of black men being shot by police in the United States, which appeared to be updated on a daily basis by activist groups. (There was one video that didn’t get much attention, but shocked me deeply of a man being shot execution style in an Ohio street by a police officer; in such an ordinary street, in the middle of the day). And I started wondering about the value of all of this.

How effective was it in a political sense to keep seeing these images of people being killed, or handcuffed and shoved to the ground, I thought then, does it raise awareness in a way that leads to reform, prosecution and convictions of the perpetrators, or maintain the status quo (while significantly adding to the stress felt by minority communities in the US)?  

Now this perspective might seem strange coming from a journalist, but it is this professional background that motivates this reaction. In a news-room you quickly learn how and why certain stories rise to the top, usually it comes down to the maxim: ‘If it bleeds, it leads ….’

You also see how quickly stories and victims are forgotten. One of the older journalists used to talk to me about ‘old news’ saying that it had as much interest as ‘yesterday’s fish and chips’ (something that is foul, inedible). Within a few weeks, there is a chance that the abuse of Théo will for many people here in France be seen as old news. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.

The counter to this point of view is that such videos raise awareness in the general community; well, firstly who is this general community? None of this is news to me, or people with any kind of political consciousness, nor is it news for members of the affected groups. Whose interests are being served here and at what cost?  

In the end, I wonder why this shocking/extreme/brutal representation of racism is privileged by the media above all the other forms of race-based oppression. I have been educating myself about the economics of racism, past and present, in the United States and find this equally disturbing, if not more. But this colder version of race-hate doesn’t get the same kind of airtime on the nightly news and the question is why.  

This is the reason why I haven’t written about the brutalisation of Théo and the death of Adama. I have been watching, though, just like I have been watching the way the police stop and search non-white people in my neighbourhood, and especially the way the police touch the crotches of the young men as they pat them down.

And the way vans full of police in riot gear seem permanently stationed down on Boulevard Barbès, dozens and dozens of police kitted out like over-sized plastic action heroes, their shoulders and knees covered in black like beetles, waiting, just waiting …    

For more background on all of this, have a look at this very strong piece of reporting on the death of Adama Traoré in police custody, again in a small town to the north of Paris in July last year and attack on Théo Luhaka by Iman Amrani and Angélique Chrisafis, published in The Guardian a few weeks ago.

Paris Récit: 'The Oath of the Horatii'

‘So, what can you see in this painting?’

The guide at the Louvre bends her body at a slight incline to speak to the primary-school children sitting on the floor in disordered rows in front of her. My son is one of the group; we’re visiting the Louvre as part of a school excursion.   

‘The men are standing up straight, the ladies are sitting in the corner,’ one child says.

‘What about the colours?’

‘The ladies are in darker colours to show they are sad. The men are wearing brighter colours – red, because they are going off to fight a war.’

We are sitting in front of Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Oath of the Horatii’ (Le serment les Horaces) painted five years before the Revolution in 1784, which is part of the collection on display at the Louvre.

This is one of those moments when Paris in all its wonder opens itself up to me. My son is blasé, they have studied these masterpieces at his public school before coming to the museum. He has memorised an extract from Corneille’s 1640 play, Horace – his sweet little mouth changing shape, as he pronounces ‘Albe, Albe …’ (stressing the final vowel to allow for the essential poetry of the text). I studied the same paintings in my final year of secondary school, poring over the slides in another hemisphere, in another country where sudden dust storms coloured the sky red or orange in the middle of summer (sometimes).

In the painting, the three brothers express their loyalty and solidarity, with Rome before battle, wholly supported by their father. These are men willing to lay down their lives out of patriotic duty. With their resolute gaze and taut, outstretched limbs, they are citadels of patriotism. They are symbols of the highest virtues of Rome. Their clarity of purpose, mirrored by David’s simple yet powerful use of tonal contrasts, lends the painting, and its message about the nobility of patriotic sacrifice, an electric intensity. This is all in contrast to the tender-hearted women who lie weeping and mourning, awaiting the results of the fighting.

'The mother and sisters are shown clothed in silken garments seemingly melting into tender expressions of sorrow,' a description of the painting continues in the internet's free encyclopaedia. David invented this moment, when three men took their swords and vowed to defend Rome, to defend their beloved Republic, against their rivals from Alba Longa.     

‘What do you think about the building?’

‘In the background, there are arches. I think it’s a big house like in the old days, in Roman times,’ one child says.

According to one critic, the painting represents the virtue of patriotism that included self-sacrifice for one's country, while also reflecting the political tensions in pre-revolutionary France. It was a huge success after its public exhibition and led to David being allowed to study at the Louvrewhich was considered to be a great honour for artists in this period.  

On Friday morning, as I was collecting my phone from a repair shop in my neighbourhood, a man was shot by soldiers after lunging at police and soldiers guarding the entrance to the underground shopping complex at the Louvre. He was armed with a machete, and apparently called out Allahu Akbar.

‘Is he French?’ I asked the man who was organising the paperwork for me to sign so I could take the phone with me.


‘This is unbelievable, it’s going to affect the political scene here so much, again - just before the election.’

‘Not just that,' the man replied, 'But tourism, as well. I mean, the Louvre.’