Paris in August

Although I had landed two hours before, I was drinking wine and not coffee as I waited for a friend, a newly credentialed lawyer, to explain his concerns about civil liberties in his country. At my back, shrieks rose. My mistake had been remembering the yearly transformation of the Bassin de La Villette as festive. This visit to a café on the canal’s bank had been my suggestion. Floating dive bars lift anchor, replaced by kayaks and bulky platforms within which it’s possible to pilot a child’s plastic boat or, last year’s innovation, to swim. A whine reached us from a zipline. A boat whose deep pink sail bore a logo for the 2024 Olympics rotated slowly, moored unstably to two buoys. The city’s bid was in. Meanwhile, temporary metal fences cordoned off the canal, and last August, to walk alongside it, one had to submit to a guard rifling through one’s bag. To another American, I pointed out Doric columns, the Villette Rotunda, built in the eighteenth century as a tollbooth in the city’s wall. Like a tree, Paris has grown in concentric rings; this wall, where taxes used to be exacted, was succeeded by a looping railway, by the Périphérique highway, and, most recently, by a scheme called Grand Paris, which will incorporate some of the suburbs into an extended Métro web and administrative system. So unpopular were the taxes – and, by extension, the Rotunda – that its architect, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, was imprisoned by revolutionaries in 1793. The American had heard of Ledoux’s dream, a city of three thousand inhabitants laid out radially around a salt works that the architect had built. He sketched buildings whose geometries cross Neoclassical and ziggurat – Space-Age avant la lettre. A vast orb sunk among mausoleums would serve as a cemetery. As with the factory, which centred a director’s house the architect called a ‘temple of surveillance’, the design emphasised sightlines. The panopticon was not, for Ledoux, incompatible with utopia. On the contrary, in Chaux city, the architecture would refine the thinking of the citizenry.[1] They would have nothing to hide. Michel Foucault would write of Ledoux that he understood misbehaviour as a failure of surveillance.


After the guards’ post, we passed stringed lights, temporary ice-cream stands, displays of handicrafts. What my lawyer friend found so disturbing last August was the belatedness of justice, such as it was, under the emergency state, temporary law written for the Algerian War and readopted periodically: during a New Caledonian independence movement in 1985, after suburban riots in 2005, and on 14 November 2015, the day after gunmen at the Bataclan and elsewhere in Paris, acting simultaneously with explosions at Saint-Denis Stadium, killed 130 people. Since then, police had been able to place anyone under house arrest, search their home or, with a few exceptions, search any place they frequented. They could delineate perimeters within which to conduct searches, as well as shutter places of worship. They had been able to ban anyone from assembling until, in June, the Constitutional Council disallowed this. They could base these decisions on unsigned and undated ‘white papers’ attributed to intelligence agencies. The targets of these decisions could appeal them to an administrative court; the judges are government functionaries rather than career magistrates, and the system’s highest court, the Conseil d’Etat, which was established to advise the king, counsels the administration. In this way, the French executive branch came to exercise powers that were checked by judges only retrospectively, if at all.[2] In June 2017, the administration of the recently elected president, Emmanuel Macron, proposed a bill that would make many of these measures permanent. Legislators approved, and on 30 October Macron signed it publicly, with two members of his government looking on, ‘American-style’, as was noted on one blog.[3] This new law took effect on 1 November, when the latest law perpetuating the emergency state had been scheduled to expire, with some provisions to end on 31 December 2020 by grace of what the French press called a self-destructive clause.


In Paris, August is a period of vacancy but not peace. Construction works multiply, and the whirr of drills is, in quick rotation, audible, inaudible, and audible again, like a bird with its wings caught. The municipal permissiveness by which a few parks stay open all night and by which, my friend told me, parking used to be free, is manifestly seasonal. Closure signs on storefronts are handwritten, as if afterthoughts. To my announcement that I’d stay for the month, my Parisian friends responded coolly, without fuss; this is a month for which they simply cannot stick around. For company, the city is left with itself. At a party, I overheard a Parisian meet two fellow city dwellers. ‘But you are Parisians!’ he said. ‘What are you doing in Paris?’


Justement,’ they said, and mentioned their train. ‘We’re leaving.’


Before sleeping I would leave a window open and listen to trams pass on lines subtending the city’s eastern end – a soft, regular sound, like waves breaking. In the Nineteenth Arrondissement, at the apartment of a friend, an artist in residency elsewhere, I found, as I do whenever I stay at a friend’s, objects for anxiety. A burner of the electric stove was rusty, and repeatedly, after scrubbing, I stared at it and wondered whether I had been to blame.


I went walking with the American, who, understanding no French, developed a disconcerting habit: after we passed people speaking loudly, he would ask, ‘What was that about?’


I had cause to spend parts of January 2017, February and all of March as well as August in the city. I left it in July 2015 after living there for three years. The fragmentation of my time in Paris, a city from which I was, in this way, continually wrenched, lent my experience what seemed to me a drama to be distrusted, heightened by arbitrary breaks.


‘Our police are behaving more like American police now,’ I heard last February, at a dinner party in the Sixth Arrondissement. As for the United States, no one’s prognosis was optimistic, but finally the other guests agreed that the Americans had been impressive lately in their protests. They looked at me. Bravo, they said. Certainly, they added, aspects of the Women’s March had been problematic, but overall they had been cheered to read of the assemblies. One only hoped the French, too, would turn out so numerously were Marine Le Pen elected President, as the guests expected she would be.


I noticed the poster which read Respond to a terrorist attack in a doctor’s office, and subsequently, I would see it in libraries. It looks like an in-flight safety guide, but these stick figures flee, push a couch against a door, silence their phones and crouch behind a pillar. Also new since I moved away were the guards who searched purses at the doors to grocery stores. While the 1955 law creating an emergency state authorised house arrest for ‘anyone… whose activity proves dangerous to security and public order,’ the 2015 revision specifies that it may be applied to those for whom exist ‘serious reasons to think their behaviour constitutes a threat to security and public order,’ and, in this way, deemphasises their behaviour in favour of what is thought about them.[4] The law that replaced the emergency state on 1 November 2017 requires a judge’s sign off before searches, though not ‘individual measures of administrative control and surveillance’, the former house arrests, but it preserves this wording. Another criterion must, now, co-present: the list of possibilities includes apologia for terrorism.[5] Defined by the November 2015 law, the house arrests – numbering 400 in the law’s first three months, though at last count on 30 October, only 41 were in effect – might have required suspects to stay someplace other than their home, to stay in place for as many as twelve hours, to check in with authorities as many as three times daily, to wear an ankle bracelet, to turn in a passport or to break off a relationship deemed suspicious.[6][7] The new law diminishes these impositions, for example by widening the bounds of the detainment to an entire town, and by limiting the frequency with which suspects must check in to once daily.[8] Sensibly, both 1955 and 2015 laws stipulate these house arrests should not ‘take the effect of creating camps’.[9] These laws have been compared with the US PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001; another American analogue for its near-unanimous passage days after the 9/11 Attack, the Authorisation of Use of Military Force, provides for strikes abroad against the perpetrators as well as anyone understood to be ‘associated forces’. The French emergency state, by contrast, addressed an enemy within. It was developed as temporary, requiring a vote after twelve days, but remained in effect continuously after November 2015, involving six renewals of varying lengths. While politicians including the president touted the new law as a way out of this widely ironised predicament of permanent emergency, they simultaneously insisted the law pass before the emergency state expired, so that protection would be continuous. ‘I’ve decided that in November we will emerge from the rule of law,’ Macron said on 19 September in New York. He corrected himself, having meant to say not état de droit but état d’urgence, emergency state.


More generally visible is the governmental threat metric Vigipirate, with its signs hanging in public buildings, and operations of the police or military, such as Sentinelle, which has stationed soldiers throughout the country since the shooting at Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. Sentinelle has elicited censure for its expense as well as the question, after a man drove a car into six of these soldiers in the Parisian suburb Levallois-Perret on 9 August, wounding them, as to whether it creates targets. Also controversial has been the surveillance law developed in 2015, which allows the government to monitor phone and Internet usage automatically. Last January, I stayed with environmentalists who, before meetings, collected phones from those present, placed them in a receptacle, set it down outside the room, and closed the door. I hear that lately, they have used a microwave, figuring that it blocks signals completely. The converted barn where they live in Bure, Meuse is a 21-kilometre drive over fields from the nearest market town. They recalled a period of relentless vehicular searches the previous summer. Then as now police were behaving as ‘cowboys’, they told me, using that English word. One of these activists explained that, after breaking the windshield of a car belonging to police who were, by his account, taunting him, he was considered wanted, and that when he was picked up, protesting a revision to French labour law in Nancy, the physical brutality of his apprehension struck him as disproportionate. He could not be sure of this, but it would come to seem of a piece with the other activists’ experiences. He had required new glasses. His treatment may not have been explicitly permitted by the legislation, but, as another of the activists wrote to me, mimicking gendarmes’ remarks, ‘It’s the emergency state, we do what we want.’ This group of activists has made headlines for a foot injury sustained by one of them while protesting, the effect of a gendarme’s stun grenade, as well as a raid on 20 September resulting in the seizure of some forty computers.


A sense of futility had accompanied me following my move back to the US, as if I had, by leaving, given up on Paris. During the attacks in November 2015, I was concentrating in an apartment where I had moved a few weeks previously, drafting an article about the accents of American presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who are from New York City, where I found I now lived. Such commentary had to be formulated from the posture of an observer. I had adopted it cynically. Only when we’re lucky enough to live comfortably do we regard the geopolitical landscape as if through a window. Sometimes, it breaks. Citing N. H. Julius, the nineteenth-century German physician and writer on prisons, Foucault locates Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon historically, at the advent of the modern state, with which individuals found themselves engaged in a preeminent relationship. Discipline had been achieved by spectacle, a theatre of the scaffold; now, those who had been onlookers were monitored themselves. While the act of watching characterises the panopticon in the popular imagination, essential too to the machinery is the isolation of the watched, their ‘lateral invisibility’, and their inability to verify the watching. Venetian blinds as well as dividing walls conceal any guard in the watchtower, even the guard’s shadow. In the unfamiliar city I fielded messages from distant friends, who thought that I still lived in Paris. Waiting to hear from Parisian friends, I checked Twitter and, scrolling, wondered whether it was required of me to post.


A presidential duplicity had become evident to Julien Bayou, an Ile-de-France regional councillor and Green-Party spokesperson, by the time he spoke with me in August. ‘Like having the labour regulations being completely, completely, I mean completely broken,’ he said, ‘during the summer. Especially in France. You know that summer is sacred.’


He’d chosen a typically Parisian terrace on the rue René Boulanger, a slim, sleepy street running redundantly alongside the boulevard Saint-Martin, with which it determines a liminal strip of a square, also typically Parisian, with a Haussmannian kiosk, sheathed municipal bikes and a bust. Many of the windows were shuttered, a function, presumably, of the month. I had warned Julien, whom I’ve known for several years, that I wanted to interview him, and when we met I perceived a faint, almost gestural negotiation over whether we’d talk politics immediately or first catch up as friends. Assuming I had judged the mood, I briefly described my life in Brooklyn and asked, ‘So, what’s new with you?’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘Your country elected a president, and my country elected a president.’

Speaking before Parliament of the ‘enemies of democracy’ who expected the French to abandon ‘great principles,’ Macron announced in July that he would end the emergency state, an imperative he had expressed in his 2016 memoir, Revolution. He then encouraged the parliamentarians to vote for the counterterrorism bill his government had submitted. The tone he had managed was sardonic rather than rousing, and this failure was, like the pomp and circumstance of the parliamentary address itself, typical of macronisme, which entails, among other things, an ambition that is kingly but undercut by a banker’s imagination. Through issuing what are called ordinances, he was able to alter labour law without first securing parliamentary approval.


Venturing a comparison, I mentioned Trump’s executive orders, and Julien reacted as if I had suggested that a farm I knew in Vermont, USA made a very good Camembert. ‘It’s something very French also,’ he said. ‘We call the French president the monarch.’ He was sitting oddly, his feet resting on the chair beside his.


‘I lived in Paris in 1995,’ he said, ‘during the last wave of terrorist attacks. I was a kid. When they replaced dustbins with transparent plastic bags and so on.’ He addressed me. ‘It struck you because it was like, on-off. You left, and when you come back, it’s different. But actually it’s less present in people’s minds than a few months ago… Well, I don’t want to appear too nonchalant. And definitely the way the anti-terrorist law has been used against Green activists or anti-Loi Travail activists and so on was antidemocratic.’ He switched to French. ‘Do I sound too measured? We have to document it, and watch it like milk on a stove.’ He returned in English. ‘I’m more afraid of habitual discrimination or violence. If I propose a demo and they say, “No, you can’t,” it’s a decision I can contest… It’s completely different with a slap to the face…’. He switched back to French. ‘In fact, it’s not the indicator itself that we have to worry about. It’s just that it illustrates a ton of other drifts that are much more dangerous… Those who are placed under house arrest, that’s a visible injustice. But there’s this whole lower part of the iceberg, and that principally affects those people who lack the right to be heard, those without rights, Black people, Arabs. That cannot be documented, it is very dangerous, and it stems from a sentiment of total control on the part of the police and the administration.’


Citizens of the country where I grew up were crafting, out of cardboard, projection chambers for the sun, and I was taking the train. ‘Mr. Macron’s taste for Versailles,’ The New York Times wrote, ‘has inevitably evoked references to Louis XIV, the Sun King.’ At 8:41 p.m. and 35 seconds, according to what I’d read, the sun would reach 1.2 degrees above the Parisian horizon, and the moon would obscure it slightly. The sky, outside the window like a porthole, was blue with dusk. The beds of my fingernails were red from digging out the hulls of strawberries I had bought after missing my connection. There had been track trouble. The window darkened, and my reflection became clearer than the view. The sun might have set. I saw, wherever I looked, a faint light, and felt disinclined to call it early.


‘The first encounter with the emergency state happens, most of the time, for an administrative search, at night,’ said the lawyer Arié Alimi, who is prominent in advocating for those affected. His firm, which has handled real-estate law as well as a nationally famous case of aggression on the part of gendarmes, had taken on about twenty clients whose difficulties originated with the emergency state. More than three thousand of these searches occurred in the two months after November 2015; they continued more slowly, and twenty-three in total resulted in referrals to Paris’s terrorism prosecutor.[10] That they occurred day or night made them exceptional under French law. (The new law requires a judge’s approval, however cursory, for searches occurring before 6 a.m. or after 9 p.m.) ‘You’re at home. The door is broken in. With explosives, often, or simply it’s forced. You have members of the special forces, national police, commandos because they consider there’s a danger, who arrive, who enter your house, who throw you to the ground, and who, in front of your children, handcuff you. Who search the whole house and turn it over. And who, at times, brandish a revolver. That’s the very first meeting with the emergency state, for people who, most of the time, barely know what the justice system is.’


Last August I interviewed Alimi, a tall man with a soft face, first at his office in the Seventeenth Arrondissement and subsequently at his apartment in the Eleventh Arrondissement. Tall windows gave onto the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. The Bataclan stands at the corner. Of course he had been frightened. He had bought the apartment earlier that year, and his two children went to school nearby. The fear afflicting him was, he continued, the same general fear on which his government had seized, and at that point I understood that I would be unable to induce Alimi to speak personally. The light falling through the white wine he had poured soon faded. He invited me to reach for a switch. ‘There’s not much light here, my apologies,’ he said. ‘But chiaroscuro allows me to concentrate…’


‘Under the emergency state, no terrorist has been placed under house arrest,’ Alimi began. ‘If they are terrorists, or aspiring terrorists, they are tried by the justice system. The emergency state has been used for what are known as weak signals, those of whom it is thought there is some connection, somehow or other, or who show signs of radicalisation. And finally when we take stock, when we defend these people, we realise most have strictly nothing to do with any terrorist movement, even by a stretch. What has really been accomplished by the house arrests, during the emergency state, has been a targeting of people who were Muslim, who had a religious practice that had recently evolved, using intelligence that came from a little bit everywhere, neighbours, imams… They must check in every four hours. So going to see a lawyer is complicated. They can, obviously, call us. But it is necessary for them to be aware of our existence.’


Along with the Human Rights League (LDH) and other organisations, Alimi had been, in July, invited to the Elysée. Macron had left him with a sensation of unrest. ‘He was, to me, frightening. In that he was extremely manipulative. No particular ideological line with him, excepting the quest for power. And in that he was capable of shifting from a sympathetic to an authoritarian mood in less than a few seconds. I got a feeling for a man, and I am speaking of the individual’s psychology, I experienced a real narcissistic manipulator who had the sense for power only, nothing else, and who would be ready, in my opinion, to use every means to attain a concentration of power. That is, anyway, what’s happened.


‘So, under the new law, we won’t be placed under house arrest at home, but in the town. We have no right to leave the town. If it’s Paris, that’s all right. If it’s a little village in the countryside, and they are often people living in a little village, that’s complicated. The possibility of a professional life is not always left to us. Family life is hard, too, etcetera. Searches will go on. We’ve changed the name and now call them ‘home visits.’ The house arrests will change name too. I forget to what…


‘We told him of our worries in relation to this bill. We explained that there had been an upheaval in French tradition. That we were headed toward less democracy, and far fewer rules protecting individuals. That around us the philosophy was one of restricting individual liberties all in projecting some risk of future dangerousness. That we were, to summarise, in Minority Report. And what’s more, we had conferred this power on the government and not the justice system. In what concerns terrorism, our approach had been one of prevention already. But they were judges, real judges, who decided. That makes all the difference. Even if it’s arguable. Well. He seemed open to dialogue, as were we. He offered an objection to everything, and so I think this law will certainly be adopted.’


Alimi sat in an armchair opposite the couch where I sat; the armchair he had not taken was filled by a quilt, a dumbbell, and twin decorative masks. I wondered whether it was only the attentiveness my reporting seemed to require that was causing the heterogeneity of objects to strike me as bunker-like. Alimi called the rule of law his hobbyhorse. The law implemented on 1 November presents no less an obstacle to democracy, in his opinion. Legislators revising the bill rejected a proposal by the centrist party MoDem for judicial oversight of detainments. On 1 December it was decided that the Constitutional Council will hear the case of a man detained under the emergency state since 17 November 2015 whose detainment, based on white papers, continues under the new law. This court can be, in such an incremental way, called upon to nullify the law’s provisions. The belief in a fundamentally just state that can be helped back to first principles is one I am unsure I share. What I have found persuasive in France is the attitude I encounter, familiar and dragging, that of waiting for a point of breaking. At a gut level, the level of dread, it is an obvious fiction that a month can go by without anything happening.


I have not seen Minority Report, though French people often presume in me a broad knowledge of Hollywood. At the same time, because of my paranoia this August, related to a sense that the city had emptied out, the reference struck me as pointed. I heard it as an accusation. You people, I heard Alimi say. Our present hell is one that you dreamed up.



[1] Vidler, Anthony. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. MIT (1990): ‘Like architecture itself, the festival [of Chaux] would act on the sensations . . . purifying and developing the social and moral instincts of the population.’



[4] Roudier, Karine, Albane Geslin and David-André Camous, L’état d’urgence (A savoir). Dalloz, 2016. The original French is: tout personne… dont l’activité s’avère dangereuse pour la sécurité et l’ordre publics (1955) and des raisons sérieuses de penser que son comportement constitue une menace pour la sécurité et l’ordre publics (2015). Roudier et al write: Ce n’est plus l’activité d’une personne qui va être prise en compte pour mettre en oeuvre la mesure mais une présomption de dangerosité.





[9] The line in both 1955 and 2015 laws is: en aucun cas, l’assignation à residence ne pourra avoir pour effet la creation de camps où seraient détenues les personnes




lives in Massachusetts. On Your Feet, a novel in translations, is forthcoming from dispersed holdings; she is also at work on a regular novel. Precarious Lease, a work of nonfiction, is forthcoming from Rescue Press.



August 2013

The Ghosts of Place

Dylan Trigg


August 2013

 ‘So I turned around for an instant to look at what my field of vision onto the sea had...


August 2013

To the Woman

Adam Seelig


August 2013


May 2011

Short Cuts

Charles Boyle


May 2011

1.. Whatever it is that the literature department of Arts Council England (ACE) is for, it can’t be for...


Get our newsletter


* indicates required