Last refuge of the proletaires: Tim Salmon continues our series on unvisited parts of cities with a stroll through the cramped, colourful old artisans' quarter of Paris

Tim Salmon
Friday 21 October 1994 23:02

BARBES, Louis Blanc, Stalingrad, Jean Jaures - the names of the Metro stations read like a litany of left-wing history. It was a Friday morning and I was heading east to the Belleville market. I got off at the station on Place Colonel Fabien, in the shadow of the French Communist Party headquarters. The name of the square commemorates the first official act of Communist resistance in Occupied Paris.

Paris' East End, breeding ground of revolutionaries and bastion of the 1871 Commune, was until the mid-19th century a collection of rural villages - Belleville, Menilmontant, Charonne - hanging off the ridge that rises from the Seine to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Colonised first by impoverished French peasants, then by Jewish refugees from Eastern European pogroms and most recently by immigrants from north and west Africa, it is now one of the last, dwindling redoubts of the petit peuple, the workers, artisans and small commercants who are being driven from the centre of Paris.

The market begins at the Boulevard de Belleville. In the side streets, washing hangs at the windows of long- stay hotels and in the dank courtyards and alleys half the races of the globe live in colourful if insalubrious juxtaposition. Chinese restaurants cluster next to kosher butchers and bakers from Tunisia. In the rue Ramponeau, now the frontier between the developers' Belleville and the old slums, the city's only 24- hour soup kitchen operates almost exactly on the site of the last barricade of the Commune, manned singlehanded for 15 minutes by 'the last soldier of the Commune, who, as a reward for his courage, succeeded in making his escape'.

The stalls are laden with produce: purple figs, blazing red peppers, phalanxes of artichokes, trays of copper, bronze and emerald spices, twitching ochreous crabs. The traders, mainly North African, cry their wares in the guttural tones of Arabic. Two or three were pretty aggressive about my taking photographs.

I entered a shop to buy film and ask about the hostility my camera had aroused. 'They're feeling vulnerable,' said the proprietor, a Frenchman, 'because of the police crackdown on so-called Islamic terrorists.' He's been here since 1948. I asked if the quartier has changed a lot. 'You wouldn't recognise it,' he said. 'People had grown up in the quartier and knew each other. They used to put chairs out on the boulevard at night and chat and play boules under the trees. It isn't safe now. Immigration changed all that.'

'How do you mean?'

'Well, there were too many of them, the customs were too different and local people began to move out. The older generation were all right. It's the young ones, the ones we call les beurs. They don't have jobs and they feel rejected.'

I said a friend had told me her neighbour remembers goats grazing in the Rue Sorbier. 'I remember the man who sold goat cheese coming by with a couple of goats,' he said. 'That was in the Fifties. But that's all changed. There are a few knife-grinders still. But it used to be all little workshops, in the courtyards, making parts for the car industry.'

I climbed the hill towards the Rue des Pyrenees, which runs along the top of Menilmontant and Belleville, by way of the Rue des Amandiers, whose name - along with Mulberry, Plum, Grape and Pond - recalls the vanished fields. The last steep cobbled incline has long held out against the ball and crane, but alas no more. And yet you have only to look at the Rue Laurence-Savart or the Villa de l'Ermitage to see how attractive these scabrous dwellings can become with a lick of paint and a decent loo.

Yet even the most ill-favoured streets get a daily sluicing. Have you ever wondered why so many Parisians roll their old carpets up and throw them into the street? I overtook a street-cleaner with a wagging green besom over his shoulder on the way to lunch. He said the rolls of carpet were to direct the water along the desired gutter. 'But you don't want to drink it. It comes from the Seine and there are shrimps in it sometimes.'

'Do you come from the quartier?' I asked. 'No,' he said, 'I was born by Notre- Dame. Controlled tenancies. But they're kicking the proletaires into the suburbs now. The near ones like Montreuil are OK. They're Communist and the charges aren't too high.'

On the tree-lined Rue des Pyrenees, the respectable bourgeois end of the quartier, the shops with their sumptuous displays of fish, meat and cheese were emptying for lunch. The cafe terraces were full on Place Gambetta opposite the fractured glass fountain and the gates of Pere Lachaise cemetery, where, with burial plots at pounds 3,000, only the rich can now afford to lie with Delacroix and Oscar Wilde, Communist Party bosses and concentration camp victims, Baron Haussmann and Edith Piaf.

I went to have lunch with my friends the Carels on the Rue de Menilmontant.

I found them in the workshops adjoining their flat, he inventing magnificent headdresses for the Lido dancers and she putting the finishing touches to gigantic flowers destined for a production of Edmond Rostand's Chantecler at the Theatre National Populaire. He had just been photographed as one of the last artisans in the quartier. 'It makes me old,' he complained.

Over Marie's excellent lunch of rabbit a la moutarde, we waxed nostalgic about the destruction of the old streets and the sense of community they engendered with their numerous shops and cafes. 'But they were pretty slummy,' I said. 'Maybe we shouldn't be too sentimental.' 'Well, you'd think they could mix modernisation with something more human and friendly,' Carel said. His young painter assistant, who lives in a council flat below Rue Sorbier, said his wife was afraid to go out with the baby because of the gangs of adolescents roaming about. 'One of them even loosed off a couple of rounds with a pistol the other day,' he said.

On the way home I went up Rue de la Mare, where Simone Signoret set her novel, Adieu Volodia, about Jewish refugees in the Twenties, and over the beautiful new Parc de Belleville, with its little vineyard and magnificent views, to Fanfan's in Rue Tourtille. The Carels had told me about it. Little more than a hole in the wall, it is one of the last epicerie-buvettes - a sort of shop-cum-cafe, which used to be part of the fabric of working-class districts. A cat was asleep on a shelf between the vegetables and a packet of Omo. A dog was curled in a basket on the worn floor. A few cheap dresses hung from the yellowing walls. A drunk and a couple of Belleville's new arty incomers were propped against the bar. Coffee was a mere 4F. I asked no questions. Somehow it seemed impertinent.

In the Metro two young Arabs knocked against me and stole my wallet.

Wondering what to do, I hung around perhaps longer than they expected, for one of them reappeared. I wasn't sure it was him, but I said, 'Someone's taken my wallet.' He said, 'If I find him I'll bring him to you.' 'Sure thing,' I said. But just as I was about to leave he reappeared, with his friend and my wallet. Nothing was missing. 'You have a good face,' he said, offering his hand. I was dumbfounded.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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