Friday, 1 August 2008
To the Bois de Vincennes
I spent the morning in Ivry on an errand for a friend. I'd never been there before and found it delightful. There were no tourist sites - or if there were, I didn't notice them. What I discovered was a small town within the Paris metro, apparently peaceful and cared for by its inhabitants. For a while I wished I could live in Ivry.
My errand included an inspection of a highly-recommended boulangerie/patisserie. I spent a euro on one of their specialist baguettes, put it in my bag and headed towards the Bois de Vincennes.
The word "bois" was enough to attract me as the heat increased. I dreamt of breezes in woodland. The chateau had also been recommended - I'd heard it was the scene of Henry V's death and thought that perhaps I'd sign up for a tour. But my first stop was close to the Porte Doree, where the Palais originally called the Musee Coloniale has now become a Museum of the History of Immigration, with, for historical reasons, an aquarium in the basement.
The palais is a glorious example of inter-war architecture, but the reliefs and murals recall the prejudices which were endorsed by the French government when the Palais opened as the central hall of the Colonial Exhibition of 1931.
The new museum has taken those prejudices as its starting point in mounting a splendid exhibition - about the exhibition of 1931. The Colonial Exhibition was a huge, popular spectacle. Indivdually, many of the exhibits told of complex cultures and artistic achievement. However the effect of showing all France's colonies together diminished this element. The powerful and the banal were jumbled together, offering a vision in which the overpowering impact was of quaintness and difference. Talented citizens from the colonies took part but the exhibition as a whole glorified French colonial power and took for granted the superiority of the French to their colonial subjects.
Reflecting on 1931, the current exhibition doesn't permit a simple response - it would be too easy to say "Things were bad then," and pass on. But the exhibition, which merges with the permanent exhibits, shows the complexity of what the exhibition offered and what it achieved.
There are films, installations, sculptures, photographs, information boards. And there are the identity cards and simple records of people accepted - or rejected - for residency or citizenship. Each entry in a register, each tiny photo represents a whole life.
The exhibition explores ideas about race and immigration before the exhibition, the protests against the exhibition (which led to an anti-colonial exhibition, and the influence the exhibition had on the arts in France. There are the histories of different groups of immigrants. The lucky were accepted as French but the less fortunate, who included Sigmund Freud and Pablo Picasso, had their applications refused. There's one chilling photograph from the early 1940s: a group of men stand in front of a hut, looking towards the camera. Without the caption I wouldn't have known its purpose. The picture was taken for a major French newspaper during the occupation. The men, photographed in a concentration camp, had been selected to demonstrate different semitic types - presumably so that French citizens could identify and denounce their neighbours.
I didn't emerge with an easy solution or simple summary in response to all the prejudice and hatred. I became aware of a multitude of perspectives and numberless experiences. I wanted to read more but was growing tired. The effort of reading in French and trying to follow a largely unfamiliar political and economic history, was lowering my concentration. I paused for an espresso, then headed out, baguette in hand, to eat as I walked through the Bois de Vincennes.
I got as far as the entrance to the zoo and looked at the outside of the chateau. I decided that hiring a boat or bicycle must wait for another visit and simply wandered through the paths, enjoying the cool breeze, drinking water and eating torn hunks of bread.
Eventually I turned back, only to realise that I was on a different path. Inidispensible in hand, I worked out a new route back to my friends. It involved changing buses, taking a metro and catching another bus. Luckily this was Parisien public transport - regular and reliable. I had one wait of more than ten minutes but the route worked perfectly.
I was welcomed by the offer of tea or a drink, followed by one of Jana's splendid meals.
I think it was over supper that I learned that my hosts' son, who was born in Paris,has never lived anywhere else, and speaks French as his first language, missed his right to automatic French citizenship by a month, under the reforms of 1992. Although they are long-term residents, neither of his parents is a French citizen. Though their son takes an interest in the countries of both his parents, he is plainly, above all, a Parisien - but not, it seems, French.