Election Day on Boulevard de la Chapelle


I am on line five of the metro, on the day of the first round of the French Presidential election. It’s a Sunday and only 10am but the metro is pretty full, the line running from the south of the city at Place d’Italie to the North-Eastern suburbs of Bobigny. At République, a couple of young, Jewish orthodox boys get on, looking nervous and self-conscious as they search for seats. They are pale, spotty and adolescent, immersing themselves quickly in the silent recitation of Torah. I’m heading to Stalingrad, the start of the Boulevard de la Chapelle and as the train lurches on, the passengers increasingly reflect the rich diversity of this part of town – a yellow-turbaned Sikh, an African in gold-framed aviator shades both getting on somewhere near the Gare du Nord.

La Chapelle is not perhaps the most endearing of places. Running directly under the aerial tracks of metro line two, it is a boulevard that has no immediate visual appeal, nor great historic past to attract the curious. A short walk though along this bisected thoroughfare though, is a stroll through the lives of the various immigrant communities that inadvertently provide the crux of the 2017 Presidential race. For while the election has been one of the most extraordinary in modern French history, with voters quite literally split along nationalist/internationalist, liberal/protectionist, urban/rural lines, the key question of immigration – with all its inherent spins-offs of terrorism, borders and identity – has lain at its core.

When I get out at Stalingrad, although it is a bright, sunny morning, the view that greets me is bleak. Torn election posters and spray-paint tags adorn the once grandiose stonework that supports the overhead rails. Line two follows the traces of what was once the outer wall of the city, “le mur des fermiers généraux”, the Rotonde customs house, a beautiful neoclassical building that sits just at the bottom of the La Villette waterway, once the place were tolls and taxes on goods were collected. A few years back the toll house was renovated, transformed into a stylish bar and restaurant, part of the general gentrification which has gradually eaten away at the edges of this traditionally working-class part of town. The old warehouses and depots that line the quay have similarly been transformed into trendy lofts and hotels, making it one of the prime sites in summer for outdoor picnics and games of “pétanque.”

Away from the water however, the area immediately beneath the metro is barren and bare. A wire fence shuts off much of the central walkway, cutting the boulevard neatly in two. Until November 2016, this was the site of a makeshift camp, an insalubrious and uncomfortable home to hundreds of migrants arriving daily from Africa and the Middle East. It was dismantled shortly before the winter set in, its residents moved to a purpose-built facility just a few blocks away. The authorities fear that if they leave the area accessible, a similarly impromptu shanty town will grow up in its place, for the new facility, the first of its kind, is struggling to cope with the hundreds of immigrants that arrive here every day.

The place is empty now, only spindly weeds peeking through the tarmac, a few battered pieces of cardboard blowing about in the wind. Although sunny it is cold and the sole resident I encounter is a veiled black girl carrying fresh baguettes. It is quiet and still, as ordinary a Sunday morning as any in a city that continues to treat Sundays with the reverence of the pre-global era. During his stint as Finance Minister, Emmanuel Macron the current favourite to win the French Presidential race, pushed through labour reforms easing up Sunday trade, yet the Sabbath remains a relatively quiet time in Paris. Only a few department stores and tourist zones open for business and here in La Chapelle, only the odd African grocer has his shutters raised.

Running West from Stalingrad to Barbès, la Chapelle has long been a place of transition and hardship. It lies in what was always the industrial hub of the city, the place were factories turned and barges unloaded goods for transportation to the fancy restaurants and hotels of thebeaux quartiers”. It was a place for the poor – the wind blowing the odours out to the East, away from the sensitive noses of the Bourgeois in the West. Today, the visitor moves from Africa, to Sri Lanka to the Maghreb, as successive communities have settled one next to the other, making small islands of ‘home’ wherever they are most able. As I amble along, I pass baskets of manioc, kumquats and papaya, their clientele in lightweight African dress, today wrapped up in warm winter coats.

Having crossed the overland rails that transport passengers out of the Gare du Nord towards London and Brussels, the mobile phone and Western Union stores become interspersed with Indian restaurants, their bright signs written in Tamil and Hindi. This is the start of Paris’s “Little Jaffna” district, an area to which large numbers of Sri Lankans fled during the civil war of the 1980’s. It is a lively place, the shops piled high with spices, tea and coloured sweets, the glint of shiny bangles and sequined saris catching in the sun.

At the junction of the Faubourg St Denis, Indian tailors, grocers and beauticians surround the old-world theatre of the Bouffes du Nord. A 19th century treasure, the playhouse was for years abandoned and boarded up, but under the guidance of Peter Brook was re-opened in the 1970’s, deliberately retaining a worn and world-weary un-renovated look. These days it is a popular venue for the experimental and burlesque. I was here a few months back for a performance based on the tale of Orpheus, a theatrical and musical extravaganza put together by Jeanne Candel and Samuel Achache. The troupe combined opera, theatre and every ounce of their enormous artistic creativity, to raise the audience to its feet, the apparently inexhaustible cast getting covered in honey, fruit, paper petals and smoke.

As I approach Barbès my path runs alongside the famous Goutte d’Or district, perhaps the best known of the “Arab” parts of the city. Here there are hammams and halaal butchers, but also the first signs of thriving city life: high street banks, the Tati department store and the ubiquitous “Quick” burger joint. The streets until now so quiet have become more animated and alive but compared to a busy weekday, the atmosphere is really quite tame and even though large numbers of extra police and military personnel have been deployed to safeguard the election, there is no sign of any particular security measures in place. Indeed, there is no real sign that there is a potentially momentous event taking place at all: a couple in matching Lycra jog by, stylish shades a precaution against the glare of the sun; an elderly African hands out flyers, advertising the skills of a Monsieur Samou, a local Marabout and healer; groups of young men lurk near the exit of the metro, folded notes and cigarettes changing hands as they conclude their dodgy deals. It is a typical Sunday at Barbès-Rochechouart.

Electors here in the eighteenth arrondissement tend to vote to the left and it is only the adding of the centrist Macron to the mix which makes this year different. Like much of the city this central arrondissement has changed rapidly in recent years, with rents rising and increasing numbers of young professionals moving in. If the very cool “Brasserie Barbès” is anything to go by, then Macron will no doubt do well here too, for with its rooftop terrace and weekend Brunch menu, it is aimed exactly at the liberal, upmarket voters his campaign is targeting.

I buy a coffee and look out across to the street towards the Louxor cinema. Built in the 20’s when moving pictures were new, its neo-Egyptian décor breathes an exotic air, adding a touch of oriental wonder to the uniform stone of the surrounding blocks. Like the Bouffes du Nord theatre, the Louxor stood abandoned for many years, but has been restored and revamped, now showing independent and foreign films to local “cinéphiles.” That this unique architectural treasure has been preserved and not torn down is largely due to the campaigning of local groups, revealing the sense of community that locals here share. For in spite of the terror that has plagued Paris and indeed France in recent months, the residents of what is perhaps the most mixed part of the city have refused to give in to the kind of divisive hate rhetoric that so many politicians, in particular Marine Le Pen of the National Front, have exploited in their bid for presidential power. The election result of May 7th will hopefully show that much of the nation stands by their side.

There is a functionality to the Boulevard de la Chapelle that speaks of industry and hard work. Passing above the Eurostar yet below the metro lines, the visitor feels really quite small – a tiny cog in some indifferent, inhuman machine, a machine that produces and transports, bringing people in, moving them out in a constant transversal flow. But like so many neglected pockets of our cities, there is an underlying energy here, a mysterious, almost hidden web of exchange and interaction that makes it a curious and appealing place to explore. Certainly it lacks the visual harmony of the 16th, the historical grandeur of the 6th or 7th, but a walk here is a trip to the very heart of modern Paris, with all its inequality, incongruity and inconsistency. It is a place in which rich and poor co-exist, where old and young muddle along and where for now at least the rich threads of contemporary multiculturalism – a word that has almost become “dirty” in today’s political climate – continue to weave a complex and quite extraordinary tableau. On Sunday we shall see for how long this can be expected to last.