Photo Jiro Mochizuki 7 cars torched in the Marais Saturday night.
When I was last in France I stayed with a friend in the M. Back in 2005, when I was last there, it seemed like Paris was a tiny jewel surrounding by a sewer on all sides. Well, it seems the fetid sewer is lapping at the gates of what was once a jewel.
The gifted journalist and regular Atlas contributor Nidra Poller gives on the street reportage on the latest outbreak of low grade civil war in the streets of the Marais.
Paris, March 16, 2009
Car burning comes to the Marais! Seven cars burned on the quiet little rue des Arquebusiers in the 3rd arrondissement Saturday night, leaving ghostly carcasses, melted asphalt, buckled metal shutters, burned out offices and art galleries, and a blackened 19th century façade. Arquebusiers is a narrow 2-block L-shape street that cuts from boulevard Beaumarchais (traditional route of the République-Bastille protest marches) to rue St. Claude, another small typical upper Marais street in what used to be the schmatte district. Many showrooms have been turned into frivolous art galleries but the nearby rue de Turenne is still lined with outlets, often graced with mezuzot on the doorposts. The gentrified Marais maintains its old Jewish quarter flavor with numerous synagogues, a Lubavitch school, and rue des Rosiers, the delicatessen-Judaica street. On Shabbat and Jewish holidays, the Marais slips into Little Jerusalem mode, with men in black and dressed-up families coming and going to services.
While religious and even non-religious Jews have been taking a beating in the banlieues for years, the Marais has been a haven of peace. There are plenty of “youths” in the schools, in the streets, but so far they do not act as if they are masters of the turf. However the rue des Arquebusiers has been a bit of a trouble spot because it opens, at the crook in the L, into a passage through an upscale residence with a secret rose garden tucked into the depths of a large courtyard. An oasis of perfumed tranquility for most residents serves as a blind alley for dealing and stealing for others.
Tens of thousands of cars are torched in France every year. At least 1147 were destroyed on New Year’s Eve 2008-‘9. The enraged pro-Hamas mobs that stormed through the city once a week in January, promising death to Israel and the Jews, smashed storefronts and burned cars. Infuriated islanders in the French overseas départements of Guadeloupe and Martinique burned cars in the course of their month-long revolt against the white folks, high prices, and the state (I’ll have that story for you in my next article).
In 2005, when the banlieues went up in flames, the insurrection was cuddled under the term “urban violence” even though the banlieues are, precisely, extra-urban, on the other side of the city line, beyond the pale. Now that the phenomenon has reached the heart of Paris it becomes for the Parisien, the only newspaper that bothered to cover the 3rd arrondissement incident, “a mysterious fire that destroyed seven cars.” Mysterious? Why? Doesn’t it fit into the pattern of the other tens of thousands that are torched yearly?
If you’ve never been anywhere near a car burning, you might have a rather static and paradoxically cold image of the incident. Here is what it looks like up close: That Saturday evening rue St. Claude was like one big open air salon. All the galleries had openings, families strolled from the shops and the parks to the arty shows, chattering and laughing, sipping drinks from plastic cups. Latecomers stretched past the 8 PM dinner hour. By 10 PM all was quiet. The party crowd would be at the Bastille, the families were home tucking children into bed.
Suddenly the night was broken with a loud crashing sound. Not an accident, something deliberate. An angry sound. Then a spurt of voices. And another crushing crashing noise. But apparently no one on rue des Arquebusiers saw any one do anything. Then the cars burst into flames, one after the other. A crowd gathered at the intersection of St. Claude and Arquebusiers. Boom! An explosion. Heads craned at the windows. It sounded like shooting. Like bombs exploding. Flames leaped up from the cars and licked at the wrought iron balconies overlooking the battlefield.
Firefighters in silver helmets arrived quickly from a nearby station. But they couldn’t do anything. They scurried and screamed like frightened victims. Boom! Another explosion. The air thick with black smoke. The fire hose was flask as an empty stocking. The crowd of intrepid onlookers looked on as if it were a film. The firefighters ran around in frantic circles. Boom! It seemed like an eternity before a second, larger truck pulled into rue St. Claude. Booms bursting like desperation. It took forever before a huge hose was unrolled, connected, slowly swelled. It took an hour before the flames were under control. And another hour of tracking down every smoldering cinder.
The burned out cars stood there dumb, forlorn and eviscerated. The ground floor façade was smashed and charred. On the other side of the street, big chunks of plaster fell from the cracked surface of the buildings. Little by little their owners arrived. The weary firemen rolled up the hoses. Inspectors gathered evidence. Policemen and women with clipboards jotted reports. The insurance will cover it all.
By noon on Sunday the carcasses had been removed. The debris was swept up and carried away. It will take longer to erase the traces of violence on the melted twisted pavement, the punched-out period street lamp, the elegant well-kept typical Parisian building with its French windows and wrought iron balconies. Residents can’t forget those thundering explosions. Like war. The frantic firefighters, helpless to stop the ravages as the flames roared from one car to the next.
A young man points to his skinned, gutted business car. A few letters of the logo are left on the fender like scars. But he takes it in his stride: “it’s just material damage. The insurance will cover it.” A white-haired woman shakes her head in dismay.
“What has this world come to?” The custodian of a building at the tail end of the row of stripped down vehicles describes the flames and thick black smoke: “you couldn’t see a thing. Mme. P. was walking her dog. She went by… just before it happened…ten minutes later she could have…”
The police have little to go on and so many burned cars to deal with. The media, except for the above-mentioned Parisien, can’t be bothered to report such insignificant incidents. How many other lovely neighborhoods bear the mysterious scars of ravaged vehicles and hidden portents?
UPDATE: This just in from Poller: March 3/19/9
An alcove on the façade of the Résidence Madeleine Béjart is burned, charred, and cracked. The apartment building stands on the corner of rue de la Perle and rue de Thorigny, next to the Picasso Museum and a ten-minute walk from rue des Arquebusiers. There is no sign of damage on the driveway or parking spaces in front of the building, so it wasn't the backdrop for a torched car.
What was there to burn? Some artificial palms. A few slats? What could account for the violence of the fire ? And what could have started it?
The shadowed area of the portico is a hangout for clochards and racaille. If a clochard (bum, homeless) with a cigarette fell asleep on a pile of rags he would have burned up with the surroundings, and that would have made it into the news.
If, on the other hand, la racaille set a fire in the alcove and then went on to rue des Arquebusiers, it would be worth an investigation.
Or is it going to become a routine? La fièvre de samedi soir?